Professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Teresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) on Indigenous Studies – Response by Lettycia Terrones (Latina/o Studies and Information Science)

[On October 25, 2019 of professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Teresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) presented talks on Indigenous Studies as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Lettycia Terrones (Latina/o Studies and Information Science)]

In “Ethnographic Refusal, Anthropological Need” from her book Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Audra Simpson interrogates the “dissonance between the representations” constructed by western epistemologies of empire and their resultant forms of making and disciplining knowledge. Against these systems, Simpson asks what is shown about the recursive logics of settler colonialism when western forms of knowledge, exemplified for instance in the disciplinary field of anthropology, are held up against what Indigenous people have to “say about themselves” (98). Simpson’s project challenges the normalizing power of western “technologies of rule” and “techniques of knowing” —their categorizations, descriptions, definitions, comparisons, linguistic scripting, visuality and military force—by showing the methodological approaches of Indigenous knowledge forms and knowledge practices—what these “look like, or sound like, when [Indigenous] goals and aspirations … inform the methods and the shape of our theorizing and analysis” (98).

Indeed, Simpson’s theoretical and political move to contest, shake up and transform western disciplinary traditions and methods by working from Native American and Indigenous methodologies and knowledge formation is also the project of professors Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern), Hayley Negrin (History, UIC), Theresa Montoya (Anthropology and Filmmaking, U Chicago) who together delivered the Indigenous Studies lecture on October 25th for the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s Modern Criticism and Theory lecture series.

Emerging from the collaborative work and interdisciplinary conversations which Wisecup (early-Americanist literary scholar), Negrin (historian of Native American life, women and gender) and and Montoya (anthropologist and film-maker) engage with the Chicago-area Native Studies working group, their intersecting talks illuminated how centering Native American and Indigenous Studies modes of inquiry and knowledge-making exceed western disciplinary forms, thus presenting ways of looking and modes of inquiry that hold settler colonial structures accountable in shaping American society, and in turn global settler projects of empire. Moreover, Native American and Indigenous Studies, as the three scholars demonstrated theorize and practice ways of speculating how to study, how to struggle and how to live in ways that exceed the capture of the settler state. They showed us that while Native American and Indigenous Studies works toward futurities which value life and horizontal relationalities in co-existence, these modes of praxis are in effect and utilized in the present day in Indigenous-led struggles throughout states of empire.

Kelly Wisecup (English, Northwestern)

Building from Simpson, Kelly Wisecup began by asking how regimes of disciplinarity, their structures and forms, their categories and cartographies, become stabilized and produce concepts of culture that position Native people and Indigeneity as objects of study. She asked how Native American and Indigenous Studies methods interrupt disciplinarity’s capture of Native people by refusing the normalizing discursive and material categorizations of culture that seek to fix and make legible Native people within western epistemological structures. Wisecup asked: What happens to our understanding of Indigenous literary history, for instance, when we “privilege the study of and with Native people and not just the concept of Indigeneity?”

To set the stage for interrogating this question, Wisecup leveraged Simpson’s “scenes of apprehension,” an analytic which Simpson theorizes as material and symbolic “spaces of discernment,” where ideas of difference and apparatuses of containment are constructed and maintained. Here, the ideology of culture functions to differentiate, mark, categorize, taxonomize, delimit, territorialize, and dispossess Native peoples in settlers and colonial empire (Simpson 97, 102). Culture as an ideology of difference in this way functions to order and read Indigenous people within settler colonial structures of dispossession.

It is important to remember here that apprehension signifies colonial capture and also points to modes of comprehending, i.e., modes for accounting for the ways in which disciplinarity’s discursive stabilizing power produces knowledge. Illuminating the ways in which disciplinary fields order the world—constructing and representing the other and situating its dominance—makes available opportunities to interrupt, divert, disorder and refuse disciplinarity’s possession.

Wisecup’s research into the production and circulation of Native literatures and their entanglement with institutional nineteenth century archives (such as The Newberry Library, The New York Antiquarian Society, The Field Museum, The Smithsonian) demonstrates a challenged to western epistemes and their  attempt to fix, catalog and read Native people as objects of study in categories that support settler colonial elimination.

Wisecup illustrated how – cartographies of Native American languages created in nineteenth century for the Bureau of American Ethnology enabled settler governance and its projects of elimination, ordering languages into ethnic classifications, fixing in this way Native languages to state boundaries and geographies to facilitate land dispossession. John Wesley Powell, the director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, as Wisecup quoted, communicated the purpose of these documents, stating: “Its purpose was the discovery of relations among the Native American tribes to the end that amicable groups might be gathered on reservations.” The containment and elimination of Native Nations and people through material documentation occurred widely throughout the everyday operational practices of nineteenth century archival processes.


Powell, John Wesley. Map of linguistic stocks of American Indians. [S.l, 1890] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Against these “settler technologies of rule” (Simpson), Wisecup contrasted Joseph Laurent’s 1884 book New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues. A leader of the Odanak Nation, Laurent’s dynamic text listed vocabulary of the Abenaki language alongside complementing participatory dialogs. This juxtaposition put in relief the dynamic, co-constitutive, livingness of language.

Wisecup describe the text’s dynamism across time and geographies, thus tracing its ability to “evade archival control.” She noted how Laurent not only took his book to the very center of settler archives, sending a copy to the Bureau of American Ethnology. Laurent’s circulation of the Dialogues also took him across Abenaki lands, across the U.S. Northeast and Canada. As Wisecup noted, Laurent’s book continues to circulate today, “invit[ing] interaction and further uses.”


Laurent, Joseph. New Familiar Abenakis And English Dialogues: The First Ever Published On the Grammatical System. Quebec: Printed by L. Brousseau, 1884.

Hayley Negrin (History, UIC)

Hayley Negrin’s discussion of Sequoyah and the Cherokee Syllabary likewise posed questions of disciplinary scripting, gendered representation and the entanglement of setter ordering. Building from Native feminist theories, Negrin considered what a history of the Cherokee Syllabary would illuminate if Sally Benge, Sequoyah’s wife, were to tell it. Negrin confronted this provocation, this anticipation of unruly accounts, this diversion from normalizing and fixing scripts during a research visit to Cherokee North Carolina in the Smokey Mountains. There, as Negrin tells it, her friend and college—a Native woman and historian of gender and women in the Native South— pointed out: “His wife Sally burned his manuscript you know.”

Here, Negrin centered Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck and Angie Morrill’s (2013) reminder that the U.S., like many other countries, is a settler colonial nation state where structures of Native elimination are necessarily gendered. Moreover, “[b]ecause the United States is balanced upon notions of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, everyone living in the country is not only racialized and gendered, but also has a relationship to settler colonialism” (9). What does this analytic enable for Sally and for us? Negrin asked: “Did Sally not agree with the syllabary project? Was writing a colonial imposition in her eyes—a way of distorting Cherokee life and culture? Or was she angry over something else unrelated in their marriage?” And why is Sally’s incineration a story that Native women tell? Negrin asked how these questions would inform critiques about the representation of masculinity in the iconography of Sequoyah, a masculinity which predominates how the dominant culture reads, locates and misrecognizes Cherokee people.

Unfolding historiography and cultural critique from Native feminist positions in turn offers new ways of understanding how works such as Sequoyah’s syllabary made possible connections and sustained relationships across separated Cherokee bands. Negrin emphasized how Cherokee print culture, including the drafting of the Cherokee Constitution, the Chreokee Phoneix, a bilingual newspaper of the Cherokee Nation, challenged settler attempts to render Cherokee people as savage. This production made legible to settlers Cherokee legal and intellectual sovereignty. What does the circuit and adoption of Cherokee print culture look like from the angle of Native women’s leadership in its circulation?

Negrin considered what research into the histories of cultural production and circulation of Native texts might yield in our understanding of and refusal against setter logics if we do not allow the erasure of Native women’s stories, location and experiences. Negrin emphasized how Native Feminist Theory “change[s] the terms of analysis,” by attending to the ways heteropatriarchy supports the logics and structures of elimination, including its non-engagement and erasure of Native women’s stories and experiences. Rather than seeking inclusion into colonial recognitions, Negrin urged us to see how the imperative of Native Feminist modes of analysis demands an understanding of our relationships to settler colonialism and an understanding of how Native struggle for sovereignty and Native jurisdiction are necessarily connected to women’s bodies and land. Indeed, Native Feminisms show the entanglements of colonial violences across peoples and how these understandings allow us spaces to forge alliances across struggles for justice.

Teresa Montoya (Anthropology, U Chicago)

Teresa Montoya’s talk on Diné mobilizations against uranium contamination and chronic toxic exposure in checkerboard communities—communities such as Sanders, Arizona, which lie outside Navajo jurisdiction, yet whose residents are primarily citizens of the Navajo Nation—illuminated how alliances across struggles for justice also demand skillful navigation and leveraging of multiple discourses in ways that exceeds colonial entrapment.

If Native American and Indigenous Studies theorizes futurities that imagine and enable life beyond and in alternative to colonial structures, these modes of knowledge-making further require a combined imaginary and direct action. In the words of Indigenous resurgence scholar Leanne Simpson, these modes urge us to “not just ‘dream alternative realities’ but to create them, on the ground in the physical world, in spite of being occupied (Simpson qtd in Flowers 35).

Montoya’s project amplifies how Diné researchers and community activists engage Native knowledge forms, bringing together Diné-centered science research, political action, and aesthetic engagement in the shared responsibility to protect fellow citizens of the Navajo Nation who live in the unincorporated city of Sanders from uranium contamination of their drinking water. Montoya pointed out that while Sanders’s community response started in 2015 when they received notice of? uranium water contamination, the environmental disaster itself stems from the July 16, 1979 United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill spill. This spill, Montoya explained, released over 94 million gallons of “acidic radioactive fluid into the Puerco River.” These contaminated waters flowed into the community Sanders, eventually reaching Sanders’s ground water and promoted the community’s urgent call to action. Montoya contextualized this decades long environmental disaster as part of the “slow violence” of decades long environmental toxic pollution—compounded all the more by the “legal ambiguity” impeding juridical redress available to checkerboard communities.  Montoya argued that shared community action in Sanders requires skillful leveraging of disparate and often conflicting discourses, utilizing “different strategies and approaches than their neighboring Diné communities” because of their unincorporated location outside of non-Navajo jurisdiction.

Montoya theorizes this “political arrangement in a longer trajectory of settler colonial land dispossession,” noting how Navajo people and their lands have historically been vulnerable to environmental violence manifest in settler colonial projects. This includes the toxic pollution of extractive capitalism to the war-making experiments that have occurred with impunity on Navajo lands. Checkerboard communities continue to bear the material and juridical consequences of settler statecraft. Montoya emphasized how the dexterity of approaches necessitated in Sanders’s call to action against uranium contamination “highlight the ways in which Navajo citizens strategically and necessarily move between multiple jurisdictions, leveraging discourses of human rights, tribal sovereignty, Diné ontologies of kinship, and even private property ownership in overlapping and sometimes competing ways.” The stakes here, as Montoya provocatively urged, point to new modes that imagine and act upon a Diné politic that emerges from “everyday practices of sovereignty and self-determination,”—modes different from those available through geopolitical discourses of tribal sovereignty.

Montoya described what this Diné politics looks like in action, noting the work of Diné and Indigenous scientists whose research refutes water contamination rates affirmed by state regulatory agents, such as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Arizona Department of Health, whose track record evidences the masking of toxic contamination through a manipulation of water sampling data. This manipulation normalizes toxicity “to accommodate industry,” as Montoya noted. Community caretakers, through grassroots efforts, have amplified and circulated Diné and Indigenous scientists’ and the Navajo Environmental Protection findings of water contamination, and have done the difficult work of making legible what state regulated “science” seeks to obscure through data manipulation.

MontoyaPhotograph by Teresa Montoya. Taken near Dennehotso, AZ on the Navajo Nation in March 2016.

Montoya’s photograph of a water well near Dennehotso, Arizona on the Navajo Nation illustrates what the intersection of Diné research on environmental pollution and direct citizen action looks like. The protective warning spread across this water well amplifies the authority of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency, while further centering Navajo Nation policy for acceptable water consumption. The political/aesthetic force inherent in graffiti—its defiant, bold letters—illustrate Montoya’s intervention: the graffiti calls for everyday sovereignty practices and acts of self-determination against the extractive violence of settler colonial projects. Likewise, Montoya’s photograph manifests Leanne Simpson’s reminder that imagining new worlds insurgent and in rebellion to the permanence of settler colonialism requires on the ground action.

To this end, Montoya reminded us to challenge the false binaries pitting traditional knowledges against western science, and to instead adjust our questions to interrogate which knowledge systems and epistemologies yield discourses of power, and in this way support our vigilant refusal against the normalization of settler colonialism as the permanent social order.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Jodi Byrd, whose expert feedback helped me write with clarity during a time of worry.

Works Cited

Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing feminism: Challenging Connection between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 8-34.

Flowers, Rachel. “Refusal to Forgive: Indigenous Women’s Love and Rage.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society vol. 4, no. 2, 2015, pp. 32-49.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political life across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.

Unit Fellows. “2019 10 29 Indigenous Studies.” YouTube, 14 November 2019,

Professor Patricia Nguyen (Asian American Studies, Northwestern) on Critical Race Theory – Response by Aida Guhlincozzi (Geography and GIS)

[On October 22, 2019 Professor Patricai Nguyen (Asian American Studies, Northwestern) presented a talk on Critical Race Theory as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Aida Guhlincozzi (Geography and GIScience)]

Critical Race Theory and Reparations Come Together in Chicago
Written by Aida Guhlincozzi (Geography and GIScience)

The MCT Critical race lecture was delivered by Dr. Patricia Nguyen, a Visiting Professor at Northwestern University, where she also earned her PhD in Performance Studies. A Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans, she has widely published on her performance work examining “critical refugee studies, political economy, forced migration, oral histories, inherited trauma, torture, and nation-building in the United States and Vietnam.” In her critical artistic work, she has recently employed Critical Race Theory in her contribution and examination of a real form of reparations. In this case, these are reparations in the face of what occurred throughout the 1970s – 1990s. In this time, Chicago police officer Jon Burge tortured numerous black and Latinx men, women, and children, in order to elicit information for police investigations. He used a variety of torture methods, including electric shocks. Dr. Nguyen began this work when she and her collaborator, architectural designer John Lee, were chosen to design a memorial for the survivors.

The survivors of this torture eventually went on to pursue Burge in court, and reparations from the City of Chicago. As part of these reparations, a group of artists and activists worked with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial and the survivors of Burge’s torture ring to create a memorial. The memorial that Dr. Nguyen and her collaborator, John Lee, designed was titled “Breathe, Form, and Freedom” with the intent of centering community voices to review histories of state violence. Speaking on this memorial at the Unit for Criticism event, Dr. Nguyen related Critical Race Theory and its themes of centering people of color and a “push for more structural analysis between the law and white supremacy.” She discussed how this intersection drove some of the artistic design of the memorial. More importantly, were the goals of honoring the existence of the survivors through a community space and memorial stating that they are “still here.”

Unfortunately, the effects of the police state are also still here. In this context Dr. Nguyen asks: “What do reparations look like for survivors of police torture?” She uses Critical Race Theory, as it seeks to “understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America and in particular, to examine how the relationship between that social structure and professed ideals such as the rule of law and equal protection”. The memorial serves as an intervention in response to the police state. This intervention allows the community to take space back in places where the state has caused pain, marking the history and ongoing fight to change the system.  The memorial embodies the ideals of “breathe, form, and freedom.” The main components include:

  • Names of survivors – including etches for those who are unknown
  • Timeline – the timeline of torture, a political project, framing how something is remembered and what is remembered
  • Community space – a space for people to gather that could be contemplative and educational and meditative
  • Manifestos – a collective creative writing project for survivors to write visions for the future and to transform the forced confessions – the first and last words that visitors see when entering and leaving the memorial

The memorial is shaped in the form of a spiral, to lead visitors as they enter the space, starting with the timeline and survivor names, leading them to the manifestos and community space. One detail of the form is contrasting ribbed and smooth concrete that Dr. Nguyen noted is “meant to be unfinished to speak to continued struggle and endurance.” This sharing of space of the voices and ongoing struggle allows for breath to be “enlivened.”

Form is embodied through the curved structure. This curved structure prevents a “relegating of the past as an object of observance.” Again, through the spiral shape, the names of survivors are immediately viewable, along with the timeline of the reparations movement. Part of this memorial is the opportunity for visitors and survivors to “imagine together.”

The third element, freedom is meant to speak to the continued struggle for more life in the face of systemic violence. The space is an opportunity for workshops to be held, and for visitors to be held accountable to the questions the memorial’s display of history forces us to ask.

Dr. Nguyen’s work also explores the transnational implications of this horrific pattern of police abuse. Jon Burge was in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, where it is suggested that he learned his torture methods. Dr. Nguyen asks how Critical Race Theory would be applicable in a transnational context. She says, “How CRT, as it’s written, can be very limited, through its focus on U.S. law and thus the proposed interventions.” The U.S. imperialist war helped construct a Vietnam War military officer who then employed the same torture techniques to extend that imperialism back at home against Black men – U.S. citizens – in the United States. Where does Critical Race Theory stand in this confluence? Addressing this, Dr. Nguyen notes that in many ways, the law is necessary, but never enough. The law is a tool, but not “capacious enough to create justice.”

As a result of the survivors’ fight for justice, the City of Chicago not only is expected to provide a $5.5 million fund for financial reparations, but a number of educational opportunities. This includes a history lesson in all Chicago Public Schools curriculum. Coupled with this history lesson, the memorial which Dr. Nguyen described as a “womb that holds a history of Chicago,” truly states that the survivors are “still here” – and that they can move forward with the next generation to prevent this type of systematic torture and abuse from happening again.

However, it must be noted that the memorial also embodies another aspect of where CRT may fall short – the memorial does not yet exist as the group works to secure funding, an appropriate location, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial is still awaiting a response from the mayor. Dr. Nguyen states that “the fight for reparations doesn’t end with the passing of a law…” which seems to be where Critical Race Theory would naturally see an endpoint. But Dr. Nguyen also quoted Mari J. Matsuda, stating that “[reparations] is the formal recognition of historical wrong, continuing injury and commitment to redress.”  In this way, CRT ideals are extended through the memorial as one key piece of ensuring formal recognition, and hopefully, true reparations.

Image from WTTW Arts and Entertainment article on memorial (Patricia Nguyen and John Lee rendering)


Professor Nasser Mufti (English, UIC) on Postcolonial Theory – Response by Debayudh Chatterjee (English)

[On October 15, 2019 Professor Nasser Mufti (English, UIC) presented a talk on Postcolonial Theory as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Debayudh Chatterjee (English)]

The French Revolution, Nineteenth Century British Literature, and the Anti-colonial Intellectual: Understanding CLR James’s Toussaint L’Ouverture
Written by Debayudh Chatterjee (English)

Professor Nasser Mufti, author of Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and Poetics of National Rupture and faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, began his lecture with a jocund disclaimer. He stated that his engagement with postcolonial studies occurred because of an extended, yet incomplete break-up with Victorian studies. This prescient remark laid the outline for the next one and a half hours. At the heart of his lecture were the ways in which the anti-colonial intellectual negotiated the British literary canon and the zeitgeist of the French revolution.

James 1
Cover of the first edition of C.L.R James’s Black Jacobins (1938).

His case in point was a nuanced reading of CLR James’s seminal work, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint O’uverture and the San Domingo Revolution. By arresting the audience’s attention with his impeccable oratory skills, Mufti invited those that were present to push their limits of knowledge. His dense and provoking presentation, rich with literary allusions and scholarly references, challenged some of the popular axioms of anti-colonial articulation.

Right at the onset, Mufti pointed out how postcolonial theory is centered around the figure of the anti-colonial intellectual, as in Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Furthermore, postcolonial theory keeps turning back to nineteenth century fiction. Mentioning theorists like Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee, Mufti unpacked how Victorian literature offered a vantage point in grasping the texts produced by the colonized native. He brought into account Gayatri C Spivak’s reading in Three Women’s Texts that contribute to the “worlding” of the third world; he cited Said’s analysis of Jane Austen to understand how the forces of imperialism affect the production and politics of seemingly innocent texts. However, while endorsing the postcolonial theorist’s skeptical reception of the cannon, Mufti proposed that, on the contrary, the anti-colonial intellectual drew fervid inspiration and critical vigor from the same set of canonical texts. Rather than deliberating on the Western construction of the Orient, his focused on how the Orient sportingly grapples with the Occident.

Borrowing Benedict Anderson’s observation that nationalist consciousness comes into being through the printing press, Mufti drew our attention to the ways in which literary imagination envisioned the postcolonial nation state. The novels written after the French revolution not just capture the changing ethos of the republic, but also underscore the struggle of the protagonist, hailing from a humble background, against a battalion of hierarchical hegemonic forces. It is, therefore, not strange that James, in his autobiography, uninhibitedly conveys his tribute to the Victorian novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, as an influence more formative than Karl Marx. Thackeray’s magnum opus, Vanity Fair, follows the course of Becky Sharp, a recalcitrant young woman, finding her feet in the capitalist and patriarchal Victorian society. The anti-colonial intellectual draws inspiration from a character such as Sharp to fight his own battles. It is also not unexpected that Toussaint O’uverture, the hero of the Haitian revolution and James’s chief interest in Black Jacobins, is informed by the Romantic sensibilities of freedom, camaraderie, and compassion as perpetuated by the poetic corpus of the likes of PB Shelley and Lord Byron. Toussaint, in James’s revelation, imbibes the ideals of the French revolution more than any French person. The very knell of liberty, equality, and fraternity rings in his mind as a clarion call to redeem his native land, ironically, from the clutches of the French.

If literature is an axis of Mufti’s intellectual project, then history definitely forms the other set of coordinates. He went back to Georg Lukacs’s The Classical Form of the Historical Novel

Cover of the First Edition of Georg Lukacs’s The Historical Novel, London: Merlin Press 1962. Downloaded from

to argue how the French Revolution not only affected the life of the republic, but also altered the perception of history itself. For the first time in the discourse of human civilization, history became a mass experience, the citizen was born in 1789. The impetus of historiographic studies shifted from the chronicles of kings and kingdoms to the lived reality of the common mass under the state apparatus.

It was at this moment when Mufti evoked Balibar’s Citizen Subject to contextualize the positionality of Toussaint among his kinsmen. He presented a riveting diagram to illustrate how Toussaint, the well-read hero of the Haitian revolution, was simultaneously a part of, and differentiated from the common masses. Toussaint’s intellectual prowess enables him to access to the modern tools of dissidence brought about by the enlightenment and alienates him from those around him. He occupies a middle ground between the colonizer and the colonized as he speaks in a language that is neither his, nor that of the French revolution. Perhaps, this might be the reason that precludes Toussaint from being inseparable from the masses despite his ardent efforts. The structuralist binary between the anti-colonial intellectual and the colonized masses illuminates much of Mufti’s thoughts on postcolonial theory.


Prof. Mufti’s riveting diagram drawing on Balibar to demonstrate the relationship between the intellectual hero Toussaint and the masses. Photo by author.

While Georg Lukacs’s observations on the French revolution provided Mufti with the necessary framework to situate CLR James’s study of the Haitian Revolution, the life of Lukacs and his analysis of what he calls the first historical novel, Walter Scott’s Waverly (1814), offered an intriguing foil to unpack the life of James and his hero, Toussaint.

Title page of the Lockhart Edition of the Edinburgh Waverly. Downloaded from

As Mufti pointed out, Lukacs and James shared a number of similarities: they belonged to the same chronological period, their notable works were published and reread in the same decades, they had mutual admirations for Leon Trotsky and John Lennon, and were equally fascinated by the French Revolution. However, Scott’s treatment of Edward Waverley, an army man at the backdrop of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, differs drastically from James’s interpretation of Toussaint. Like the X and Y axes of a graph, they move towards different directions albeit sharing the same starting point.

At par with the diverse range of binaries—history and literature, the citizen and the sovereign, the intellectual and the masses—that scaffolded Mufti’s theoretical venture, it would be appropriate to keep in mind another dialectic that assists us to distinguish a figure such as Fanon or James from their intellectual successors: anti-colonial ‘romance’ and post-colonial ‘tragedy’. Citing David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment, Mufti remarked how the anti-colonial campaign of liberation was more of a romance—high on dreams, basking in the rays of European enlightenment—while the lived post-colonial realities of the same nations were tragedies. The 1955 Bandung conference, which Mufti identified as the beginning of the end, was perhaps the last page of the romance. The sequel, owing to a gamut of factors marking the failure of the post-colonial nation state, is nothing short of a tragedy. The modernist clamors of liberty, equality, and fraternity were soon to be lost in the resurrection of totalitarian regimes, neocolonial agendas, identity conflicts, and religious extremism. The conspicuous rise of the right-wing populist governments across the globe stands as a glaring testimonial.

The final section of Mufti’s lecture was concerned with the inquiry if Toussaint had a literary counterpart. He briefly analyzed three novels—Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess, and V.S Naipaul’s The Mimic Men—to conclude that while Margaret Hale, Matthew Townes, and Ralph Singh, respectively the leading protagonists, partially shared Toussaint’s trajectory, their predicaments were entirely different on the grounds of political context and individual psyche. But does a character as unique as Toussaint need a literary counterpart at all? The racy narrative of CLR James’s Black Jacobin progresses like a novel in itself; Toussaint stands out, in retrospect, as a larger-than-life figure with all his contradictions, affecting and being affected by history. We must unequivocally express our scholarly gratitude to Prof. Nasser Mufti for generously throwing light on the complex, murky cobwebs that connect the colonizer with the colonized.


Professor Samantha Frost (Political Science) on Biopolitics – Response by Soumya Dasgupta (Architecture)

[On October 8, 2019 Professor Samantha Frost (Political Science) presented a talk on Biopolitics as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Soumya Dasgupta (Architecture)]

On Foucault, Esposito, and Agamben; Professor Samantha Frost’s lecture on Biopolitics

Written by Soumya Dasgupta, Ph.D. Student in Architecture (History and Theory), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Award-winning author and Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Samantha Frost delivered an extensive lecture on Biopolitics at the Unit’s Modern Critical Lecture Series this fall. With a background in the Biological Sciences, Frost used her impeccable expertise and effective humor to critically navigate through three principal authors of the field while concluding towards possibilities of an emergent politics located close to her recent work on Biocultural Creatures (See Frost’s new book While the purpose of her talk was clearly to educate the audience about what Biopolitics is and how they can introduce themselves to the intricate and intertangled worlds of Foucault, Esposito, and Agamben, Frost did more than simply introducing the key concepts, as her effortless style took the multi-disciplinary listeners to a quick deep dive into the essence of the subject and its complexities.

Frost mapped out three strings of thinking that can help readers engage with the texts on Biopolitics. She introduced the subject as a domain of inquiry on how living bodies of the population are mobilized for political processes both as targets and means. As a field within Critical Theory, Biopolitics critically studies these modes of mobilizations and helps unfold the entanglements of life and power and the ways in which politics and power shape life. With three simple diagrams, Frost sketched out the bare skeletons of approaches that Foucault, Esposito, and Agamben took towards such inquiries.

She illustrated Foucault’s reflections on Biopower as a blob within which the population is governed (managed) through an exercise of sovereign and disciplinary forces. Foucault has an affective undertone in this proposition, as Frost comments, that it is like a slog, the incredible task of managing a population. What is important to note here is the merging of the sovereign and the disciplinary for the purposes of such governance (management) to be understood in relation to the development of the statistical methods, technological innovations and tactics employed for tracking population, deployment of institutionalized demographics and security leading to the dynamics and problematics of eugenic and dysgenic drives in society. The core argument that describes the relationship between the body politic and biopower is perhaps best captured in Foucault’s comment on the development of the European State from the Medieval era –

“To govern, then, means to govern things.”

– p. 210, “Governmentality”, Foucault, Power (essential works)

Esposito’s approach, according to Frost, operates in an ontological register. She explained that in Esposito’s text, body politics is treated as a process of the community (In Latin – communitas and immunitas), which necessitates exclusion of various people from it: the phrase ‘fearful abjection’ to depicts the affective tone of this theoretical model. Esposito’s account, thus, helps unfold the idea of politics as something that life does to itself: it is through the community that regimes mobilize biopower.

Throughout her lecture, Frost put the most emphasis on Agamben’s model, which is pivoted on the criteria of law and people being subject to the law. Agamben, according to Frost is most interested in ways in which a suspension of the law occurs. Emphasizing giddiness as the affective tone of Agamben’s model, Frost spelled out the crucial differences of this approach from the earlier two authors. While for Foucault, the primary argument is around the merging of sovereign power and disciplinary power to yield biopower through surveillance technologies, Esposito’s perspective renders politics as a process that gives the analytics of communitas (we share therefore we relate, and vice versa) and immunitas (suspension of debt or gift, e.g. diplomatic immunity). However, as Frost pointed out, Agamben is critically different, as for him the discussions on Biopolitics chiefly revolves around the idea of banishment.


Figure 1 Board work by Prof. Frost, Unit MCT Lecture October 8, 2019; picture by author

How then does Agamben examine this suspension of law and the idea of banning? As Frost deliberates on this inquiry, she clarified Agamben’s understandings of life-forms following the principle of exclusionary inclusion or where the inside is always defined by the outside. For Agamben, life-forms within a society essentially manifest into two typologies – Zoe (animal life) and Bios (politically formed life). But, as the resultant of exclusion, banishment or abandonment, one can see the category of what Agamben calls Homo Sacer or bare life. It is this conditionality of sovereign exception that allows for life to be killed without that death constituting murder, in the legal sense. This legal distinction between killing and murder forms a key crux in Agamben’s work.

Further, Frost explains that in this Agambenian framework, the notion of Homo Sacer, and thus in the larger context Biopolitics, necessarily have a spatial dimension, specifically that of territoriality. The action of banishment or abandonment unfolds in space and the exception of the sovereign as a realm operates with an idea of an enclosed space. As frost explains, , groups of people can then become Homo Sacer, such as Jews or Romani or African-Americans as they get placed within special jurisdictional spaces in the zones of sovereign exceptions, which Agamben calls ‘camps’ or spaces where laws are suspended.

Towards the end of her lecture, Frost traced through other major works of Agamben, drawing insights on topics such as how the moment of death is determined by the sovereign force with the advancement of technologies, how Agamben provided a rather ambiguous viewpoint in 2016 where he basically questioned the premise of his earlier work while relating its roots to misreading of Aristotle, and form-of-life which reflects upon how life is already informed by politics. By delivering this intense, fast-paced and densely packed lecture, Professor Frost then introduced the premise of her own work on bio-humanities while provoking the audience with possibilities of different modes of politics of power.

Frost’s lecture generated a huge range of questions, perhaps the most so far in the lectures delivered this fall. This not only shows the relevance of Biopolitics as a mode of critical inquiry to the university-wide scholars and students but also the effectiveness with which the lecturer has made the subject accessible to them. One of the many interesting questions were around the pressing issue of climate change, and particularly around 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg and how one can relate the politics associated with it to the process of exclusion. Frost argued that it would be a blunder to not align with the scientific community regarding climate change while also adding how white supremacy as a political viewpoint is connected at an abstract level with a certain orientation towards the world which denies climate change and its ill effects. However, on another question regarding the broader perspective towards “science” as a knowledge system being problematized within the discourse of Biopolitics, Professor Frost expressed her own struggle with the Foucauldian paradigm where all knowledge is historically specific and critically subjected to certain genealogies.

Overall, Frost’s lecture was delivered in a style that was clear, effective, and legible to a multi-disciplinary audience, thus making critical theory open and accessible. She dealt with the complex and demanding subject of Biopolitics with incredible efficacy and showed how this mode of critical inquiry can reveal extensive insight into how our world works today. Using Foucault, Esposito, and Agamben’s critiques, Professor Frost depicted an uncomplicated picture of this complicated field of thinking.

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From left – Foucault, Esposito, and Agamben


Professor Marcus Keller (French & Italian) on Deconstruction – Response by Aidan Watson-Morris (English)

[On October 1, 2019 Professor Marcus Keller (French & Italian) presented a talk on Deconstruction as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Aidan Watson-Morris (English)]

Marcus Keller’s Hospitable Derrida
Written by Aidan Watson-Morris (English)

If the philosopher Jacques Derrida ushered in the end of truth, truisms about his work proliferate. His slippery style mirrors the movement of meaning or, less charitably, his tortuous texts generalize their own incoherence.

Returning to his writing, we find ourselves surprised at the traces of a mind working hard to be understood: ideas patiently developed and illustrated through examples, signposted conclusions, and—most surprisingly—orderly, numbered lists of key points throughout.

Rather than a radical skepticism about the possibility of meaning, perhaps it was Derrida’s strong desire to communicate that gave him the clarity to see language’s paradoxes. His playful style records not a resigned relativism but a new approach.

Jacques-Derrida-01                                         Photo of Jacques Derrida from an author page on Verso Books’s website.

Marcus Keller’s recent Modern Critical Theory lecture did no disservice to Derrida, then, in its lucidity. Keller, French and Italian professor at the University of Illinois and author of Figurations of France: Literary Nation-Building in Times of Crisis, attended lectures by Derrida while studying at the University of California Irvine. Moving from a taxonomy of key concepts to a historical sketch of the philosopher, Keller offered deconstruction as a method and an ethical—no less political—attitude.

As method, deconstruction is marked by caution, what Keller calls the “slow movement” of displacement. Ferreting out those suggestions of reassuring coherence—sources, essences, and binaries—deconstruction looks to what is “unthinkable” within a text and shows how it is in fact the very premise of the text.

We can only think something present if its absence remains a possibility; destruction contains the trace of construction in its verbal DNA. Derrida’s oft-quoted claim that there is no outside-text refers to those apparent exclusions which, with care, we can find already inside the text. By looking at what seems to get left out, we find it was there all along.

The tools deconstruction brings to this task are many, among which Keller focused on critical favorites. Différance undoes the clean structuralist divide between a word’s lexical form and semantic content. If the relationship between these is arbitrary, a word contains no positive content. Rather, all words are only their difference from other words, meaning that these seemingly absent terms are implicitly present. Nor can we find a content inside of these words, but only further deferral down the chain. This system of difference and deferral is the constant play of meaning.

Derrida names the irreducible multiplicity of meanings dissémination, which is the condition of language. In order to signify an intent, any utterance must also be able to produce other meanings which exceed this intent. All language necessarily might “fail” to communicate an intent and communicate something else instead. Rather than a failure, Derrida suggests that these myriad possible meanings structure language itself, and the “successful” communication of an intent is a byproduct.

Rather than an intent, Derrida finds aporias at the heart of a text, those irresolvable contradictions without which it could not exist. He searches for these through meticulous, respectful readings in which, for Keller, he models both an ethics of patience and a politics of difference. Among the aporias in Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, for instance, is the phantom of non-belonging haunting all nationalism.

                          Jacques-Derrida-in-His-Li-010Photograph by Richard Melloul/Sygma/Corbis for The Guardian

Derrida was himself familiar with this phantom. Born in 1930 in French Algeria to Jewish parents, he was expelled from high school during occupation and lost his citizenship for two years under the Vichy regime. Few conditions better underscore the precarity of presence-versus-absence than sudden statelessness.

He saw himself as “a child of the margin of Europe,” informing his approach to philosophy “from a certain margin.” In this margin we find, lurking in the shadows of the text, a philosopher who upended the metaphysical tradition and a radical who carefully and lovingly read the canon.

If Derrida’s interventions can feel insufficient, we might heed his caution. We step outside of an ideology at the risk of reproducing it; the means of critique are already there, on the inside, for those patient enough to find them.

Professor Patricia Gherovici on Psychoanalysis – Response by Samantha Plasencia (English)

[On September 24, 2019 Professor Patricia Gherovici (Psychoanalytic Studies, U Penn) presented a talk on Psychoanalysis as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Samantha Plasencia (English)]

Lost in Translation: Reclaiming the Past for the Future of Psychoanalysis
Written by Samantha (Sam) Plasencia (English)

In her presentation, Patricia Gherovici claims that the future of psychoanalysis depends on our returning to its political roots—already present in its original entanglement with theories of sexuality and non-normativity. Although this radical social consciousness has been lost in translation, her presentation suggests that by dialectically moving between Freud and Lacan, we might productively and creatively refine and reinvent psychoanalysis for the future.

She organized the first half of her talk around Lacan’s essay “The Situation of Psychoanalysis and Training of Psychoanalysts” (1956), first published in the Journal of Philosophy. By way of introduction, she describes the psychoanalytic situation she encountered upon arriving in the United States. She left Buenos Aries in 1989, then a hot bed of psychoanalytic interest and practice (coffee shops were even named after famous psychoanalysts!). “Forget the idea of practicing psychoanalysis” she was warned by her Argentinian fellows, “Psychoanalysis is dead in the United States, they have killed it.” Fittingly, her arrival coincided with the Freudian wars of the 1990s, which debated whether or not Freud was dead.

Yet according to Lacan’s “The Situation,” it seems that Freud was already dead in the 1950s, when psychoanalysis was at the height of its popularity. For Lacan, moving away from the Freudian corpus and vocabulary renders psychoanalysis an “orthopedics of behavior,” which defies the essence of what psychoanalysis was meant to be: a “conjectural science.” He argues that psychoanalysis would be better served by an education in the arts, literature, philosophy, and the history of myth rather than medical training, which is the worst preparation for an analyst because it alienates them from the signifier. And for Lacan, if analysts don’t work with the materiality of what analysands bring to them in sessions, then they’ll be lost. Only the thread of the signifier can ground analysis, and it is a thread for which there can be no ‘ready’ interpretations.

psychoanalysis Head (1)
Compartmentalizing the Mind

Unlike medical diagnoses, which are drawn from empirical and quantifiable data, psychoanalysis deals with a different kind of knowledge—the truth of the unconscious. This is a revelatory kind of truth that an analyst must be open to discovering. For Gherovici, the futurity of psychoanalysis depends on analysts being open to such surprises. But medical training disables this openness.


Gherovici explained that such training perverts the practice of psychoanalysis as much as its practitioner, the analyst. For Lacan, analysts are created through an act of self “authorization,” not licensure or institutional permission. An analyst comes into being when an analysand decides that they want to be on the other side, and assume a responsibility that exists dialectically between the author (of the word) and authority (having power). This moment does not exist in chronological time. The act of becoming an analyst melds past and future—this is the time of the unconscious, a time of resignification.

Becoming an analyst is also an ethical decision, an affirmation of being that is produced by one’s own experience with analysis. Gherovici offers her life as an example. She was an analysand four times: as a child, an adolescent, a young adult, and again in her late twenties. She came to authorize herself as an analyst in the Northern Philadelphian Puerto Rican barrio, a context in which she was not supposed to exist. She was working in a house that was once a funeral home, in an office that once held wakes, and was surrounded by the death that comes with precarity, poverty, and desperation. Unable to do cognitive or family therapy, she found that she could not stop hearing the unconscious. And yet this population was traditionally thought to be out of reach of the effects of the unconscious. “As though they were too poor to afford an unconscious,” she jokes. It was here that she assumed the ethical task of being an analyst.

After responding to a question about the potential for abuse in the psychoanalytic context, Gherovici explained that ideally, for Lacan, there would be a group that ensures transmission of the ethical position, because “how do you teach an ethical position?” she asks. “How do we transmit psychoanalysis when, as Lacan says, it is a desire that comes from the analysand? How do you institutionalize a desire?” At its core, this is a question of de-institutionalization. Gherovici doesn’t have answers to these questions, but she insists that the future of psychoanalysis depends on our answering them.

For Lacan, psychoanalysis has lost its soul because it has managed to maintain itself without reference to Freud. For Gherovici, this critique remains resoundingly relevant to our current moment. In German, the “psycho” of psychoanalysis is “saɪkəʊ,” meaning “soul.” From its origins, psychoanalysis has been about the soul and not the mind, but that has also been lost in translation. The effects of that loss manifest in an institutionalized field with rigidified diagnoses, and in the creation of analysts through medical training. As it stood for Lacan in the 1950s, and for Gherovici today, psychoanalysis is in a kind of hypnotic state, a sham of life-support that, when removed, will reveal a dead thing. She began her presentation by provocatively suggesting that perhaps something needs to die in order for psychoanalysis to continue. Lacan’s “energizing” conclusion to “The Situation” supports this provocation, she claims, insofar as he demands that we bury psychoanalysis so that a Freudian psychoanalysis can be reborn.

In the second half of Gherovici’s lecture, she demonstrates what a reborn psychoanalysis might look like by moving productively between Freud and Lacan in order to offer a re-reading of Freud’s famous case of female homosexuality, “the young, female homosexual.” Gherovici calls her Sidonie, based on a narrative biography that was written about her. Sidonie was brought to Freud by her father at the age of 18, after a suicide attempt. She was in love with a 28-year-old disreputable baroness and had been commanded to stop seeing her. She ignored her father’s directive and then one day saw him while walking down the street with her lover. Confronted with her failed gesture of defiance, she threw herself over guardrails and onto trolley lines. Freud was tasked with curing her of homosexuality. His analysis followed the thread of the signifier “to fall,” which also describes birthing. He concluded that she wanted to have a child with her father, but since her mother was pregnant with her younger sibling suicide was a way to fall and give birth. Gherovici argues that Freud errs in his oedipal triangulation, and even more so in transference (by which he comes to occupy the position of father), the latter of which keeps him from seeing how Sidonie was lying in her dreams of meeting a man and living happily ever after. Lacan later rereads Freud by focusing on what happens with the transference, namely, that Freud’s presumption of a heteronormative outcome may have caused him to misread Sidonie. Lacan concludes that Sidonie wants to show what love is: to give what one does not have to someone who does not want it.

Gherovici offers her own rereading by rescuing something from each: from Freud she takes the emphasis of Sidonie’s love for her father, and from Lacan she takes the formula for sexuation. She argues that Lacan’s formula for sexuation is useful because it frees us from the phallus and biological destiny. Put differently, it offers us a way out of heteronormativity by positing sexuation as a position that you must declare in order to exist in the world, but which is mobile and can change according to circumstance. In this way, declaring a sexual position is an act of self-authorizing, an ethical declaration of being akin to the act of authorization that makes one an analyst. By dialectically moving between Freud and Lacan, Gherovici suggests that the story of Sidonie might be about love, and her search for the love of a mother who could help her assume a sexual position.


Bathroom Doors
Assume Your Position

Gherovici’s reading of Lacan’s formula for sexuation might appear radically progressive—but her contention is that sexual non-normativity already exists in Freud’s work. For example, she argues that we might read his notion of the drive as queer, which he details in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). From this vantage, heteronormativity is anti-Freud even if Freud himself fallibly fell into that construction. What was particularly exciting about listening to Gherovici was how she enacted the very dialectic she advocated, thereby bringing into being the futurity of psychoanalysis and capturing us all, momentarily, in the time of the unconscious.


Professor Erik McDuffie on Marx and Marxism – Response by Brenda Gisela Garcia (Anthropology)

[On September 17, 2019 Professor Erik McDuffie (African American Studies and History) presented a talk on Marx and Marxism as part of the Modern Criticism Theory Lecture series. Below is a response by Brenda Gisela Garcia, Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology.]

Summary of Marx and Marxism
Written by Brenda Gisela Garcia (Anthropology)

Professor McDuffie presented the history of Claudia Jones, a radical black intellectual who was erased from the Marxist tradition despite her central leadership in the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA). A formative intellectual within in the CPUSA and critic of Jim Crow laws, Jones was imprisoned and persecuted for her political dissent, and deported to Great Britain where she continued her work until she died. Dr. McDuffie argues that although her work and activism occurred in the 1930s and 1940s her words today warns us about the era of Trump and the world wide shift to extreme right policies.

Claudia Jones
Claudia Jones 

Jones was born Claudia Vera Cumberbach in Belmont, Trinidad. Her family moved to the U.S. in search for a better future. Her mother’s death, brought on by overwork and exhaustion, occurred soon after her family immigrated to the U.S. and went on to guide Jones’s political impulse. Jones entered the CPUSA in 1930 and quickly assumed prominent leadership within the Party, serving in the national committee that same year. Dr. McDuffie stressed that members of CPUS saw the Party as fuel of possibility to gain racial equality, peace, internationalism, and women’s rights. For example, the CPUSA demanded the release of nine black young men condemned to the death penalty in the Scottsboro Case. The CPUSA organized and fought for the youth to be spared the death penalty. For her activism Jones faced state persecution and was unjustly arrested for violating the Smith Act. Two years later, Jones was arrested for violating the McCarran Act. Dr. McDuffie reminds us that both acts are still valid today.   In 1951, Jones was arrested a subsequent time in 1951 and was deported to Britain.  After her deportation she continued with her activism. She allied with London’s Caribbean community and created the West Indian Gazette. In 1959 Jones organized the first Nottingham Carnival  . She died in 1964 at the age of 49 and was buried to the left of Karl Marx.

Claudia Jones Plaque
Claudia Jones Plaque in London

Dr. McDuffie concluded by noting that Jones’s fears are coming true, especially the worldwide move of fascist far right movements  and white nationalism. In the U.S., the rise of popular election slogan “Make America Great Again,” the oppression of labour unions, the distortion of facts, the controlled media, the racist demonization of people of color all present a clear example of what would preoccupy Jones.  Dr. McDuffie asked the audience to consider where do we go from here? He called upon us to think critically about connections of past, present, and future. Claudia Jones and her work demonstrates what happens when   women of color speak out about racial injustice. He concluded that Jones’s work enables us to imagine and chart the possibility of a new world.