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Research Seminar Series: Theory in Crisis


This seminar series sets out to engage with the most dynamic work taking place in contemporary critical theory. Attentive to the domestications of twentieth-century critical theory (Kouvelakis 2019), but also of the limitations of the ‘postcritique’ (de Sutter 2019) turn, the seminar will focus on work that responds to the urgency of the present and attempts to map unfamiliar terrain generated by entrenched capitalist crisis.


Stuart Hall and Bill Schwarz defined crises as occurring “when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations”. Any given crisis means there is a systemic instability that can only be addressed through radical measures. Hall read the rise of Thatcherism and new forms of racialisation and policing in Britain as examples of such measures that are both responses to and symptoms of crisis. In France, changing forms of racialisation of Arab and postcolonial immigrants during the same broadly neoliberal period have also been considered in relation to comparable changes in political economy (Balibar & Wallerstein 1988, Théorie Communiste 26, 2018). There are illuminating points of dialogue and study to pursue here between decolonial thought in France and the relations between race and economic crisis as articulated by scholars of racial capitalism in the U.S. and beyond. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, for example, has argued that prisons and rising rates of incarceration represent partial geographic solutions to political-economic crisis and new thinking on ‘carceral capitalism’ (Wang 2018) has been energised by francophone accounts of policing (Rigouste 2012, Fassin 2017) and (post)colonial capitalism. 

Working within the wider historical context of crisis described by historians such as Giovanni Arrighi and Robert Brenner, this seminar will address the radical measures taken by state and non-state actors in response to different manifestations of crisis, with particular attention to race and racialisation. Eurocentric accounts of crisis can potentially elide the ways in which crisis has been violently present for racialised populations far before the ‘long downturn’, at least since the birth of capitalism (Danowksi and Viveiros de Castro 2016, Ajari 2019), while conversely Achille Mbembe (2013) has suggested that a ‘Becoming Black of the world’ is one way of understanding the continuities and expansion of racial capitalism today. 

Different modes of analysis on contemporary riots by Joshua Clover and the Invisible Committee have illustrated the changing grammar of revolt in times of crisis and the rich field of scholarship on logistics and counterlogistical ‘circulation struggles’ has also offered energising new ways of understanding contemporary upheavals. The re-emergence of Black Lives Matter, the ongoing Coronavirus crisis and evolving tactics of the climate movement in recent years invites reconsideration of this excellent scholarship while much work is already being developed on the links between racial capitalism and the Anthropocene, as well as the asymmetric responses to the coronavirus and climate crises (Malm 2020) 

Articulating the role of theory in relation to political crises invites historiographical and temporal considerations. French communisation theory has periodised social movements according to ‘cycles of struggles’ while such questions of periodisation have been central to an insightful debate between Alberto Toscano and Jasper Bernes on communist thought today.  

In addition to specific manifestations of crisis, then, this seminar will encompass broader methodological questions, particularly concerning the role of theory and its limitations in representing or mapping new political terrain. Fredric Jameson’s work has helped clarify a view of theory that is both ambitious in its desire to map the world system but modest in its recognition that theory is deluding itself if it tries to occupy any didactic or pedagogical positions. However, if the immediate political role of theory is modest in this account, others have insisted on the powers of the performative, drawing on a very different linage of mythology inspired by Afrofuturist figures to argue for a more consequential role for theory  (Yves Citton 2010, Kodwo Eshun 1998, Neyrat 2017). 

References and suggested readings

  • Norman Ajari, La dignité ou la mort : éthique et politique de la race (La Découverte, 2019) 
  • Etienne Balibar, Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, nation, class : les idéntités ambiguës (La Découverte, 1988) 
  • Etienne Balibar, «  Ce que devient le politique – mi-temps de la crise 1/3», AOC Juillet 2020 : 
  • Jasper Bernes, “Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Prospect”, Endnotes 3.
  • Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1990) 
  • Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013) 
  • Deborah Danowski and Edouardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World (Polity, 2016) 
  • Stathis Kouvelakis, La critique défaite. Émergence et domestication de la Théorie critique (Editions Amsterdam, 2019) 
  • Nadia Yala Kisukidi, « Le conflit n’est pas entre le particulier et l’universel » Revue Ballast (2020)   
  • Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (University of Minnesotta Press, 2014) 
  • Didier Fassin and Bernard E Harcourt eds. A Time for Critique (Columbia University Press, 2019) 
  • Didier Fassin, L’Ombre du monde : une anthropologie de la condition carcérale (Seuil, 2017) 
  • Tristan Garcia, Nous (Grasset, 2016) 
  • Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007) 
  • Matthieu Rigouste, La domination policière : une violence industrielle (La Fabrique, 2012) 
  • Anselm Jappe, La société autophage.  Capitalisme, démesure et autodestruction (La Découverte 2017) 
  • Frédéric Neyrat, Atopies : Manifeste pour la philosophie. (Nous, 2014) 
  • Frédéric Neyrat, « Horreurs et merveilles – de l’impossible », Lignes 52 (2017), 69-87 
  • Brett Nielson, Sandro Mezzandra, The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2019) 
  • Frederic Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Indiana University Press, 1995) 
  • Katherine McKittrick ed. Sylvia Winter: On Being Human as Praxis (Duke University Press, 2015) 
  • Benjamin Noys, The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory. Edinburgh University Press, 2010 
  • Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute (Zero Books, 2015) 
  • Alberto Toscano, “Notes on Late Fascism
  • Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016) 
  • Grégoire Chayamou, La Société ingouvernable : une généalogie du libéralisme autoritaire (La Fabrique, 2018) 
  • Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Towards a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness: Towards the End of the World”, The Black Scholar, 44 (2) 
  • Laurent de Sutter et al, Postcritique (PUF, 2019) 
  • Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (New York: MIT Press/Semiotext(e), 2018) 
  • Achille Mbembe, « L’Afrique en théorie » 
  • Mbembe, Critique de la raison nègre (La Découverte, 2013) 
  • Théorie Communiste no 26 (2018) 
  • Yves Citton, Mythocratie : Storytelling et imaginaire de gauche (La Découverte, 2010) 
  • Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (Quartet Books, 1998) 
  • Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (Verso 2020)