Seminars & Mini-Seminars

2019 Session | Seminars & Mini-Seminars

Six-Week Seminars

Decolonizing Epistemology

Linda Martín Alcoff
Professor of Philosophy, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center

There is a widespread skepticism about many sorts of knowledge claims today, and this skepticism has been promoted from both the right and the left. The skepticism is largely based on the realization that knowledge is always connected to power. But there is uncertainty about what follows from this: is it still ‘knowledge’?

The decolonial epistemology project accepts the connection of knowledge and power but then moves to a different set of questions that are organized in two overall components: (1) to critique existing theories and practices concerning knowledge for the ways in which these theories and practices may be supporting the colonial structure of knowledge, and (2) to develop new reconstructed norms for improved knowing practices without reinscribing colonial relationships. To advance this project, decolonial work in epistemology must address the following:

  1. Do social identities matter for knowledge claims? How, exactly?
  2. How is ignorance socially produced, and what is the solution?
  3. Should we continue to use concepts like ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’?
  4. How can science be done in a decolonial way?
  5. How do we empower traditional and indigenous knowledges?

Such a project benefits epistemology as a whole. In exploring the ways in which the disenfranchised have been epistemically discredited, we can develop new insights and theories about the general nature of knowledge and of knowers. This project also benefits every community that is struggling for democracy and justice against the forces of capitalism, imperialism, and technocracy.

Thus, the question of knowledge, and of who has knowledge, of what kinds of character traits and motivations will best assist knowing, and of how knowledge claims should be assessed, is key to social change. As Boaventura de Sousa Santos puts it, “there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice.”

Rethinking Trauma Theory

Cathy Caruth
Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Cornell University

This seminar will serve as an introduction to trauma theory as it emerged and remerged in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as a rethinking of its fundamental terms in light of new theoretical developments and global perspectives. We will revisit some of the foundational writings of psychoanalytic writing on trauma in order to explore the relations among inscription, erasure and history as they arise from these texts and as they point toward later writing on historical erasure and collective trauma in socio-political contexts. An underlying thread of the seminar will involve the entanglement of trauma and technologies of the psyche, memory and the archive, as well as of media and spectacle. The second part of the seminar reconsiders trauma around the problem of address and the possibility of new forms of address in the testimonial context. What kinds of address may emerge at the site of erasure? Emphasis will be placed on the ways in which the language(s) of trauma in different writers and different contexts put pressure on the continuity of the concept. Texts include (but are not limited to) writings by Sigmund Freud, Jean Laplanche, Jacques Derrida, Shoshana Felman, Francoise Davoine, Jean-Francoise Lyotard, Robjert Jay Lifton, Claire Nouvet, Hannah Arendt, Antjie Krog, and Fethi Benslama, as well as films by Nouri Bouzid, Samuel Moaz and Tafik Abu Wael. We may also consider testimonies from a variety of contemporary sources.

Figures of Possibility: Figuration, Imagination, and the Phenomenology of Rhetorical Effects

Niklaus Largier
Sidney and Margaret Ancker Professor of German and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley

This seminar will take Erich Auerbach’s notion of figura, elaborated mainly in his 1938 essay with the same title, as a starting point for a broader inquiry into notions of figure, figuration, and the specific productivity of figural practices in creating aesthetic, perceptual, and cognitive spheres of experience. At its core the seminar will focus on the understanding of the capacity of figure and figuration in deploying ‘plastic’ effects, i.e., in the shaping of and the experimentation with sensual, affective, and cognitive landscapes. In order to persue this path of inquiry, we will explore notions of figural effects based on manuals of rhetoric, forms and theories of spiritual exercises, as well as romantic, expressionist, and surrealist poetry. As many of these texts suggest, an inquiry into the practices of figuration also entails a discussion of some aspects of the history of theories of the imagination (from Aristotle to Vico, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault). Working on the basis of a complex tension between hermeneutical and non-hermeneutical practices of reading, the seminar will engage the question of how we can think of the productivity of figures in terms of a phenomenology of rhetorical effects that engages perception and imagination critically and produces sensual, affective, and cognitive spheres of experimentation. The discussion will be based on texts ranging from Aristotle and the Latin rhetoricians to examples of spiritual exercises (both in religious and philosophical contexts); prayer and poetry; and a selection of texts by Robert Musil, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and possibly others.

Black Life

Alexander G. Weheliye
Professor of African American Studies, Northwestern University

This course will look at the relationship between Blackness and different concepts of life to highlight how Black life functions as a constitutive ontological limit for the workings of modern humanity. To that end, we will study texts from such recent fields as new materialism, animal studies, disability studies, and affect theory in tandem with writings from a variety a Black Studies approaches in order ascertain how they might fruitfully speak to each other. We will pay particular attention to the complex ways gender and sexuality function in the barring of Black flesh from the category of the human-as-Man, while also as providing the conditions of possibility for alternate ways of inhabiting the world.


Hegel and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity

Robert Brandom
Distinguished Professor, University of Pittsburgh; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Kant taught us that we discursive creatures live, and move, and have our being in a normative space.  Hegel taught us two subsequent lessons that can appear to be in tension: that normative statuses are social statuses instituted by practical attitudes of mutual recognition, and that acculturation (Bildung), by which each of us comes into this normative space, requires acknowledging the authority of traditional norms over idiosyncratic attitudes.  For him, the characteristically modern genre of understanding is a reductive naturalism that, when addressed to culture, takes the form of genealogy.  Genealogy dissolves norms into attitudes.  His term for the pathological aspect of the metaphysics of normativity genealogy expresses is “alienation.”  Genealogy falsifies the process of negotiation between norms and the attitudes that both institute and answer to those norms, because it misconstrues the significance of the historical contingency of those attitudes.  The way forward Hegel articulates focuses on language, as the model of a kind of normativity that can move us beyond the alienated modern ideal of independence (focused on the authority of attitudes) to the genuine expressive freedom (acknowledging a correlative responsibility to norms) that shows up as implicit in it.  Exploiting, as his alternative to genealogy, a distinctive novel conception of rationalizing recollection, he offers a radical semantics with an edifying intent.  It invites us to transcend modernity by replacing the alienated genealogical hermeneutics of suspicion with a rationally recollective hermeneutics of magnanimity that is at once tradition-affirming and tradition-transforming.

Black Sound & The Archive

Daphne Brooks
Professor of African-American Studies, Theater Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Yale University

This seminar considers the relationship between the history and significance of African-American sonic practices and the nature of archives. In both a post- Derridean world which takes seriously the ongoing violence of the archive and, likewise, in our present-day scholarly universe which is thrillingly shaped by the pathbreaking advances of Hartman, Griffin, Moten, Edwards and others
who each assert both the perils as well as the radical potentiality of blackness as an archival phenomenon, the move toward interrogating African-American sonic forms as counter-archival strategy is urgent and compelling. Predicated upon the presumption that opacity, obscurity, precarity, and fugitivity inform paradoxical conditions of possibility for black expressive cultures, the seminar
aims to interrogate a range of historical case studies and rare material objects that offer generative conundrums about radical sociality and ways of theorizing black aesthetic genius and avant-garde poetics cultivated in contestation of captivity and Jim Crow modernity. Our attention will be three-fold: participants will focus on excavating and exploring the archival texts of early, modern, postmodern, as well as contemporary African-American culture workers who have innovated sonic cultural forms that resonate as dense historical palimpsests (e.g. sheet music, documented performances, and/or recordings of artists such as Blind Tom, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Cecile McLorin-Salvant, Rhiannon Giddens, etc.). Group members will, likewise, interrogate materials culled from the archives of musicians, themselves, (such as Simone, Mary Lou Williams) as well as record labels (e.g. “race records” behemoth Paramount Records) that convey competing narratives about the politics of collecting, preservation tactics, and racial capitalism’s entanglements with documentation and ephemerality in popular music culture. Our third rail of emphasis will be that of loss and absence in black sonic archives. What are the critical methodologies we might innovate and utilize when figures and recordings elude “capture” and legibility in the archive? What experimental forms of writing, research, and critical analysis might we develop to address these challenges?

Crisis, Critique, and Materialism

Rahel Jaeggi
Professor for Social Philosophy; Director of the Center for Humanities and Social Change, Humboldt University, Berlin; 2017/18 Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Crises are omnipresent. Whether it is the crisis of capitalism and democracy, the  so called “refugee crisis” or the ecological crisis — and this is just a selection of countless, bigger and smaller, real or imagined crises that concern us — the level of crisis awareness is rising.

Back on the agenda is also the concept of crisis itself, a concept that has figured prominently in critical theory beginning with Hegel and Marx. The concept of crisis as an interpretative scheme which describes and evaluates, as well as analyses and criticises social dynamics has become prominent again.

But then: What is at stake when we address events and dynamics in the social field as crises? Not only can it be it controversial, if (and for whom) something is a crisis, as one can see with the “refugee Crisis” or the “financial Crisis.” Crisis is a theoretical framework that implies ambitious theses concerning the logic of social transformations, the erosion of social institutions and practices and the normative dynamics of forms of life. So, if there is a revival of crisis theories: Does it make sense to bring the concept (back) into play? What is its use for criticism? What is its normative and analytical surplus vis-à-vis other strategies for social critique?

The minicourse will explore concepts of crisis and concepts of critique while addressing a whole set of connected questions:

(1) Event vs. structure. To call something a crisis means to point out an escalation, a threatening situation which has worsened in such a way that a decision seems inevitable or even needs to be forced. But then:  How are we to make sense of the fact that at the same time crises can have a long duration and can exist in a state of latency?

(2) Constructed vs. real: Crises seem to be objective and subjective, “given” and “made” at the same time.

(3) Crisis vs. conflict. Whether something can rightfully be called a crisis or not is not only decided by the attitude and perspectives of the actors involved. At the same time: If a crisis is not experienced or regarded as such (at least in the long run) then it isn’t a crisis. Crises therefore need to be actualized, they need to be transformed into a conflict. Conversely, social actors must respond to the structural dimension of a given crisis in order for the conflict to count as a crisis.

(4) The fourth set of questions concerns the normative character of what functions here as “crisis” or “problem” – and thus, the prospect of a crisis oriented immanent critique.

The very question of whether some social situation is crisis-driven at all is bound up with a certain understanding of the aim and telos, the normative implications of a certain form of life as it has historically evolved. The very idea of a crisis critique then takes its starting point from the prone and dysfunctional character of the social order in question. Normatively shaped dysfunctionalities, the fact that social practices erode in contradictory reactions that can no longer be made up for, is the “rock bottom” for a certain kind of critique, an immanent crisis critique of forms of life.

Love in a World of Skepticism and Irony

Dale Jamieson
Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy, Affiliated Professor of Law, Affiliated Professor of Medical Ethics, New York University

The philosopher/novelist Iris Murdoch said it best: “[L]ove (properly understood) does make the world go round.” But what exactly do these words mean, especially in a world of skepticism and irony? Drawing on the work of Murdoch, as well as Simone Weil, and contemporary analytic philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt, I offer the rudiments of a proper understanding of love, and sympathetically engage with the skeptics and ironists. Here is a spoiler about where we will come out:
“We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
These words by the American environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, are profoundly important for contemporary social movements. Love is not all we need, but it is hard to see how we can go on without it.

Visiting Guest Lecturers

Science and the History of Nonexistent Things

Jimena Canales
Faculty, Graduate College, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

World Literature in a Post-postcolonial Age: Problems of Language, Culture, and Politics

David Damrosch
Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Comparative Literature; Director, Institute for World Literature, Harvard University

The Poverty of Philosophy

Ankhi Mukherjee
Professor of English and World Literatures and Tutorial Fellow, Oxford University

Decorum, Due Process, and Dereliction: Some Reflections on Title IX

Catharine Stimpson
University Professor and Dean Emerita of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University