By Asma Abbas
This post is the fifth 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.
Before discovering the Critical Theory Workshop last spring, all I knew of Gabriel Rockhill was that I was grateful to him for translating Jacques Rancière. Once I discovered the workshop, I imagined all sorts of refreshing ways in which that initial relationship would suffuse an intentional space for critical theorizing with others, as much within as outside of the University. I guess I went to Paris this summer to verify those imaginations and to find out in what ways the work of theorizing gets inflected by both critique and crisis. I wanted to see what moved Gabriel to produce this space, and what other commitments would or could populate it.
Having been at work for a while at figuring out the demands of an aesthetic political education, and where such education happens, I wanted to see an example of that within the fortress of the Sorbonne. It helped that the Critical Theory Workshop was not be a place where the very enterprise of critical theory was in question, or required to account for itself in irrelevant and distracting ways. There are often much better demands for accountability which go unheeded or even unarticulated. Compared to conferences, the Critical Theory Workshop promised a slightly more extended period of engagement with a shared project that many in large departments take for granted. It meant not having to continually defend this work against the suspicions of idealist philosophers and righteous empiricists alike, and not being put in the position of pointing out that these attacks are symptomatic of something else to which we are all subject (and which we must address before it is too late). In search of James Baldwin and Assia Djebar alike, I went to the Critical Theory Workshop to feel what it means to think in response to strife and battles other than those in the US (but nevertheless related to them). The assumption of the US’s exceptional nature gets made by both the left and the right, and it brutally and arbitrarily makes people like me both hyper-material and immaterial at once.
I am a political theorist, not because I seek to theorize politics or the political as an object, but because I believe that political theory is that which pushes us to produce politics. It is theory that politicizes what would otherwise be declared outside of politics. Also intrinsic to this is the belief that the tasks of theory and of action occur in a relation entirely different from a patron-client application. Political theory dis-encloses that which has been settled and enclosed as apolitical, and hence it always produces the object it ostensibly studies. It works alongside, underneath, and in front of the realm of political action. It can then be said that political and critical theory meet in the temporality of crisis, and engage philosophy amidst this reality. It was clear from the start that Gabriel’s shaping of the Workshop had everything to do with the crises around us, and that the Workshop was built for taking time in order to produce a responsive yet responsible critical theory.
When critical theory is seen this way—in relation to what is foreshadowed instead of that which has been, and as that which places itself in front of other bodies instead of handing them over—politics, pedagogy, and scholarship become entwined. Thus, the pedagogy of the workshop is essential to understanding its relationship to political crises, as well as its interactions with critical theory. In other words, its method is key to understanding what it sought to institute at the Sorbonne, and institutionalized out of it—on the 100th day of the Nuit Debout movement, and less than a 100 days before Paris police attacked a Sorbonne professor for intervening on behalf of a woman of color, for being “a dirty leftist” and “support[ing] ISIS” all at once.
There were over 20 of us in that room at any given time. Some were advanced undergraduates, some were graduate students, and a few of us were professors at different stages of our careers. We all brought a project we were working on, and moved through three different groups over the course of three weeks, discussing our work, pooling insights for our encounters with the guest scholars, and preparing for our public presentation/conference to close the workshop. That circulation produced interactions that might not have happened if the classroom and its conversations were all that mattered.
While some of us thought during the course of the workshop about how to productively “dis-align” the decorum of the space when we were hosting visitors (since a lot of our work together was funneled and curated through Gabriel to keep things organized), it turned out that those fringe interactions were supremely important for being at the fringe of the fringe space, and for gradually shifting the character of the space. When we did come together to present our final work, it was evident that Gabriel had enabled a space that could and indeed did get recreated through all our interactions. What was able to happen in the space during the course of the Workshop helped to shape certain new ways of doing things professionally and personally, and opened new questions of epistemology, normativity, aesthetics, bodies, and resistance. It is interesting, in hindsight, how some of the conversations that occurred earlier enabled the urgency of the last few days. We all felt something needed to be expressed, and that the Workshop bore fruit in its own interesting way; not always consciously, not always on class time, but surely and steadily.
The Workshop guests and their work embodied an inventive and often interdisciplinary response to our current moment. Instructive and educative in its own right was what these thinkers felt was the crisis on which there was a consensus, and who was allowed to presume this consensus existed. What these details betrayed was a shared anxiety over the possibilities of a contemporary philosophy, what forms it must take, and who gets to ratify those forms. Whether in relation to racism, the refugee crisis, empire, the decaying and fascist metropole, Islamophobia, the repressed histories of Islam within European modernity, or the claims of supremacy and superiority in the world and in academia, we returned repeatedly to questions about who we are still responding to, who must we be responding to, and what the responsibility of philosophy is in addressing that which holds these responses hostage.
As the weeks translated most crises back into normalcy, the residue of that construct allowed us to speak about what philosophy understands itself to be, what nostalgia underlies this desire to recreate order, and how this desire confronts the critical theory project. We also thought about how temporality and consent affect philosophy’s transition from being an ongoing institutional ethnography to producing universal subjects at will and creating what is normal. I was drawn to thinking not about the philosophy of politics, but the politics of philosophy. In other words, about spaces that are opened and closed at once, the kinds of gestures of accumulation and enclosure that happen, and how any space that deals with the imperatives of critical theory is tempted to return to an institutional framework for survival. Rancière was present in his absence: especially in the fantastical space beyond politics that was conjured in wishful pacts between the tyranny of Bourdieuan sociology and the philosophical. What I wanted was that philosophy not solve the refugee problem and instead take the refugees’ “out of placeness” upon itself. There was not a single one in the room who felt that these conversations were happening in any vacuum, or that there was nothing at stake.
I came away with a profound sense that something unites those of us who theorize from the margins (whether of analytic epistemology, film studies, urban studies, aesthetics, postcolonial theory, or phenomenology), and felt kinship with the critical theory tradition, now in its nth generation (as tasteless as questions of inheritance are in today’s time). There was the feeling, affirmed in the way Gabriel had also thematically organized us, that the metapolitics of our work—the relation that our work has to the arche of our disciplines—unified us and allowed us to speak to each other. It was clear that the repeated attempts to create solidarity on the basis of the object of our inquiry were in need of displacement by the question of method, including on whose behalf it operates, why is this what we want, and why now. What the workshop made clear is that we cannot accede to the normative presumptions of the practice of philosophy without understanding the institutional trappings, the calls to order, and other disruptive provocations found in the interstices of those. That every day at the Workshop made me think about that—in delight or in angst—was vitalizing.
For the first time ever I also became aware of the discomfort between, on the one hand, European (post)coloniality and, on the other, the common American denial of the US’s inscription within a (post)colonial order. This happened as I naively went looking for an actual reckoning with these questions in an encounter between the refugees on Parisian sidewalks and James Baldwin. I wondered—with Baldwin and Assia Djebar, spirits that moved with me through Paris, spending Eid walking around in the 18th arrondisement, and Fanon’s birthday discussing contemporary Francophone philosophy—who would be looking for me and who would look back at me. What stayed most on my skin and psyche was the long lost familiarity of the refugee unlike any eyes that ever set on me in the US, and the averted eyes of liberal cosmopolitan Paris the days after the attacks in Nice that gave me a chance to be unlocated, to at least a chance to be misrecognised in a different way than in the US. It was a strangely masochistic liberation from a differently destructive racial register. Taken out of the US, I was suddenly in the world again.
So, Gabriel did something right, someone said one day. We nodded. And then we walked toward the Pantheon, but only to sit outside in the shadow of its Western wall on a very hot day.
Asma Abbas is Associate Professor of Politics and Philosophy, and Emily H. Fisher Faculty Fellow, at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. She is also director of Hic Rosa, an art, education, and politics collective. She received her MBA from the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, her MA in Liberal Studies from the New School for Social Research, and her Ph.D. in Political Science from the Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Richmond, Massachusetts.
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