2020 Session

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Program Overview

In an intensive six-week course of study, faculty members, graduate students and independent scholars from around the world, in the humanities and social sciences, explore recent developments in critical theory. The 2020 Session is scheduled for June 14 – July 23.

Participants work with the SCT’s core faculty of distinguished scholars and theorists in one of four six-week seminars. Each faculty member offers, in addition, a public lecture and a colloquium (based on an original paper) which are attended by the entire group.

The program also includes mini-seminars taught by scholars who visit for shorter periods. Finally, throughout the six weeks, distinguished theorists visit the SCT as lecturers.

2020 Faculty

Click here to browse profiles of our 2020 faculty.

Six-Week Seminars

  • Matthew Engelke – “Magic”

  • Caroline Levine – “Formalist Methods, Political Consequences”

  • Marina Rustow – “Epistemology of the Archive and the Practice of Archival History”

  • George Yancy – “Whiteness and the Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment”


  • Karen Barad – “Infinity, Nothingness, and the Un/doing of Self”

  • Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi – “Mystical Modernity: Reading Walter Benjamin Through Ali Shariati”

  • Béatrice Longuenesse – “Competing Logics of the Mind: Lessons from Kant and Freud"

  • Gary Tomlinson – “Humanists in the Future of Evolutionary Science”

Visiting Guest Lecturers

  • Anita Allen – “Facing Black Faces: Race and Representation in the Era of Facial Recognition Technology”

  • Heather Love – “From the Outside Looking In”

  • Carolyn Rouse – “Revisiting the Case Against Reparation”

  • Haiping Yan – “Other Cosmopolitans, China and Beyond”

Seminars and Mini-Seminars

Six-Week Seminars:

Matthew Engelke
Professor of Religion and Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Columbia University

This seminar focuses on the cultural history of magic: as an idea, as a practice, and as a tool with which to wield power and induce wonder. Special attention is given to magic and/in modernity against larger backdrops of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, (post) colonialism, and (post) secularism. Readings are drawn from philosophy, anthropology, religious studies, drama, literary studies, history, sociology, history of science, and political theory. Cases will include colonial Sudan, Reformation England, Thatcher-era London, France (from the Second Empire to the fin de siècle), Puritan Salem, and post-Apartheid South Africa.

Formalist Methods, Political Consequences
Caroline Levine
David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of the Humanities and Picket Family Chair of the English Department, Cornell University

Since the 1970s, political critics have tended to cast formalist analysis as the opponent of engaged politics, and they have rejected the abstractions of form in favor of singularity, rupture and deformation. In this seminar, we will consider major traditions of formalist thought—including Kantian and Marxist formalism—and we will ask how formalist methods might serve political ends. Focusing specifically on our own historical moment, characterized as it is by global precarity and climate instability, we will ask how the stabilizing power of forms might actually be a useful instrument for building projects of environmental and social justice. Is it possible that methods drawn from aesthetic formalism could help us to solve urgent global problems? Our readings will include formalist and antiformalist thinkers, including Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, bell hooks, Derek Attridge, Jacques Rancière, Kyle Powys Whyte, Rob Nixon, Jose Muñoz, Anna Tsing, Jack Halberstam, Anna Kornbluh, Zarena Aslami, Susan Fraiman, Fred Moten, and Anahid Nersessian.

Epistemology of the Archive and the Practice of Archival History
Marina Rustow
Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Professor of History, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, Director of the Geniza Lab and Director of the Near East Program, Princeton University

At the center of the historian’s craft lies the archive: a physical place, a collection of textual artifacts, a metaphor for access to the unknown. The experience of labor in the archive, in the dust, is a rite of passage for the historian no less than fieldwork for the ethnographer, laboratory experiments for the scientist, or summer stock theater for the actor. For critical theorists, by contrast, the archive is not a mere repository of knowledge, but the sum total of knowledge itself; the “archive” defines the boundaries of the thinkable. Those different disciplinary notions bespeak divergent epistemological assumptions: the historian cannot work without some functional notion of the facts, while the critical theorist must question their very existence. But both disciplines agree that archives are products of power. That will be our starting point in this seminar, in which non-historians and historians alike are welcome to participate.

After orienting ourselves to critical theory’s engagement with the archive (Foucault, Derrida, Agamben), our goal will be to restore to the archive the dimensions of time, space, and human agency by understanding its place in well-defined contexts, including premodern polities, colonial empires and nascent nation-states, from ancient Assyria through modern China, with medieval monks, colonial bureaucrats, Ottoman dragomans and Napoleonic deconsecrations in between. Archives have histories, as do the set of practices that historians have built for using them. But once we bathe them in the solvent of historical contingency, will the archive lose or retain its status as a repository of reliable information, or its utility as a metaphor for regimes of truth? What can a deep, insider’s understanding of the historian’s craft add to the toolkit of humanists and social scientists alike?

Whiteness and the Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment
George Yancy
The Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University
; Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth College

This seminar is designed to engage critically some of the lived and structural dynamics of whiteness. In this regard, we will explore the social construction of whiteness and its ontological binary structure, its hegemony, purity, privilege, and complicity. Our objective is to think about how whiteness is lived and the ways in which it is embodied, spatial, and constitutes a site of psychic opacity and a site of institutional embeddedness. These explorations will help us to think critically about how we define white racism and what it means to be white. This raises questions regarding the ontology of the self as atomic, relational, etc. We will explore how various ways of being philosophically wedded to assumptions about the “nature” of the self frame, productively or not, implications for rethinking and theorizing the dynamics of how we understand racial embodiment. As a way of conceptualizing whiteness as lived, we will explore whiteness through the lens of critical phenomenology, African American philosophy, feminist theory, pedagogy, and through the works of various literary figures (for example, Lillian Smith, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison). Our objective is to think hard about questions of vulnerability, innocence, and complicity as these relate to whiteness. Hence, we will take the dialectics of theory and praxis very seriously.


Infinity, Nothingness, and the Un/doing of Self
Karen Barad
Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz

This mini-seminar invites us to think together about decolonial and deconstructive possibilities in their materiality, especially the themes of multiplicity, difference, infinity, nothingness, justice and force. During our seminar time together we will focus on the themes of borders, entangled colonialisms, and radical hospitality, in relationship to physics and its conceptions of space, time, matter, and the void.

Mystical Modernity: Reading Walter Benjamin Through Ali Shariati
Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi
Professor of Near Eastern Studies and
Director of the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gold Studies, Princeton University

I have coined the concept of mystical modernity in connection with and as an extension to the Frankfurt School’s critique of instrumental rationality. This seminar will bring Walter Benjamin’s skepticism of the materialist conception of history into an imagined conversation with Ali Shariati’s critique of juridical Islam. By revisiting Benjamin through Shariati and reading Shariati with Benjamin’s idiosyncratic language, we will try to situate both philosophers between the Scylla and Charybdis of two totalitarianisms, that of the capitalist/colonial progress and the orthodoxies that its critical responses have established.

Conflicting Logics of the Mind: Lessons from Kant and Freud
Béatrice Longuenesse
Julius Silver, Roslyn S. Silver and Enid Silver Winslow Professor of Philosophy, New York University

The idea that the mind is the locus of competing forces has taken multiple forms in the course of the history of philosophy from Plato to Nietzsche and beyond.  What sets apart the views of Kant and Freud is the idea that from those forces emerge what I will call competing logics of the mind, namely competing ways in which representational contents may be structured, depending on their role in our mental lives.  There are, therefore, already for Kant and later in different ways and on different grounds, more obviously for Freud, characteristic forms of disunity in human mental lives.  The hypothesis I propose to pursue in this paper is that from the examination of those forms, lessons are to be drawn concerning the role of disunity not only in mental pathologies but also in (relatively) well-adapted, autonomous mental lives.

Humanists in the Future of Evolutionary Science
Gary Tomlinson
John Hay Whitney Professor of Music and Humanities and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University

Why should humanists care about human evolution? And why should evolutionists care that they care? The present moment finds posthumanist agendas broadly and deeply developed in the humanities, and an “extended evolutionary synthesis,” augmenting neo-Darwinian theories of the twentieth century in bold ways, gripping biology. From the posthumanist side, questions of transspecies experience and community are grounded in theories of process, assemblage, and transhuman agency. From the biological side, novel or repurposed views of informational processes, autopoietic systems, and feedback networks expand the conceivable dynamics through which life forms evolved. A new juncture of posthumanist transspeciesism and extended evolutionary dynamics is coming into view, with new opportunities for humanist/scientist joint thought.

This seminar will examine some aspects of this new juncture, particularly as it applies to the late stages of human evolution, thus revealing affinities of posthumanism and prehumanism. It will take up models that biologists have offered of the new evolutionary dynamics; it will join to them bodies of humanist theory (especially neo-Peircean semiotics); and it will explore, with the example of human musical capacities in mind, a new view of the emergence of our modernity. Along the way it will address pitfalls that have waylaid human-evolutionary discourse in recent years: the simplistic adaptationism of evolutionary psychology and the misapprehension of culture among gene-centrists. And it will counter gene-deterministic views of cultural traits and show that these are not the only explanations for universal capacities of humans and other cultural animals.

Visiting Guest Lecturers:

Facing Black Faces: Race and Representation In the era of Facial Recognition Technology
Anita Allen
Vice Provost for Faculty and Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania

This lecture will seek to illuminate current controversies surrounding  Blackfishing in Social Media, Blackface in The Hague, and Posing as Black, wherever.  These phenomena take  on ironic and contradictory aspects,  as technologies of facial recognition, some confounded by blackness,  proliferate in public and private sector applications.

From the Outside Looking In
Heather Love
Associate Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

Revisiting the Case Against Reparation
Carolyn Rouse
Professor and Chair of Anthropology, Princeton University

There are many reasons why reparations for descendants of African American slaves, in the short term, make sense. However, as an anthropologist who has invested her career in trying to understand race, inequality, liberation, and institutions, the discourses on identity-based reparations are not just historically and theoretically problematic, they have the potential to reproduce the inequities they were meant to repair. The critical issue is how does the state repay the debt to one identity group in a way that secures equal protection for all? Answering this requires engaging questions around gifting and debt, identity and race, memory and narrative, land and belonging as well as affect tied to dispossession, namely grief, shame, anger, and forgiveness. This talk focuses on why a pragmatic approach to reparative justice attends to the realities of racial violence while simultaneously attending to the complexities of history and identity. The goal would be to acknowledge past injustice without tethering reparative justice to utilitarian understandings of land and labor.

Other Cosmopolitans, China and Beyond
Haiping Yan
Professor of Cross-Cultural Studies and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China