Message from the Director

Dear friends and colleagues,

We hope this letter finds you healthy and safe at the end of this disrupted semester and in this fraught time. The Program in Critical Theory is a community committed to the examination of contemporary values and power relations, of social organization and practices, with the philosophical instruments of critique; this work together feels perhaps more urgent now than ever. We write to thank all of those who have supported and sustained this work through a tumultuous year, who have demonstrated in myriad ways the ongoing need for and timeliness of Critical Theory.

Already the largest the Designated Emphasis on campus, as well as the most encompassing, Critical Theory continues to swell its ranks. Usually, we would gather at the end of an academic year to welcome and toast our new colleagues (and we will do so again when we are able!), but are forced for the moment to greet them virtually instead. Our growing community welcomes eight new doctoral students: Britt Dawson (Anthropology), Christopher Geary (English), Salvador Gutiérrez Peraza (Ethnic Studies), Andrew Haas (English), Nejat Kedir (African Diaspora Studies), Liza Michaeli (Comparative Literature), Jesse Nyiri (English), and Jaleel Plummer (Joint PhD, Medical Anthropology). In addition, seven new faculty members have joined us, further enriching our programming and expanding course and advising opportunities for our DE students. We welcome Stephen Collier (Department of City + Regional Planning), David Grewal (School of Law), Alva Noë (Philosophy), Andreja Novakovic (Philosophy), Eric Stanley (Gender and Women’s Studies), Mario Telò (Classics), and Sarah Vaughn (Sociocultural Anthropology).

Among the Program’s most crucial functions is its support for the research done by our students, needless to say, especially in a time of pressing need. This year, the Program received the largest and most varied pool of applications for fellowship support in its history, and it was (thanks to the generosity of a number of donors) able to award more dissertation fellowships and research grants than ever before. We are pleased to announce two dissertation fellows for 2020-21: Jessica Ruffin (Film & Media) and Elisa Russian (Italian Studies). In addition, research grants have been awarded to Phillip Campanile (Geography), Aaron Eldridge (Anthropology), Donna Honarpisheh (Comparative Literature), and Jaeyoon Park (Political Science).

In a year interrupted by ever more frequent emergencies, from wildfires and blackouts in the fall to public health crises and a pandemic in the spring, we have nonetheless maintained a dynamic program of lectures across a range of disciplines. In the fall, Thomas Biebricher (Goethe University Frankfurt) addressed “The Problem of Democracy and the Politics of Neoliberalism” and helped us launch the Berkeley Program for a New Political Economy, while Mark Devenney (University of Brighton) discussed “Thinking Improperly about Democracy.” Étienne Balibar (Paris X, Nanterre; UC Irvine; Columbia University) raised the question of communism for the present and future, in “Being Communist, Becoming Other,” and was joined by Zeynep Gambetti (Boğazici University) and Jacques Lezra (UC Riverside) for a seminar the following day. In the spring, Akiko Shimizu (University of Tokyo) reported on “‘Imported’ Feminism and ‘Indigenous’ Queerness: From Backlash to Transphobic Feminism in Transnational Japanese Context,” while David Marriott (Pennsylvania State University) explored “A Fanonian Black Aesthetic?”

We are also pleased to have continued our collaboration with City Lights Books to mark the centenary of Surrealism. “Inside the Magnetic Fields: Surrealism @100” and “Surrealism Then, Now: Snapshots of Critically Engaged Art” gathered scholars including Catherine Flynn (English, Irish Studies), Robert Kaufman (Comparative Literature), Francine Masiello (Comparative Literature, Spanish and Portuguese), Natalie Melas (Cornell University), Arturo Dávila Sánchez (Laney College), and Nathaniel Wolfson (Spanish & Portuguese) to trace the movement’s global afterlives, down to the present moment. In February, we joined with City Lights again to welcome Howard Eiland (MIT), discussing his new translation of Walter Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel and his recently published book Notes on Literature, Film, and Jazz with Catherine Flynn (English, Irish Studies), Jeffrey Knapp (English, Film and Media), Maya Kronfeld (Comparative Literature), Niklaus Largier (German, Comparative Literature), and Michael Lucey (French, Comparative Literature, Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality).

Elsewhere, a collaborative workshop on the art of Kader Attia, “Tarrying with the Irreparable,” reflected on situations and themes of trauma and loss, war, colonization, madness and possession, placing Attia in conversation with a broad range of scholarly and clinical voices, including Anneka Lenssen (Art History), David Marriott (Pennsylvania State University), Emily Ng (University of Amsterdam), Jalil Bennani (psychoanalyst and author, Rabat, Morocco), Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli (UC Davis), Momar Guèye (psychiatrist-psychoanalyst, Fann Hospital, Dakar), Natalia Brizuela (Film & Media, Spanish & Portuguese), Peter Skafish (ISCI), Said Shehadeh (Birzeit University), Samera Esmeir (Rhetoric), Soraya Tlatli (French), and Stefania Pandolfo (Anthropology). With the Department of German, the Program hosted Ori Rotlevy (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), for “Askesis, Critique and Tradition: Foucault and Benjamin,” and joined Rhetoric’s Fall Colloquium with Peter Fenves (Northwestern University), on “‘As On the First Day:’ The Struggle of Firsts in Heidegger’s ‘First Elaboration’ of his ‘Origin of the Work of Art.’” We were also pleased to co-sponsor events with Comparative Literature and Christan Metz (Ludwig Maximilian University) on “Poetic Thinking, or Why Germany’s Best Writers Today are Poets”; with Spanish & Portuguese and Gabriel Giorgi (New York University) on “Archaeologies of Hate. Writing the ‘Wars of Subjectivity’ in Latin America”; with Gender & Women’s Studies and Melinda Cooper (University of Sydney) on “Capitalism and the Question of Genealogy”; with Rhetoric and Danilo Scholz (Columbia University) on “From Colonialism to Third Worldism? Alexandre Kojève and the Developing Nations (1945-1968).” The Program also supported the two-day symposium “Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley: Fifty Years of Igniting the Future,” and the Institute for South Asia Studies lecture “Gandhian Satyagraha and Democratic Politics: Celebrating the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi” with Karuna Mantena. 

As in past years, projects conceived and organized by students in the Designated Emphasis contributed in significant ways to the intellectual life of the Program and the wider campus. DE student Donna Honarpisheh (Comparative Literature), along with Devin Choudhury (Rhetoric), continued to host the working group “Theories of the Global South,” and together with the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs and the Townsend Center for the Humanities brought Vilashani Cooppan (UC Santa Cruz) to campus to discuss “Scaling the World: Memoryscape as Method.” In the fall, Critical Theory student Angus Reid (English) co-chaired (with Jane Hu and Claire Grossman) “After Post-Marxism,” asking the question: How is the present-day return to Marx a different one from that of global 1968? In the spring, Critical Theory student Joseph Serrano (English) co-convened (with Dylan Fagan, Nicholas Anderman, and Lauren Pearson) the conference “Marx and Philosophy,” which addressed the relation between Marx and philosophy, both historically and in the current conjuncture.

Of course, other plans have been adjusted by the campus response to the risk of the novel coronavirus. The Program in Critical Theory looks forward to resuming our calendar of events when it is safe to continue, so please watch for future announcements about rescheduled events, including visits by Susan Buck-Morss (CUNY Graduate Center) and Peter E. Gordon (Harvard University) in the spring of 2021. Critical Theory students William Callison (Lafayette College) and Zachary Manfredi (Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project) will discuss their co-edited volume Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture. Other guests will include Eva von Redecker (Humboldt University), Erin Graff Zivin (USC), and Robin Greeley (UConn/MIT).

Reaching beyond Berkeley and the Bay Area, we are proud that the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, a special project housed in the Program in Critical Theory, received a four-and-a-half year, $1.8 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue its work in a second phase. Established in 2017 through an initial Mellon grant, the Consortium was conceived and has been co-directed during its first phase by Judith Butler (Comparative Literature) and Penelope Deutscher (Northwestern University). It has established an active network of nearly 500 programs, projects, centers, and institutes from almost all regions of the globe and 47 countries, which now constitutes the largest international network in the humanities located in the UC system. As the first grant comes to an end and the second begins in July 2020, Professors Natalia Brizuela (Film and Media, Spanish & Portuguese) and Samera Esmeir (Rhetoric) will become the new principal investigators. The grant will continue the interventions already underway, with a new focus on connecting emergent creative and critical practices in politics and the arts throughout the Global South.

This year, under senior editor Samera Esmeir, the Consortium’s journal Critical Times: Interventions in Global Critical Theory published the second and third numbers of its second volume, with Duke University Press. Critical Times is an open-access, peer-reviewed publication with the aim of foregrounding the forms of critical theory articulated in the world’s different regions and through the encounters between them. Volume 2:2—“What Is the Critique of Violence Now?”—is a thematic issue that reflects on the new translation of Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay “Toward the Critique of Violence” (translated by Julia Ng and Peter Fenves) to consider its language, argument, and contemporary relevance to the problem of legal violence. Volume 2:3—“Time and Politics in Contemporary Critique: Entanglements and Aftermaths”—examines the entanglements and aftermaths of colonialism, Apartheid, and genocide in our moment of forced displacements, techno-surveillance, and global authoritarian ethno-nationalism. This special issue is guest edited by Professor Debarati Sanyal (French). Future special issues will address topics including “Afrotopia” and “Anti-Colonial Thought and Critical Theory Today.”

Most recently, the editorial team of Critical Times launched a new blog titled In the Midst on the journal’s website. In the Midst conveys the difficulties of writing during critical times and registers the importance of writing from within concrete, unfolding situations, of staying with the troubles of the moment, of thinking from particular grounds, and of allowing for responsive, experimental, and tentative interventions. Recent posts include reflections on the state of the unequal world that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has cast into sharper relief, intervened in, and interrupted. Recent posts include reflections by authors writing from Palestine, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil. 

The Consortium’s book series with Polity Press, Critical South, released Plebeian Prose by Néstor Perlongher, Modernity and Whiteness by Bolívar Echeverría, The Haitian Revolution by Eduardo Grüner, and Resolutely Black: Conversations with Françoise Vergès by Aimé Césaire, and The Black Register by Tendayi Sithole this academic year. Co-edited by Natalia Brizuela and Leticia Sabsay (London School of Economics), the series aims to galvanize cross-hemispheric discussion through the translation and publication of both new and established works of critical theory from the Global South. In the fall, the Critical South book series, the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, and the Hemispheric Institute organized a book launch event at New York University which featured discussions and presentations by Bruno Bosteels (Columbia University), Gabriel Giorgi (NYU), and Rachel Price (Princeton University). An additional four titles in the series will be released by the end of 2020. Beyond the first 24 titles planned for the series in the first phase of the Mellon grant, an additional 16 books will be published with Polity over the next five years. 

The second phase of the Consortium’s project will supplement the Polity series with a new translation series, facilitating movement from one part of the southern hemisphere to another. This new series will entail translating titles from Africa and the African diaspora into Spanish for publication and distribution in Latin America (and beyond) and translating Latin American titles into French for publication and distribution in Francophone Africa, the French Caribbean, and other French speaking regions. These books will be published with two independent publishers: Tinta Limón (located in Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Editions Jimsaan (located in Dakar, Senegal).

In March, the Consortium cosponsored a conference on “Global Higher Education in 2050: Imagining Universities for Sustainable Societies” at UC Santa Barbara, convened by Professor Christopher Newfield. With over 25 participants from Brazil, Colombia, Greece, India, Norway, South Africa, the UK, and the United States, the conference convened scholars to develop a theoretical framework for identifying a full range of futures for universities that serve the entirety of their populations. A final conference on “Resistance, Disobedience, Strike: Dissent In the Age of Authoritarian Populism” was originally scheduled to take place at the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, Spain in May, co-convened by Robin Celikates (Frei Universität, Berlin) and Judith Butler. The event has been postponed until 2021. 

As the pace of activity sketched here suggests, this has been a most eventful academic year. But it nonetheless ends unusually. Recent weeks have first forced us into our homes and then compelled us back into the public sphere, in response to a sequence of escalating crises, each laying bare the intricately interrelated and profoundly warped systems of social, political, and cultural production and domination that Critical Theory has, since its inception, taken as the object of its research. The long memory and the recent eruption of murderously racialized state violence call us to redouble that work, even as we stand in solidarity with Black communities, now and always, against all forms of racism and injustice.

Much remains uncertain, of course, and we do not yet know even the immediate effects of this moment, on the public research university or on public life more generally. Nor do we yet know the forms that our intellectual activity will take in the fall and through the next academic year, in our seminars and other sites of our collective intellectual work. But we remain convinced that the Program in Critical Theory offers a unique and uniquely active intellectual space at Berkeley, an opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration and scholarly reflection across the humanities and the social sciences that fosters the critical insight urgently needed in today’s world, while simultaneously imagining an intellectual practice reflective of a better and more genuinely heterogeneous one. That work will continue, more urgently than ever. We appreciate the commitment, engagement, insight, and vitality of everyone involved—our remarkable staff, students, and faculty—as we sustain our support of our graduate students and other scholars, as well as the worldwide intellectual community of which they form an indispensable part.

Thank you for your ongoing support. We look forward to working with you in the coming year.

The Program in Critical Theory