The Critical Theory Workshop at the Sorbonne: A Trojan Horse in the Academy

The APA Blog is beginning with this post a series on the work of the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique. The Critical Theory Workshop is a dual-language intensive research program, founded by Gabriel Rockhill and sponsored by Villanova University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy. It takes place every summer at the Sorbonne in central Paris. Open to graduate and undergraduate students, as well as to faculty or independent researchers and writers, it provides an international platform for trans-disciplinary, comparative and engaged work in critical social theory (in the broadest sense of the term). For more information, as well as videos and links to social media accounts, visit the website: For this post, I spoke with Gabriel Rockhill about his vision for the workshop.


Nathan Eckstrand: What motivated you to found the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique, and what are you trying to achieve with it?

Gabriel Rockhill: The primary goal was to develop an international and committed platform for the cross-disciplinary cultivation of autonomous research projects, which would facilitate the collaborative training of intellectuals as cultural actors in an expansive and complex world. To this end, I have made a concerted effort to bring together a diverse panoply of thinkers from different horizons and backgrounds in order to foster productive and challenging debates on specific topics. The emphasis is thus on thematic work that is broadly informed by various fields of study and cultural traditions, as well as on a relatively egalitarian mode of engagement in which all of the participants—rather than simply ‘the students’—learn from the issues at hand.

More concretely, this means that I founded the CTW/ATC—with the generous support of Villanova University’s Graduate School and Philosophy Department—as a dual-language micro-institution that nurtures a specific type of intellectual work, which might best be described as autonomous and committed. Rather than a space that simply follows the heteronomous dictates of the ‘market of ideas’—in which academic specialization, hierarchical credentialization and ingrained social norms discipline thought in dramatic and often unforeseen ways—the CTW/ATC foregrounds original research that cuts across and reworks cultural delimitations, disciplinary distinctions, and the very divisions that purportedly separate intellectual work from practical concerns. In this regard, I conceive of it as a Trojan horse in the academy: in the heart of one of the most prestigious and oldest educational institutions in Europe—the Sorbonne—people from the four corners of the planet discreetly come together in a vacant room over the summer in order to test what it is that we think we know in a unique crucible for ideas and alternative practices. One crucial dimension of the work that is done in this institutional hull is thus that there is a strong emphasis on cutting-edge debates that are still largely marginalized, if not altogether excluded from the university, ranging from radical political economy and feminism to decolonial thought, critical race theory, philosophy of the environment, revolutionary thought, psychoanalysis and queer theory.

Nathan Eckstrand: The idea of having a Trojan horse is interesting, and certainly important given the trends in academia throughout the world (which, of course, are having their own effects upon academic research).  How does this idea of the “Trojan horse” play out in terms of who your participants and invited guests are, the themes chosen, and the practices by which the Workshop is conducted?

img_2630Gabriel Rockhill:  The massive neoliberalization of institutions of higher learning has had extremely deleterious effects on research and education, instrumentalizing them for vocational ends and sidelining critical thinking as unduly time-consuming and ultimately unmarketable (as if being a Homo sapiens—literally a ‘wise man or person’—was simply a waste of time!). It is crucially important in this context, particularly for those who have some institutional power, to harness the force of these organizations for alternative ends. Education, after all, is one of the single most important tools for social, political, ethical and ecological transformation. A Trojan horse is, if you will, a micro-institutional training ground that brings together, for a brief amount of time and under the unsuspecting eye of major institutional fiefdoms, a group of people that forges a community of iconoclastic praxis in an open but secured space. They will then—at least in ideal situations—be empowered to go out into the world with new tools, experiences, connections and ideas, like so many cultural and intellectual warriors. To take but a few examples, Rahman Bouzari, an Iranian journalist and researcher in philosophy, has come to the Workshop twice, and he is clearly an important conduit for radical theoretical work in Iran, which he regularly translates for his cultural pages in Shargh Newspaper (Iran’s largest daily). Daniel Benson from NYU, as well as Dan Wood and Jared Bly from Villanova, have used the Workshop to launch major book translations of critical figures like Amilcar Cabral, Luc Boltanski, Nancy Fraser and Patrick Vauday.

Regarding the participants, guests and themes, it has been important to keep the CTW/ATC open to not only graduate students, but also to faculty, undergraduates, independent researchers, artists and writers. Curiosity and intellectual drive, as well as cultural and class diversity, have proven more important to this collective educational experiment than the imprimatur of particular institutions. In this regard, I have worked closely with my friends and colleagues at Villanova University—particularly Yannik Thiem and Walter Brogan as Directors of Graduate Studies—to ensure that we always have participants from different levels and backgrounds, numerous cultures, so-called peripheral countries and an array of disciplines (Villanova’s social justice mission, which has allowed us to waive program fees for certain participants from periphery countries and/or situations of extreme economic hardship, has been crucially important in this regard). The same is generally true for the invited guests, although there are certain logistical and budgetary limitations. I have made a concerted effort to work against the theory industry’s star apparatus, thereby exposing participants to a wide variety of intellectual work in the Francophone world, which is largely under the radar of the Anglophone translation regime. I also always try to have people at different stages in their careers, mixing highly prominent figures with intellectuals who have less visibility but are doing interesting trans-disciplinary work that pushes the envelope. Finally, for the themes, there is no a priori delimitation because the CTW/ATC is really a space in which there is an attempt to mobilize all of the tools necessary for an analysis of contemporary society in toto, drawing on philosophy and sociology as well as on political theory, aesthetics, economics and other fields. This project, which was announced by the first generation of the Frankfurt School of critical theory has, in my opinion, largely fallen by the wayside in our age of hyper-specialization, over-professionalization and parcellary knowledge (which presumes that the world should magically conform to the arbitrary divisions of our disciplines).

Nathan Eckstrand:  I like the idea that themes should develop organically, without the arbitrary constraints of discipline, educational background, institutional necessities, or cultural propriety.  As I’m sure you know, the most well-known intellectuals of the last century have interdisciplinary applications, so it has always seemed odd to me that there is not more dialogue between fields.  Can you elaborate on how the dialogue this past year developed to include ideas from multiple disciplines while still maintaining a focus on analyzing and critiquing contemporary society?

13775771_642926412532210_4002178529612465513_nGabriel Rockhill:  The CTW/ATC is an ongoing collective experiment, and each year learns from and feeds off of the experiences of prior years. The participants, I should mention, have made important contributions to the modulation of the Workshop over time, introducing new simultaneous translation techniques, changing the format of the working groups, modifying the final participants’ conference, and so forth. The current format includes four interlocking and overlapping components: debates between 2-3 people on a common theme, rencontres or encounters with contemporary intellectuals, ‘work-in-progress’ sessions, and the working groups in which the participants present their own research projects.

This year included a debate on the future of critical theory with the Frankfurt-trained sociologist Jan Spurk, a discussion of norms and social transformation with legal scholars from Great Britain and Australia, a dialogue on psychoanalysis and social criticism between an Argentinian analyst (Patricia Gherovici) and an American critical theorist (Amy Allen), and a debate on the future of Francophone theory with three intellectuals who work across disciplines and between the English-speaking and French-speaking worlds. The rencontres focused on African philosophy (Souleymane Bachir Diagne), the counter-history of liberalism (Domenico Losurdo) and decolonizing critical theory (Amy Allen). Regarding the work in progress sessions, these were more directly related to projects with which I am currently involved, including the publication of my most recent book, Interventions in Contemporary Thought, and two ongoing collaborative research projects with a Hungarian historian/philosopher (on historical ontology) and a French sociologist/philosopher (on socio-philosophie). Finally, the participants, who came from approximately 12 disciplines and 10 different cultural backgrounds, presented work on anything from the Russian avant-garde and Latin American resistance literature to critical theory, feminism, the history of materialism, psychoanalysis, architectural theory and artistic performance. The videos of some of these activities, as well as others from prior years, are available on the CTW/ATC website.

As you can see, a very broad spectrum of topics, areas of study and cultural fields is covered. This does not, however, lead to a simple potpourri or what is sometimes dismissed as cultural studies in the weak sense of the term (not to be confused with the original agenda-setting work of figures like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall). There are diligent curatorial decisions and careful vetting that go into bringing all of these scholars together, and the bar is held as high as possible to maintain a challenging environment. Inspired by the trailblazing work of the original founders of cultural studies, as well as by the initiators of the Frankfurt School and other bastions of collective critical research like the Université Paris—VIII (where Deleuze, Lyotard and Lacan worked alongside Cixous, Badiou, Rancière and others), the ultimate objective is to collaboratively federate between areas of expertise in order to collectively reinvent theoretical practices capable of gaining traction for the critical analysis and transformation of contemporary society in all of its complexities. This is precisely one of the core tasks, moreover, of what I have begun calling, in a manifesto I am co-authoring with Pierre-Antoine Chardel, la socio-philosophie.

In the future, I can only hope that this experimental project will continue to grow and evolve in interesting ways. I would be keen on developing, for instance, a publication component or blog, and perhaps a podcast series. I would very much like others to get involved as well and propose new forms of collaboration, such as we are developing with ASAP/Journal, which will soon publish a translation of the 2014 rencontre on aesthetics with Patrick Vauday. For July 2017, we will experiment with an opening participants’ mini-conference, and I am considering coordinating a debate with former CTW/ATC participants, as well as trying to develop a platform for ‘bringing the stars down to earth,’ so to speak, by inviting highly prominent intellectuals to debate topics outside of their immediate fields of expertise or dialogue with less visible but highly intelligent colleagues. En avant!


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