The Critical Theory Workshop: The Mo(ve)ment of Contemporary Philosophy

This post is the second in 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: https://criticaltheoryworkshop.com.

By Rahman Boozari and Dave Mesing

For over two decades, Jean-Paul Sartre influenced the intellectual and political scene of “the short twentieth century,” not only with his theoretical endeavors in postwar French philosophy but, more broadly, by means of his engagement in the global political scene of the 1950s and 1960s. This does not mean that no other thinkers during this period are worth mentioning. We could indeed add important figures as Lévi-Strauss, Lefebvre, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, and then, Deleuze and Derrida, in order to round out a list of major touchstones in French thinking (we emphasize here that our aim is not to provide a definitive taxonomy of “important” French thinkers, but more simply to gesture towards a group of recognizable French authors from this time period and shortly after; with a slightly later focus, either biographically or bibliographically, we could of course add people such as Cixous, Badiou, Kristeva, and Irigaray). Sartre distinguished himself not through his commitment to radical politics, but by inscribing this commitment into his philosophy, thereby attempting to challenge and reframe the philosophical itself, an approach or attitude followed by others.

One cannot disregard the vehement foreground of postwar Europe, along with struggles in the so-called third world, which gave rise to new conceptual inventions in politics, art and philosophy, paving the way for linking theory more directly to practice. For most, French philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century represents this move towards conceptualizing the borders of philosophical practice itself – a theoretical reflection on what is considered philosophy. It is a “common attempt to find a new position, or disposition, for the concept: to displace the relation between the concept and its external environment by developing new relations to existence, to thought, to action, and to the movement of forms,” as an important successor puts it. Philosophy becomes, thus, the object of doing philosophy.

When understood not as an institutionalized, normative discipline, but rather a ‘moment’ of replacing-displacing the relation (often taken for granted) between philosophy and non-philosophy, late twentieth century French philosophy exemplifies well the direction that should be taken by the philosophical practices of our time. Here the notion of moment is extremely significant. What do we mean by that?

There are two principal meanings for the moment, one technical and the other temporal. The latter is the prevalent usage of the word in everyday language, referring to instants of time, while the former, somewhat forgotten by common sense, defines the quantity of mechanical movement as momentum, which is derived from movimentum (from movere, “to move”). The moment of French philosophy, in both senses of the word, was, accordingly, how it embraced non-philosophy, whether it is literature or psychoanalysis, art or politics.

After decades of neoliberal bludgeoning, however, this moment has been lost. Philosophy has become highly professionalized as academic torpidity, with much less claim to what is going on outside its domain. Rather than a practice in which modes of thinking are subjected to the material conditions of thought – which are naturally non-philosophical – it has become transfixed as a disciplinary thought resonating with insular norms and values.

The idea of the Critical Theory Workshop could perhaps be characterized as torpifying torpidity, as exemplified in a constitutive moment of western philosophy – Plato’s Meno. Reflecting on his method, Socrates asks Meno whether “in making him [Meno’s unnamed attendant slave] perplex and torpifying him like a torpedo fish does, we have done him no harms, have we?” Torpifying as a metaphor of thinking is a Socratic response to the mind-numbing elements in Athenian society. Against the widespread torpidity in institutional philosophy, one needs to stupify and make torpid this torpidity, to re-double torpidity by torpifying those who established – or continue to establish – the division between philosophy as an autonomous discipline and non-philosophy as everything else.

Recalling the French moment of philosophy, undoubtedly, does not mean to iterate the same thoughts and deeds in twenty-first century, but rather to follow the same moves in the practice of philosophy. Likewise, to recall this moment is not, admittedly, to immediately politicize philosophy as something that can be directly transposed into the streets. At stake is a notion of philosophy in which concepts, ideas, and discourses are themselves the battleground, arranged in terms of a stage whose center is always deferred or off to one side, a stage which remains a magnetic site where things and the tensions between them are pulled into orbit.

The Critical Theory Workshop proceeds from the fact of being critical, both in terms of a critical reflection on concrete problems, and as a putting into crisis the very way in which we approach these same problems. It takes full advantage of the current sociopolitical arena as a starting point for discussion, be it Nuit Debout, Black Lives Matter, or the dramatic events of Greece in 2015, as well as fostering new challenges to them. The fact that it is held in Paris at the Sorbonne is, perhaps unwillingly, a reminder of the French moment of philosophy in the twentieth century.

The reference for the quote in the second paragraph is Alain Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy trans. Bruno Bosteels (New York: Verso, 2012), lvi. For a discussion of moment as outlined in the fourth paragraph, see Barbara Cassin, ed. Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 683-689. The reference to Plato’s Meno is 84b. We would like to briefly note that our reference to academic torpidity is not meant as a universalizing gesture; among several counter-examples in the recent past, we could include the operaismo, autonomia, and post-operaismo tendencies in Italy, the work of Fréderic Lordon in France, or the various movements around decarceration and prison abolition in the contemporary United States.

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