Professor Sean Metzger (Theater, Film & Television, UCLA) on Queer Theory – Response by Joe Coyle (Anthropology, UIUC)

[On Tuesday, November 10, Dr. Sean Metzger (Theater, Film & Television, UCLA) presented a lecture on Queer Theory as part of the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Joe Coyle (Anthropology, UIUC)

Thinking Queer Theory Transnationally and Geopolitically
Joe Coyle (Anthropology, UIUC)

Sean Metzger’s Modern Critical Theory Lecture on queer theory traced important genealogies of the term “queer,” especially attending to the transnational as a vector for queer’s travels as theory, as commodity, and as difference. His presentation pushed for an understanding of queer that de-centers Euro-American contexts and epistemologies as the presumptive sites of queer knowledge production.

Metzger began by exploring one strand of queer theoretical production that has largely avoided the transnational, thereby naturalizing a global northernness. He situated the early work of Teresa de Lauretis and Judith Butler within this formation. Metzger identified Butler’s 1993 GLQ essay “Critically Queer” (and her prior work in Gender Trouble) as a major turn in the politics of feminism and the concept of queer. Appearing in the inaugural issue of GLQ, this work challenged the notion of the agential subject by attending to the ways social recognition precedes and conditions the formation of any subject. In this work, Butler develops the concept of performativity. Attempting to correct misreadings of her book, Gender Trouble, especially her discussion of the subversive potential of dragButler writes: “gender performativity is not a matter of choosing which gender one will be today. Performativity is a matter of reiterating or repeating the norms by which one is constituted” (22). Butler clarifies the performativity of queerness: “‘queer’ derives its force precisely through the repeated invocation by which it has become linked to accusation, pathologization, insult” (18). Because her reading of performativity challenges the self-determination of self-naming, Butler anticipates the critiques of queer that would follow, offering that “the critique of the queer subject is crucial to the continuing democratization of queer politics” (19). 

Metzger paired Butler’s work in “Critically Queer” with Neville Hoad’s GLQ article “Between the White Man’s Burden and the White Man’s Disease” (1999) to attend to tensions in queer theoretical production concerning the transnational. While Butler doesn’t attend to discourses outside Euro-American traditions, Hoad considers the transnational production of lesbian and gay human rights discourses in a postcolonial South African context. Addressing the problem of the ostensible “universalism” of gay and lesbian human rights,  he states that “these rights are extrapolated from a category called lesbian and gay identity, or, less specifically, ‘sexual orientation,’ which more often than not fails to map onto the bodily practices or more extensive worlding(s) of the subjects it promises to describe. Rights based on sexual orientation are also the newest particularity in the universalizing human rights legacy of the European Enlightenment” (561). On the other hand, he points out that South African cultural nationalist discourses appealing to tradition to make the case that homosexuality is a dangerous “Western import” disregard these effects on heterosexual practices: “Western cultural influence is equally pervasive in the wider ‘straight’ society…no one labels monogamous heterosexuality a decadent Western import, which, given the historical polygamy of many sub-Saharan societies, it may well be” (564).

To build upon this analysis of queer’s transnational currency, Metzger screened a video segment of the South African queer performance group Pink Money. Pink Money as “performance, party and protest in one” exposes “pink dollar” tourism and discourses of eroticized African difference, interrogating the ways so-called “gay universalism” speaks through the colonial desire for commoditized difference. The clip opened with artist Anelisa Stuurman providing the Swiss audience with a taxonomy of South African lesbian identities, each identity conveyed as a different kind of alcoholic drink, which another Pink Money artist offers to those in the audience to consume. After the audience drinks South African lesbian difference, artist Kieron Jina narrates his experience of being harassed by men in a club in Basel, Switzerland. Jina describes navigating men looking at him like he was “juicy tropical fruit,” a sashaying Grindr match, and a man who calls him Sweet Nefertiti and “puts his knees into pee on the bathroom floor.” “Now I’m a germophobe,” Jina proclaims, “and an African Queen, and when I think about having sex I think of Egyptian white cotton sheets. YOU CAN DO BETTER! I dashed out of there, back to the dance floor… GIRLS! They’re trying to eat me here!” he yells as he runs to the dance floor to begin voguing with the rest of Pink Money

To bring into relief the way histories of transnational violence can also be the source of imagining queer diasporic connection, Metzger turned to Natasha Omise’ke Tinsley’s 2008 article “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic.” In an examination of relationalities that emerged at sea through the transatlantic slave trade, Tinsley reads shipmate relationships of enslaved Africans as queer: “Queer not in the sense of a “gay” or same-sex loving identity waiting to be excavated from the ocean floor but as a praxis of resistance. Queer in the sense of marking disruption to the violence of normative order and powerfully so: connecting in ways that commodified flesh was never supposed to, loving your own kind when your kind was supposed to cease to exist, forging interpersonal connections that counteract imperial desires for Africans’ living deaths” (199). Tinsley examines the ways this history is drawn upon by the queer diasporic fictional literature of Maurine Lara and Dionne Brand to “harbor new routes to being, routes neither shielded nor boxed in by doors of hegemonic space, time, and identity” (211).

The final two pieces Metzger considered, Anjali Arondekar and Geeta Patel’s introduction to the GLQ special issue, “Area Impossible: The Geopolitics of Queer Studies” and Kirk Fiereck et al.’s “A Queering-to-Come” took “queer” to task by examining the geopolitics of certain queer theoretical imaginaries. In “Area Impossible,” Arondekar and Patel argue that the citational underpinning of queer theory was and continues to be drawn primarily from the United States. Moreover, they argue, when “invoking non-Euro-American sources, settings, and epistemes as exemplars, queer theory mostly speaks to US mappings of queer, rather than transacting across questions from different sites, colluding and colliding along the way” (152). By arguing for a renewed area studies approach to challenge these epistemological biases, they call for a broadened approach to empire that moves “beyond renewed assertion of US empire and US neoliberalism as the formative impetus for the politics of queer studies,” attends to geographically specific processes of racial formation, and practices a citational culture that does not retrench “particular hegemonic origin sites” of theory production (156, 157). 

Figure 3 First issue of GLQ 

From an African context, Kirk Fiereck, Neville Hoad, and Danai Mupotsa’s “A Queering-to-Come” addresses the geopolitics of queer theory by bringing to the fore “a usable past for both the lived experience and the study of African sexual subjects” and shows how “queer theory elaborated from Africa can inform queer theory’s Euro-American silent ethnocentrisms” (364). The authors propose the concept of the “African queer customary” to show how African sexual subjects inhabit customary practices in queer ways that “contest the secret normativities and ethnocentrisms of Euro-American queer studies scholarship, or even undo some of the heteropatriarchal norms of African ethnonationalisms” (368). 

Metzger concluded his presentation by reflecting on the journal GLQ itself in relation to the transnational. If by the fifth issue of the journal there was a concerted effort to engage the transnational explicitly, Euro-American scholarly norms still shape its modes of knowledge production. The project of engaging forms of queerness that work against the internal norms and logics that comprise Euro-American queer theory remains a pressing concern and points to some of queer theory’s own limits.

Professor Jenny Sharpe (English, UCLA) on Postcolonial Theory – Response by Ji Hyea Hwang (Comparative & World Literature, UIUC)

[On Tuesday, October 13, 2020, Dr. Jenny Sharpe presented a lecture on Postcolonial Theory as part of the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Ji Hyea Hwang (Comparative & World Literature, UIUC).]

Postcolonial Theory and Western Humanism
Ji Hyea Hwang (Comparative & World Literature, UIUC)

In this lecture, Sharpe provided an overview of postcolonial theory and its relation to Western humanism. She mainly highlighted the work of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, and Sylvia Wynter, while also introducing contemporary critiques along the way.

Edward Said’s 25th Anniversary Edition of Orientalism

Beginning with a discussion of the 25th anniversary edition of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Sharpe explained how this founding text of postcolonial studies not only played a key role in establishing colonial discourse analysis, but also connected the past and the present to raise the question of whether “modern imperialism ever ended.” In this new preface, Said proposed a new humanism, which Sharpe labeled as a “worldly, secular humanism,” to argue that humanism is the only resistance against the inhumane practices of human history. Said called for humanistic practices that engaged in worldly, cross-cultural interpretation. His arguments resonate with Fanon’s new humanism with its emphasis on human agency. Sharpe explained that in order to reconcile Fanon’s call for a new antiracist humanism, which provides agency to the subalterns, with Said’s worldly secular humanism, we must understand Dipesh Chakrabarty’s project of provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty does not argue that we must reject European thought, but rather acknowledges that the post-Enlightenment ideas which informed postcolonial theory are indeed indispensable to understanding the non-West. In this vein, she suggested that we must provincialize Europe to explore “how [European] thought—which is now everybody’s heritage and which affects us all—may be renewed from and for the margins” (16).In other words, Sharpe argued that we must treat the universal claims of secular humanism as being local.  

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is the only female and literary scholar of the Subaltern Studies Collective, whose members read British colonial and Indian nationalist texts in order to “find a place for the unrepresented subjects of history” and “represent” the subaltern consciousness. Sharpe noted that Spivak in “Can the Subaltern Speak” critiques both liberal humanism and French poststructural anti-humanism. In her essay, Spivak notes that it is difficult for the Subaltern Studies project to recover female voices because of an absence of records for these women, and because the race and gender hierarchies in the colonies make it impossible for them to speak. Sharpe pointed out that Spivak asks what language is even available to subaltern women to “know and speak their oppression.” In addition, Sharpe explained that the subaltern woman is caught between object-formation within British colonizing discourse and the “Hindu manipulation of female subject-constitution.” In discussing how the treatment of sati serves as an example of how the Indian woman “disappears…into a violent shuttling” between dichotomies, Spivak explains that on the one hand, “white men, seeking to save brown women from brown men, imposed upon those women a greater ideological construction” as the British officials’ abolition of sati constrained the women’s choices while at the same time claiming to grant them free will. On the other hand, Hindu patriarchal discourse claims the woman has agency in sacrificing herself through self-immolation, by her own free will.

During the first round of Q&A, Sharpe responded to questions from the audience by locating them in broader discussions about the field and its key terminology. One of the questions from Prof. Ali Behdad of UCLA was about the shift away from postcolonial studies to world literature and global anglophone studies in recent times. Sharpe expressed her concern for such unifying terms, claiming that they are “huge problems” for the field because they remove discussions of power structures and hierarchies that inform postcolonial studies. Sharpe explained that world literature is what postcolonial studies was critical of, as it reproduces “the very totalizing structure of both colonialism and now globalization.” She emphasized the difference between various strands of colonialism, such as settler colonialism, territorial colonialism, and plantation colonialism, arguing that each has its own form and distinction that cannot simply be replaced with broader descriptions such as “world” or “global” anglophone.

Sharpe then discussed the concept of postcoloniality. She noted that the “post-“ in postcolonial does not suggest the demise of colonialism, but rather indicates the period that is the aftermath of colonialism. As an example of postcoloniality, Sharpe brought up the Orientalist depictions of Arabs and Islam that guide U.S. foreign policy today. In her two essays, “Is the United States Postcolonial?” and “Postcolonial Studies in the House of US multiculturalism,” Sharpe further explores how the remnants of colonialism persist today in the United States, but also discusses her own decision to pursue postcolonial studies while simultaneously aware of “the institutional demand for diasporic third world scholars to teach the literature of former colonies.”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind

In the second part of her lecture, Sharpe also introduced the term “decolonial,” which she suggested emerged as an alternative to “postcolonial” in the work of Walter Mignolo, who got the term from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind. Mignolo turned to the decolonial in order to dissociate the term from Western epistemologies such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. Similarly, Ngũgĩ wrote Decolonising the Mind in response to the postcolonial state’s failure to break free from colonial hierarchies. Having experienced the oppression of his mother tongue as a schoolchild, Ngũgĩ insisted on writing in his mother tongue and insisted that African languages needed to be written down and produced as literature. Sharpe additionally explained that Gramsci introduced the term “subaltern” to refer to “both subordinate classes and subordinated forms of knowledge in order to overturn the Marxist ideas of intellectuals being at the vanguard of revolutions.” She noted that this is where the idea of “decolonial” becomes useful, in that it tries to break through frames of reference that shape our view of certain forms of meaning.

Sharpe then shifted to Sylvia Wynter, and her essay, “The Pope Must Have been Drunk, The King of Castile is a Madman.” As Sharpe noted, Wynter shows the clash of world views in the Cenù Indian-Spanish exchange and how it extends to the modern era. This essay was originally published in 1995 and parallels the Spanish Requisition with the crisis of the Caribbean. The essay explores the conflict between the Cenù and Spanish understanding of the Requisition in that the Spanish Judeo-Christian declaration of ownership of the land is simply incoherent to the Cenù people. Wynter explains the tautological nature of the Requisition’s narrative by showing that the objective mode of truth for the Spanish, which normalized the Spanish colonization, needs to be localized and restricted to 16th century Europe in order for it to hold true. To the Cenù people, the narrative was incomprehensible. Wynter then turns to Haiti, 500 years later in time, claiming that history was repeating itself. She points out that the American occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) was driven by the need to stabilize Haitian politics for the benefit of private foreign investments within the present hegemonic cultural system of capitalism. Wynter identifies the racism and elitism behind the US intervention, pointing out how this benefited the Westernized Haitian elite, in opposition to the Vodounist peasantry and agro-proletariat. She argues that the overt color line racism was “culturally prescribed” by the then understanding of man’s humanity, and that the movement of Indigénisme, which she explains to be largely “African-derived,” arose in response to it. She explains that Indigénisme was deemed to be irrational and an antithesis to the rational logic of contemporary Western thought, a clash which parallels the clash between the Cenù and the Spanish. Sharpe pointed to the last sentence of Wynter’s essay, “And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms,” arguing that it intersects with Spivak and Said in terms of “talking about the place of the imagination in breaking the kinds of system of meaning that they seek to do.” She concluded the talk by claiming that as Wynter suggests, we must continuously redraw and reimagine our “cartographies of hope and desire,” and be able to not only imagine new worlds to come, but also view the past through perspectives with attitudes like that of the Cenù, who saw the Papal bull of 1943 as having been written by a drunkard at the request of a madman.

The final round of questions helped identify crossovers and connections between the theories and ideas that Sharpe delineated with other theories. One such question: “Are there any parallels between decolonial and feminist theories, and do they intersect in positing alternate frameworks of knowledge as a form of resistance against Western or dominant epistemology?” Sharpe answered yes, definitely, and brought up the example of Chicana writings of the 1980s, which were critical of Western feminism, as these writings were very much embracing the decolonial perspective. She explains that feminists of color find themselves in situations similar to that of Ngũgĩ, who, as an intellectual, was also organically connected to the community about which he was writing when he wrote Decolonising the Mind.

Professor Alexander G. Weheliye (African American Studies, Northwestern on Biopolitics – Response by Austin Hoffman (Anthropology, UIUC)

[On Tuesday, October 6, 2020, Dr. Alexander G. Weheliye presented a lecture on Biopolitics as part of the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Austin Hoffman (Anthropology, UIUC)]

Black Feminism and the (Re)Making of Biopolitics
Written by Austin Hoffman

“Traveling theories, particularly those supposedly transparent and universal soldiers in Man’s philosophical army, should be exposed to and reconstructed…with a critical consciousness that probes the conceptual constraints of these theories, especially as it pertains to the analysis of race and exhumes their historico-geographical affectability.” 

So claims Alexander G. Weheliye in his 2014 book Habeas Viscus.  The two primary universal soldiers Weheliye aims to expose and reconstruct in this text are Michel Foucault’s conception of biopolitics and Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of bare life. A revisitation of these arguments would be a main topic of Weheliye’s presentation on biopolitics for the 2020 Modern Critical Theory lecture series. 

The lecture began with an explication of Agamben’s figure of the Homo Sacer or sacred man, which is banned from the political community and barred from the category of the human. This understanding is derived from the ancient Greek distinction between bios and zoe; the former is incorporated into the polis and allows for full human existence, whereas the latter is mere biological substance, essentially naked or “bare life.” Here Agamben builds upon Foucault’s understanding of how modern power operates, stated most explicitly in his 1975-1976 lecture series “Society Must Be Defended” and subsequently in The History of Sexuality.  As opposed to sovereign and disciplinary power which directs itself at the individual or “man-as-body,” modern power shifts to the governance and management of the population or “man-as-species.” Foucault summarizes this in his proclamation that “The right of the sovereign was the right to take life and let live. And then this new right is established: the right to make live and to let die.” 

While inspired by the concept of biopower, Agamben believes Foucault does not fully elucidate how sovereign and modern forms of power are imbricated. He pursues a corrective to Foucauldian biopower—and here he is also engaged in dialogue with Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt—via the insertion of Homo Sacer, claiming that bare life is entrapped within a Schmittian “state of exception” or a suspension of law which relegates it to abandonment and death. Homo Sacer is the referent for the state’s exercise of biopower and forms the core of political modernity, and, as Weheliye explains, Agamben imagines the field of bare life eradicating all lines of distinction along the axes of race, gender, religion and nationality.

For Agamben, the Nazi concentration camp is the quintessential theatre of this political arrangement and the erasures of racial hierarchies and identities which it entails. After unpacking how the concentration camp operates in Agamben’s thought, Weheliye begins to interrogate the concerning occlusions of race embedded in the philosopher’s universalizing assertions, which become particularly evident in his writing on the musselman. This is an antiquated and derogatory German word for Muslim men, specifically those within concentration camps. Weheliye, referencing Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, expands upon the positioning of the musselman as the most intense embodiment of bare life and human degradation, one which “transcends race” and produces a “final biological substance.” Pausing to contemplate this, Weheliye asks of Agamben–and by proxy Foucault—what is this desire for such a figure to transcend race? Why is this necessary in their respective works? He responds to the instrumentalization of the musselman with another question: how can racism, biopolitical or otherwise, exist without race? Weheliye’s argument is that even if the musselman is biological substance, he is an unavoidably racialized one; his ontological status does not exceed race, but rather epitomizes it. 

From here Weheliye transitions to levying a similar critique directly at Foucault. He argues that race and colonialism rarely take center stage in Foucault’s project, mostly floating clumsily and uncritically at the periphery of his thought or not at all. These omissions are particularly glaring in The Order of Things, in which Foucault investigates the invention of European “Man” in the Enlightenment, yet does not consider how racism and colonialism directly undergird and enable this invention. Foucault also heavily privileges Europe and the historical caesuras within its populations. In a moment of personal reflection, Weheliye remarks on his experience as a Black German, and how nonwhite Germans are always already removed from Germanness. He sees this sentiment conceptually reflected in mainstream biopolitics.

Like Agamben, Foucault frequently uses Nazism as a paradigmatic example to demonstrate his ideas, but does not substantively examine how the biopolitical technologies of the Third Reich are deeply entangled with the genocidal Western regimes that predated it in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The Nazis did, after all, draw direct inspiration from Jim Crow and the genocide and elimination of Indigenous peoples in the United States.

As a partial solution to these occlusions, Weheliye points to the work of Achille Mbembe, who introduces an analysis of racial apartheid and slavery into biopolitics with his theory of “necropolitics.” To be clear, Weheliye does not advocate for a simple substitution of the plantation or reservation for the concentration camp, but rather to think about the relationalities between these sites without resorting to easy comparisons and analogies. He also encourages us to consider the more benign and quotidian instances of social control which are potentially overshadowed by spectacular forms of episodic violence. 

Weheliye’s nuanced response to this biopolitics of whiteness is most directly indebted to the work of Black feminist scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Hortense Spillers, and Sylvia Wynter. The ideas of Spillers and Wynter in particular were foundational to Habeas Viscus, where Weheliye says that “[their] reconceptualizations of race, subjection, and humanity provide indispensable correctives to Agamben’s and Foucault’s considerations of racism vis-à-vis biopolitics.” Weheliye juxtaposes Agamben’s bare life with Spillers’s idea of “hieroglyphics of the flesh,” which theorizes how the Black body was dehumanized and ungendered during the Middle Passage, reduced to mere flesh as opposed to a body with legal personhood; this is a transformation into pure biological substance unique to the Black experience, one defined by a process of racialization rather than transcendent from it. Spillers contends that these hieroglyphics transfer across generations, thus demonstrating how the marking, branding, whipping, and other tortures of chattel slavery constitute both a physical and an ontological maiming. 

“Sylvia Wynter, Rome, 1950s. Photo provided by Sylvia Wynter and printed in David Scott’s The Re-Enchantment of Humanism.”

Sylvia Wynter—who was the subject of several questions during the Q&A portion—is also acutely concerned with the  invention of modern man and its tiers of race, but approaches this from a resolutely decolonial lens. Her decades-long intellectual project is an extended genealogy of humanism, detailing a series of epistemic breaks in European man’s “descriptive statement” or governing logics of being. She argues that the historical shift from a theological or “theocentric” mode of self-understanding to a rational or “ratiocentric” one produced a new genre of humanism which naturalized white supremacy not on the basis of God’s divine will but rather from a secularized bio-evolutionary standpoint. This version of white humanism has come to stand-in for the whole of our species. Weheliye then expounds upon Wynter’s work, saying that racism is not merely wrong ideology; it has been so deeply sedimented through a multiplicity of mechanisms that it manifests physiologically. He connects Wynter’s understanding of race to rampant cases of police terror. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among countless others, are deemed justified or natural to many because this has been encoded into our neurochemical reward systems. This echoes Wynter’s reflections on the 1991 Rodney King beating that she expressed in an open letter to her colleagues. 

“Zakiyyah Jackson’s Becoming Human, just out from NYU press, is also inspired by Wynter and Spillers, among other Black feminist scholars.”

The takeaway from Weheliye’s reading of Black studies against the grain of biopolitics is that scholars in the vein of Wynter and Spillers provide alternate genealogies for theorizing hierarchized categories of the human species in western modernity. Contra Foucault and Agamben, they do not sideline race and gender, but instead expose how they are, as Weheliye put it, “the flesh and bones of modern man.” Another Black feminist thinker in this tradition is Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, whose new book, Becoming Human examines the fraught intersections between Black studies and posthumanism. Weheliye greatly appreciates her drawing attention to contemporary discourses of genetics and epigenetics. Jackson is concerned that while epigenetics unsettled racist theories of biological reductionism, it may still be interpellated by antiBlackness. She takes the example of high infant mortality rates in Black mothers, which remain consistent even among those with advanced degrees and in higher income brackets. This shows that despite popular scientific conceptions, socioeconomic stability is a necessary but insufficient condition for combatting antiBlackness.

Other questions posed from the audience asked about the usefulness of other thinkers who work with theories of biopolitics like Mbembe and Ann Stoler, and the racial logics at play in both neoliberal and former Soviet states. While Weheliye does not discourage scholars from engaging with biopolitics, he commented that he is unsure it can help us fully understand how race operates outside of the European context, and cautions us to be wary of how the uncritical celebration of Agamben and Foucault in the U.S. academy may smuggle in forms of racial elision and antiBlackness. Here Weheliye would seem to agree with Jackson, who says in the coda of Becoming Human that, “we need not only the subversion of racialized codes but also the mutation of ordering logics and their structures of signification to forestall the reintroduction and dissimulation of racialized logics.”

Professor Jeffrey T. Martin (Anthropology, UIUC) on Structuralism – Response by Sabrina Yun-Che Lee (English, UIUC)

[On Tuesday, September 15, 2020, Dr. Jeffrey T. Martin presented a lecture on Structuralism as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Sabrina Yun-Che Lee (English, UIUC)]

Structuralism’s Promise and Peril
Written by Sabrina Yun-Che Lee

In the half-century-long wake of poststructuralism, structuralism often seems merely a necessary foundation that will pave the way for more exciting and relevant theories. However, by grounding his discussion of structuralism within its historical context, Professor Jeffrey T. Martin explored its far-ranging effects and material impact on our world today.

Martin began his lecture by asking us to consider structuralism with “the eyes of a child,” to momentarily suspend our skepticism so that we could understand how thrilling this theory once appeared. With degrees in mathematics and anthropology, Martin asked us to consider structuralism as “a high-water mark of modernist faith in the mathematical structure of humanity.” He argued that structuralism was full of the promise of modernity—the promise that humanity would progress enough to finally understand the secret to the universe and crack the code underwriting all things. Martin anchored its origins in the scientific revolution and the turn away from a theologically centered understanding of the world in favor of one driven by science and rationality. These developments posited math as the language of God, a theory that reached its peak with the publication of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica in 1910.

But, crucially, this form of thinking was not just about math or understanding the cosmos. Even as scientists and mathematicians extended its scope outwards in search of the key to the universe, other scholars turned its perspectives inwards in search of the key to humanity. During the early twentieth century, linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed the radical idea that language is not speech and that the meaningful dimension of language does not reside in noise but is made possible by a virtual structure outside of time governed by conventions and rules. Signs as units of written language are not autonomously meaningful; rather, meaning is made possible by a system of distinctions among sounds and concepts. In other words, a sign only gains meaning when understood in relation to other signs.

This compelling way of understanding language inspired anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in the mid-twentieth century to apply this technique in order to understand culture. He saw structuralism as the way to decode human experience itself. For a structuralist, culture is not just experience. Instead, culture is like language: it is the system of differences that allows us to understand life as meaningful. This decoding process depends on discovering the fundamental units of difference—the binary oppositions—of whatever is under scrutiny in order to discover the system of differences that correlates with the structure of meaning. So, as Saussure focused on phonemes as the base units of meaningful sound in order to understand how language works, Lévi-Strauss focused on mythemes, the base units of culture distilled from practices or rituals, to understand the connections between experience and meaning. Martin explained that this same thought process can be seen in how we understand DNA as the building blocks of the genetic code or how computer language is composed of bits. Far from mere technicalities of an outdated theory, working with base units of difference in order to divine particular structures still suffuses much of our understanding and experience of the world today.

Fig. 4 DNA and the genetic code, and bits and computer language are contemporary ways we engage with structuralism. Images from Pixabay

Just as structuralism disabuses us of any idea of divinely inspired language or transcendental experiences, it also figures humans not as creators in their own right, pulling ideas or masterpieces from thin air, but as bricoleurs or tinkerers. As Martin explained, bricolage is making do with what one has on hand. It’s like scavenging through the fridge to see what one might be able to cobble together. Yet, even though we live within structures, our actions aren’t necessarily predetermined; we don’t just repeat structures. Instead, we tinker, we play, we carry out “half-improvised rituals.”

Martin concluded his talk by considering the dark side of structuralism and the problem with objectifying subjectivity. Structuralism’s quest for the key to everything was driven by a desire to control, and alongside the stories of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss runs a parallel story in which academics, business leaders, military officials, and police officers operationalize the idea that scientific and technological thinking can be used to understand the human psyche in order to manage society. For example, “brainwashing” and its attendant tortures, as well as surveillance capitalism, have been rationalized and made plausible through structural thinking. It is for reasons such as these that Martin warns against furthering the mission of structuralism. But these same reasons also demand a thorough and urgent understanding of structuralism so that we may be better equipped to combat such continuing atrocities.

Professor Timothy Brennan (English, U of Minnesota) on Marx and Marxism – Response by Aidan Watson-Morris (English, UIUC)

[On Tuesday, September 8, 2020, Dr. Timothy Brennan presented a talk on Marx and Marxism as part of the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Aidan Watson-Morris (English).]

Timothy Brennan’s New Marxist Materialism, Same as the Old
Written by Aidan Watson-Morris

Karl Marx’s claim that our thinking is historical, that ideas emerge or gain traction when material conditions allow, can be supported by the renewed enthusiasm for Marx himself, whose sales tend to spike in times of economic crisis. In the midst of our current crisis, many will likely turn again to the critique of political economy. For the precarious or simply curious, Timothy Brennan’s lecture on Marx and Marxism offered substantial returns.

Brennan’s influential, far-reaching body of work spans Marxism, postcolonial theory, world literature, phenomenology, and popular music, among other topics. His most recently published book is Borrowed Light, Volume 1: Vico, Hegel and the Colonies, and he has forthcoming work on “imperial form” and a biography of Edward Said. While he declined to identify himself as a partisan of a specific Marxist politics, he presented a clear, provocative vision of Marxism as an intellectual tradition that demands serious engagement.

Brennan’s lecture took two parts, divided by Q&A sessions, outlining the distinctive features of Marxist analysis before challenging elements of New Materialism as an ascendant theoretical mode. Brennan anatomized three key components of Marxist theory: it is particularly historical, understanding people and events as responsive to larger social structures; it is immanent, which is to say that it does not establish a priori ideals against which to measure its objects but works within their logic; and it is relatedly dialectical,  which is to say that, rather than ignoring or rejecting (for instance) New Materialist thought, Brennan’s address signals respect and a desire to enter into conversation, to push further toward truth. Truth, for Marx, is understood not as an abstract or intellectual gesture, but a correspondence between concepts and material reality, as well as the potential to reestablish this correspondence when it fails.

By virtue of these features, Marxism remains vital for its historical reflexivity, which Brennan fully employed in his account of the US academy. Brennan’s lecture addressed itself partly as a dialectical response to academic trends that paved the way for the pluralism that brackets Marxism as a mere option on a menu of analytic frames. In an academic professional setting, anticapitalist critique fits best at the margin. For Brennan, the displacement of Marx in the US academy is a symptom of interwar anxieties about humanism’s political potential. The humanist tradition sought to improve collective life through action, a potential often activated in the anticolonial movements of the twentieth century. As well as being a politically pernicious maneuver, Brennan shows the academic sidelining of Marx to be a theoretical mistake that obscured the specific ideas with which certain approaches are in dialogue —poststructuralism, for instance, or New Materialism, Brennan’s primary interlocutor.

New Materialism, as Brennan points out, sounds quite a lot like Marx’s analysis in which material needs set the stage for our thought. Yet New Materialism challenges any materialism which foregrounds human actors. New Materialism questions the neat division of human actors, on the one hand, and the nonhuman world they act upon on the other. While Brennan did not argue that New Materialism is necessarily conservative in its outlook, he persuasively criticized its self-presentation both as new and as materialist.  Tracing a continuity with an academic debt to Martin Heidegger and the humanities’ perennial desire to borrow prestige from the physical sciences beneath self-professed novelty, Brennan suggested that the New Materialism was not a historical materialism but a metaphysics which, by mystifying intent (and so intentional action), effectively results in a passive stance, what Brennan described as an antihumanist “romance with oblivion.” While admiring the New Materialist desire to move beyond social constructionism, Brennan showed the appeal of New Materialism for conservative thinkers (among his targets, Bruno Latour). Instead, Brennan suggested we attune to “the great unsaid” of the humanities: the human subject who makes their own environment, freighted by the weight of history.

If Marx uniquely endows the human subject with agency, he does so to question systems which alienate and exploit the subject, like capitalism. Shifting the ground of agency so as to dissolve the human into a vibrant new materiality, then, poses a problem for an adequate account of human domination (and can lead, as Brennan pointed out in Q&A, to a class-obfuscating “green misanthropy”). If we understand our current moment as a historical crisis, Brennan’s provocations suggest that we might turn to the new theoretical possibilities of materialist analysis.  If historical materialism barely survived the pressures of a conservative purge, it endures today as a specter haunting the university.

Timothy Brennan, from his faculty page.
Picture of Marx used in Teen Vogue article.