Message from the Director

Dear friends and colleagues,

As we reflect now on the 2020–2021 academic year and look forward to the future, we want to thank all those in our community for their—for your—dedication to the ongoing study and practice of Critical Theory. In an extraordinarily challenging year marked by political, social, and economic crises, we continued to come together and support each other, and most importantly to persist in the critical examination of the structures and relations shaping and changing our world, past and present.

We thank, especially, our Designated Emphasis faculty and students for the continued creativity that was necessary to engage online this year in courses on the topics of capitalism, gender, education, race, law, history, modernity, and beyond. Our DE continues to be the largest program of its kind on the Berkeley campus, and we are proud and excited to welcome sixteen new students to our ranks: Joel Auerbach (Rhetoric), Aukeem A. Ballard (Education), Andrew Blough (German), Peter W. Brown (English), Naima Karczmar (English), Sean Lambert (German), Jonathan Mackris (Film & Media), Sarah Merchant (Sociology), Daniel Owen (South & Southeast Asian Studies), Lucas Plazek (Slavic Languages & Literature), Jake Orbison (English), William Rathje (Sociology), Christián González Reyes (Comparative Literature), Filip Sestan (Slavic Languages & Literature), Alexa Kurmanov (Anthropology), and Farid Zareie (Medical Anthropology, Joint Program with UCSF). In addition, three new faculty members have joined us, further enriching our programming and expanding course and advising opportunities for our DE students: Sara Mameni (Ethnic Studies), Fumi Okiji (Rhetoric), and Djordje Popović (Slavic Languages and Literatures). Online, we also had the chance to learn from the research of our CT students, in interviews with Aaron Eldridge (Anthropology), Jessica Ruffin (Film & Media), Thom Silwowski (Comparative Literature), and others to come.

The Program awarded dissertation fellowships to two students, Brent Eng (Anthropology) and Pedro Javier Rolón Machado (Comparative Literature), allowing both to focus on their respective dissertation projects next year. Five additional students—Wendi Bootes (Comparative Literature), Alfonso Fierro (Spanish & Portuguese), Thiti Jamkajornkeiat (South & Southeast Asian Studies), Lubna Safi (Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures), and Camila YaDeau (Rhetoric)—were recognized with research grants of $5,000 in support of their outstanding work. Our grants were generously supported by the Magistretti Graduate Fellowship Fund through the Division of Arts & Humanities, the Class of 1936 First Professor of Political Science, the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the generosity of many other colleagues and friends.

We would also like to thank the Division of Arts & Humanities, the Division of Social Sciences, the Vice Chancellor for Research, for their ongoing support of the Program in Critical Theory and its activities and initiatives.

We thank our guest speakers for the adaptability required to shift programming online, and for giving our community the opportunity and space to gather and learn from each other while physically apart. We also welcomed many opportunities to support our partners across and off campus, including but not limited to the Arts Research Center, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, the Departments of Classics, Comparative Literature, and Rhetoric, and the Townsend Center for the Humanities. A silver lining of our online environment this year is that most of these talks were recorded, and we invite you to visit the Critical Theory website to view these videos. 

We welcomed Peter E. Gordon (Harvard University) for a talk on “A Precarious Happiness: Adorno on Negativity and Normativity” and for a seminar/conversation with Martin Jay (History, Emeritus), Paradis Dabashi (University of Nevada, Reno), and Robert Kaufman (Comparative Literature) on “‘Adorno, Negativity, and Normativity’—Including a Discussion of the ‘Meditations on Metaphysics’ section of Negative Dialectics (1966).” Additionally, Mario Telò (Classics, Comparative Literature) spoke with Jack Halberstam (Columbia University) on “An Aesthetics of Collapse.”

CT continued to support our expert faculty who spoke at a range of events this year. Martin Jay and Robert Kaufman, together with Paul Breines (Boston College, Emeritus), discussed Jay’s recently released essay collection, Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations (Verso Books, 2020). As part of their fall 2020 course “Comparative Conceptualisms– LA/MENA [Latin America/Middle East/North Africa],” Julia Bryan-Wilson (History of Art) together with Anneka Lenssen (History of Art) organized events with Alfredo Jaar (Artist, Architect, and Filmmaker) on “When the Music Stops” and with Michael Rakowitz (Artist). Judith Butler (Comparative Literature) and Robert Kaufman were joined by many special guests including Jean Daive (author) for “Under the Dome: Paul Celan at 100.” Kaufman also spoke with Ann Smock (French) and Philip Gerard Comparative Literature, PhD) at the event “Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan by Jean Daive.” Fumi Okiji (Rhetoric), together with Jon Catlin (Princeton University), and Eric Oberle (Arizona State University), held a semester-long series of seminars on “Adorno and Identity.”

CT was also proud to co-sponsor the events “emerge/ncy [maps]: poetry reading” with Anneka Lenssen and authors Safia Elhillo, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Craig Santos Perez, and YEAR 1 with Daniel Boyarin (Near Eastern Studies, Rhetoric), and Susan Buck-Morss (CUNY Graduate Center).

The International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs (ICCTP) completed its first year of a renewal grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to continue in a second phase the interventions already underway, with a focus on connecting emergent creative and critical practices in politics and the arts throughout the Global South. The ICCTP convened four cross-regional conversations focused on the themes of its workshop series, moderated by Co-PIs and Project Directors Natalia Brizuela (Film & Media, Spanish & Portuguese) and Samera Esmeir (Rhetoric).  “Colonial Destruction, Past and Present: Plunder, Waste, and Preservation” with Malcom Ferdinand (CNRS), Jumana Manna (artist), and Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins (Bard College) explored environmental and colonial destructions, as well as the relationship between them. A conversation on “Defeat and the Future” explored the experience of defeat and its relationship to political action and the future with scholars of Cuba and the Arab world: Fadi A. Bardawil (Duke University), Paloma Duong (MIT), and Nouri Gana (UCLA). “The House as a Laboratory of Capital: Finance, Housing, and Territory” built upon a local workshop held in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the question of debt and the efforts and struggles against the contemporary politics of financial debt and indebtedness. And “On Borderlands” with Beth H. Piatote (Ethnic Studies), Natalie Diaz, and Ailton Krenak explored the topic of colonial legacies of encampment and border making in the Americas, with a particular focus on the occupation and destruction of indigenous lives and land.

Co-edited by Natalia Brizuela, Leticia Sabsay (London School of Economics), and Victoria Collis-Buthelezi (University of Johannesburg), the Consortium’s book series with Polity Press, Critical South, released eight new titles this academic year: Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: On Decolonising Practices and Discourses by Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui; The Myth of Economic Development by Celso Furtado; Colonial Trauma by Karima Lazali; Memory and Autobiography: Explorations in the Limits by Leonor Arfuch; Seven Essays on Populism: For a New Theoretical Perspective by Paula Biglieri and Luciana Cadahia; Error, Illusion, Madness by Bento Prado, Jr; Doing Justice by Pablo Oyarzún; and Not One Less by María Pia López. Additionally, ICCTP organized events moderated by Natalia Brizuela on three titles, recordings of which can be found on the ICCTP YouTube channel. “Conversation on Not One Less: Mourning, Disobedience, and Desire” featured author María Pia López (Sociologist, Argentina) with feminist scholars Paola Bacchetta (Gender and Women’s Studies), and Leticia Sabsay. “Conversation on Doing Justice: Three Essays on Walter Benjaminfeatured author Pablo Oyarzun (University of Chile) with Julia Ng (Goldsmiths, University of London), Paul North (Yale University), M. Ty (University of Madison, Wisconsin), and Jacques Lezra (UC Riverside). “Conversation on Colonial Trauma: A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeriafeatured author Karima Lazali (Psychoanalyst, Algeria and France), with Ranjana Khanna (Duke University), Stefania Pandolfo (Anthropology), and Felwine Sarr (Duke University). 

Under senior editor Samera Esmeir, the ICCTP’s open-access, peer-reviewed journal Critical Times: Interventions in Global Critical Theory published its third volume with Duke University Press and released the first issue of volume four. Volume 3, number 1 addresses problems ranging from the emergence of new fascisms to the liberal and authoritarian logics of self-ownership, and from the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions to the powers of literary fiction. Volume 3, number 2 explores the violence behind contemporary spectacle and the possibilities of radical aesthetics, unsettling our understanding of regimes of the sensible in the process. Volume 3, number 3 plumbs the currents of contemporary politics and violence, and offers powerful rethinkings of critique and belief in ordinary life, and features a special section on “Grammars of Religion: Talal Asad on Wittgenstein.”

The latest issue, 4:1, features contributions from Daniel Loick, Manu Samnotra, Carlos Palacios, and Gurminder Bhambra, a roundtable discussion of Étienne Balibar’s exploration of violence, a special section on feminist resistance and debt in Puerto Rico, and an interview with artist Mithu Sen. Subjects range from the agency of “counter-communities” to the timeliness of political courage, from Foucault’s use of irony in his reading of neoliberalism to the question of what it would take to decolonize Frankfurt School Critical Theory.

The blog, In the Midst, launched in the summer of 2020 by the editorial team of Critical Times, included contributors writing from Brazil, France, Germany, Palestine, and the USA. Blog posts this year reflected on topics including Covid-19, anticolonialism, and anti-racism.

The intellectual work, reflections, imaginations, and activisms of Critical Theory have proven more urgent now than ever. The Program in Critical Theory provides a unique intellectual space and community across disciplines and divisions, one that fosters theoretical critique and challenges contemporary and historical values, power relations, and injustices, especially in challenging times. We look forward to continuing this collaborative work in 2021–2022 and to doing so together: gathering in person in the fall, at our events, in our classes, and around Berkeley. We eagerly anticipate the chance to return to campus, where we hope to host speakers including Robin Greeley (University of Connecticut), Martin Hägglund (Yale University), Samantha Langsdale (University of North Texas), and visiting scholar Lucie Mercier (Swiss National Science Foundation), among others.  

That return next year, like all of the work done in this extraordinary last one, is made possible by the apparently tireless labor of our staff in the Consortium for Interdisciplinary Research: Patty Dunlap, Breana George, Khai Thu Nguyen, and Miranda Schonbrun. It is their commitment, engagement, insight, and vitality—like that of our remarkable students and faculty—that have sustained our work in troubled times. We thank all of them for their ongoing support, just as we thank you for yours. 

The Program in Critical Theory
The International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs