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Spaces of the Learning Self

They called me a ‘snob,’ which, obviously, left me overjoyed. I was inventing culture for myself, and at the same time inventing a character and a personality.

—Didier Eribon

In Returning to Reims, a 2009 autosociographic account of class flight and proletarian self-hatred, French philosopher Didier Eribon, author of a well-known biography on Michel Foucault and several books on la question gay, emphasizes the role of autodidacticism and self-directed subjectivization as a social and existential exit strategy in the Althusserian scenography of ideological interpellation. These processes stand for a particular mode of organizing one’s own intellectual formation in order to emancipate oneself from the confines of class origin. As a high school student from a proletarian background growing up in a French provincial town in the late 1960s, Eribon discovered the mobilizing pleasures of modern literature through a friend from a bourgeois family. Reading as such, but especially reading according to a literary canon constructed in seeming autonomy, proved to be essential for Eribon in escaping the social context that he experienced as constraining and repressive. Around the same time he designed an education, a “culture” for himself, started fashioning a political subjectivity as a member of Trotskyist group, and began acknowledging his sexual desire as a gay man. This education required seceding from the homophobic and anti-intellectual milieu of his family, and was to a large extent autodidactic; cruising, taking a test-drive along various avenues of subjectivization, both intellectual and sexual.

In retrospect, equipped with a sociological sensorium shaped by the study of Pierre Bourdieu, Annie Ernaux, Raymond Williams, Michel Foucault, and others, it appears obvious to Eribon how much his autodidacticism and aspiration to become an academic intellectual owed to the naiveté and ignorance of someone whose “educational choices … bear the mark of the deprived social circumstances.” On the other hand, the choices he made to liberate himself from the strongholds of class and to distance himself from his origins—socially, geographically and psychologically—were constitutive of the person he aimed to become. Though they caused feelings of guilt at the moment of his father’s death, Eribon acknowledged the extent to which his emancipation was based on self-hatred and a shameful denial of class, as well as a gradual insight into the reality of social stratification. He observed how his futile attempt to inhabit the self-conception and attitudes of those claiming to own the privileges of middle class/bourgeois culture separated knowledge from his own social praxis and experience. Yet however suspiciously his younger self is revisited, there is a peculiar pride tangible in Eribon’s renditions of such self-directed learning.

Returning to Reims may be considered a typical narrative of self-design, or, as Spinozist philosopher Chantal Jaquet calls it, the quintessential story of “class-passing” and “non-reproduction.” These modes of constructing a self may testify to the plasticity of social existence, but are, for Jaquet, too often bound to the “illusion of the self-made man,” driven by guilt and shame in a solitary quest for self-invention. And while Eribon does not deny the solidarity and collectivity of the various milieus he dwelled in to become who he did, he nonetheless considers his trajectory in terms of building a singular self.

Read the full article here.