Thursday, July 5, 2012

Living in a Critical Position - part one

JWTC interviews David Theo Goldberg, Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI)

Ten years ago, you initiated a new project called SECT. What were the reasons behind this new initiative, what is its current state and where is it going?

SECT (the summer Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory) was born of a double imperative: one intellectual and the other fiscal. Critical Theory early in the 21st century already appeared to be facing challenges. The trajectory that ran from the Frankfurt School through Foucault, Derrida, and others seemed to be winding down. It had also attended to questions of the colonial, postcolonial, and racial at best as secondary and clich├ęd concerns, oftentimes if at all. So I was looking for a way, a forum, to animate intellectual engagement around these sets of issues that for me have been socially constitutive, and so imperative. Forums like the School of Criticism and Theory seemed still caught up in this older esteemed paradigm. On the West Coast we were seeking to open a space of engagement around these issues (it is interesting to note that the School of Criticism and Theory actually started on the Irvine campus by the same folks who had initiated UCHRI before moving to Cornell). At the same time, the University of California was facing recessionary budget cuts (which turned out to be the first and perhaps least severe of a series of such cuts over the decade) which threatened to cut into UCHRI's operating university budget. So I was looking for a forum that at the very least would fund itself. I began a conversation with Ken Reinhard at UCLA and out of that grew the first SECT, which focused on psychoanalysis and politics with the likes of Badiou, Zizek, Joan Copjek and Zizek's Slovenian colleagues, Alenka Stepancek and Mladen Dolar, among others. It gave me the organizational model even as it perpetuated something of the older model's avoidance of the issues I was concerned to bring into critical play. The second SECT accordingly turned to biopolitics, race, and empire. And the model worked quite marvelously.

Four years ago we took two additional and somewhat related turns. We had run two-week summer seminars over five years at the Institute in Irvine. In a sense it was becoming too easy, too rote, less challenging, a bit safe and stale. The "experimental" in "experimental critical theory" was tending to the predictable. Globalization, after all, is not just a uni-directional set of movements, of sitting at home and watching the world come to one. I was concerned to ask how the critical questions we pose as well as the responses to them might shift provocatively and revealingly if we pursued a SECT elsewhere in the world. I had been to Shanghai for a conference at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and thought that would be a really dynamic site. My close friend and colleague, Ackbar Abbas, and his partner, Liu Sola, the wonderful avant garde composer, singer, and writer, put us in conversation with the Beijing avant garde, artists like Ai Wei Wei, Liu Dan and Xu Bing as well as filmmaker Ning Ying and so on, and over two years we put together what became a really provocative summer institute in Shanghai focusing on questions of "design." This then opened up a way of partnering with different institutional sites globally, leading to collaborative engagements in Beirut this summer, as well as future possibilities in Mexico City, Bangalore, India, possibly South Africa. The larger theoretical frame pulling these sites together is what I have designated "living in a critical condition," how the conventional relations between global south and global north are upended when one thinks along these lines, how this way of posing things leads to genuinely new engagements and insights. The work we are doing around "epistemologies of deception" has emerged directly out of these collaborative interactions.

The upcoming engagement with Bangalore--and here Nishant Shah, co-founding director of Bangalore's Center for Internet and Society, has been instrumental--speaks to the other direction in which things have moved. At UCHRI we have been deeply engaged with questions of the digital, and how digital connectivities in all their complex dimensions transform not just relationality but knowledge making, learning, and social practices more broadly. We have a thread running through SECT engaging these questions, from the third SECT in Irvine to our summer institute focusing on the contributions of the Pacific Rim to these transformations we conducted in Hawai'i last year, to the forthcoming engagements in India. Here the interest is exactly at the interface of the technological and epistemological, the cultural and the critical, power and the political.

How would you characterize the current moment in the field of 'critical theory' in the North?

As I hinted at above, the prevailing trajectory of critical theory in the North through the latter half of the twentieth century, as crucially important as that has been, seems to have run its course. Perhaps that is to be expected, as conditions have so dramatically shifted since at least the end of the 1980s both politically and technologically. It is perhaps revealing that the prevailing questions to which critical theory in this trajectory have turned in the past decade have concerned the Event, the universal, and affect. There have been some curious developments of late in response to this sense of exhaustion. One has been a return among traditionalists in the humanities to formalism. The journal Representations coming out of Berkeley was quite prescient a year or so back in identifying this turn in a special issue. This turn to formalism, a re-turn, has been prompted both by the perceived exhaustion of those pursuits identified with poststructuralism (most notably but not only deconstruction) as well as by the less noticed impact on  intellectual dispositions of the rapid and dramatic turn to the digital. The other has been the very recent attention--in many cases by those who until now have paid no attention other than dismissively--to issues of race. This latter turn (also a re-turn) is a little odd: just as conventional socialities and politics declare the moment of postraciality, some of our colleagues suddenly discover the racial, and do so with just about no engagement with the voluminous work that has been done on these issues over the past two plus decades.

In general, then, I would say we are in a moment of constitutive unsettlement in critical theory, where the old has exhausted itself but the new, the futures of these pasts, have not yet been born, are in the process of a difficult birth. Perhaps we should expect just this. Troubled times produce troubled, and often troubling responses. Some desperately hold on to what they know, what has made them comfortable; others grope for anchors, grabbing onto flotsam they barely comprehend; and some again experience the unsettlement, the shifting ground beneath our feet, as openings, possibilities to rethink not just what is happening around us but the very terms of self-understanding, and do so finding help from bits and pieces of the critical archive without feeling the need for uncritical deference to the entire project other pieces of which no longer fit our current condition. This latter mode is what some of us--notably my colleagues Ackbar Abbas and Kavita Philip--as a theory about theory, have been calling "poor theory". 

Four developments in the wake of all of this are revealing. The recent slew of work--in too many instances just fashionable repetition--around precarity/precariousness has in its most compelling formulations importantly sought to reach beyond the impasses of conventional theoretical developments. I think most notably of Judith Butler's work here. The second has been the considerable output on issues in political theology, which has slowed down of late. Here there were two or three directions, revealing of the impasses of critical theory currently. First, there was much the most voluminous of work around issues of secualrism. As important as this was, it quickly became repetitive. The second concerned issues of sovereignty which shifted how we thought about political theory more generally. That too seems to have run its course, though left critical theory in a different if still troubled state. And the third concerned a deep rethinking of the history of philosophical thinking, something which is ongoing and likely to have a much more lasting impact on critical theory. I think here, among others, of not just Butler's work but of the ongoing contributions of Achille Mbembe, Ackbar Abbas, Saba Mahmood, and so on.

The third set of critical foci has concerned a theorizing of neoliberalism in all its varieties and impacts. Foucault's lectures on the Birth of Biopolitics was formative here, and more recently Wendy Brown's seminal contributions have been crucial. In all three cases, the impact of the postcolonial has been more or less visibly important. It has been only partly so in the case of the fourth focus, which has been the important emergence of science and technology studies, a fast developing formation obviously prompted by the enormous shift in dominant knowledge production to the overriding concerns of science and technology. Here Bruno Latour's work has been formative but there have been really interesting recent developments around postcolonial science studies which will have long lasting shape-shifting impacts on knowledge formation and ultimately on critical theorizing.

On final thought here. The way in which interests have shifted so quickly, prevailing objects of critical knowledge have emerged and dissipated with alarming speed, seems to mirror modes of political economy, patterns of consumptive fashion. This too should trouble critical theory.