Seminars & Mini-Seminars

2017 Session | Seminars & Mini-Seminars | In Theory Newsletter

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Six-Week Seminars

Thinking in Untranslatables: Revisiting the Gender/Genre Problem

Emily Apter
Professor of French and Comparative Literature; Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, New York University

Drawing on Barbara Cassin and Etienne Balibar’s critical praxis of “philosophizing in languages,” this seminar will experiment with “theorizing in untranslatables,” looking closely at how key terms of gender theory shift culturally and politically across languages, or resist translation.  Session topics will foreground the relation among difference, differences, différance, and sexual difference; definitions of sexual difference in feminism and trans theory;  new ontologies of the subject in relation to gender trauma, sexual violence, and wounded subjectivity.  Derrida’s essays on the concept of Geschlecht –  a term referring to sex, genre, gender, species, race, kind, the human and the nonhuman  will orient discussion of the response to the neuter status of Heideggerian Dasein.  We will then move to Catherine Malabou’s reading of Heidegger and Derrida, focusing on her notions of plasticity, difference-changing, and  “epigenetics” post-deconstruction.   We will also attend carefully to Alexander Weheliye’s Deleuze-inflected notion of “racialized assemblages” (developed
in Habeas Viscus).
A central concern of the seminar will be to put critical pressure on gender/genre
distinctions (as in the weird question of “what genre are you?”) in the context of contemporary pronoun wars, including the politics of how to call or name difference in the workplace and the academy.   We will address some of the issues and challenges around gender-inclusive language, ‘microaggression’ (itself a problematic term), and ‘safe spaces’ in university classroom teaching.  A question posed throughout: How do the politics of safe space and gender pronouns intersect with other struggles against systemic exclusions? 



Faisal Devji
Reader in History and Fellow of St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford

From a moral ideal and a juridical or demographic abstraction only a century ago, humanity has become a solidly empirical fact in our own day. Assuming a kind of posthumous reality in the wake of Cold War fears about atomic annihilation, or contemporary ones about climate change, it is now the subject of everyday struggles and experiences around the world.
In this course we will look at the way in which humanity has come to constitute both a subject and object of modern thought globally. From debates over war, genocide and human rights, to those about colonialism, totalitarianism and terrorism, to say nothing of race, gender and cyborg life, we will study the making of humanity in the work of some important philosophers, historians and anthropologists.
Course readings include texts by Martin Heidegger on the death of God and Jacques Derrida on that of man; Carl Schmitt on the laws of war and Hannah Arendt on lawless wars; Donna Haraway on the man-machine and Adi Ophir on the terrorist-humanitarian; Achille Mbembe on animality and Talal Asad on inhumanity.


Rethinking Religion: Cosmopolitan and Comparative Perspectives

Michael Puett
Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History, Department of Eastern Languages and Civilizations; Chair of the Committee of the Study of Religion, Harvard University

The concept of religion has recently become an object of strong critique. As numerous studies have argued, the very concept comes from a particular reading of a particular tradition, and the attempt to build a field of study based upon such a restricted concept has resulted in, at best, a highly ethnocentric body of knowledge and, at worst, an implicitly imperialistic one. This seminar attempts to respond to such critiques by arguing that instead of rejecting the concept, we need to resurrect it by building upon the indigenous understandings that emerged in other traditions to develop a more cosmopolitan vision. We will explore the implications of such an approach by rethinking our understandings of ritual, belief, and religion in general from a cosmopolitan and comparative perspective. Readings will include Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, Hent de Vries, and Veena Das.


The Case Against Reparations: A Radical Rethinking of Social Justice in the 21st Century

Carolyn Rouse
Professor and Chair of Anthropology and Director of the Program in African Studies, Princeton University

In June 2014, celebrated social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates published a persuasive article entitled “The Case for Reparations.” In The Atlantic he argues that, “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”  But, what metrics are used to quantify a moral debt? And what does it mean for a country to be whole? Repairing the past through debt repayment is a seductive concept, but reparations rely on the myth of singularity or the philosopher in Plato’s cave who unlike all others is able to comprehend an eternal truth. Ethnographic studies of reparative social justice movements, however, complicate truth claims. For example, the designation of perpetrators and victims, who owes vs. who is owed the debt, is never easy. Using the failures of international donor aid and development as a case study, this course considers successive attempts at reparations from colonialism (a reparation for slavery) to now indigenous and sovereignty movements that attempt to link rights to allodial land titles and/or forms of cultural citizenship. This course challenges contemporary calls for reparations by engaging the question of what it means to be human, conceived anthropologically and philosophically, in the 21st century. Given climate change and increasing global inequalities this course develops tools for reconsidering the relationship between land, labor, anthropon pragmata (human affairs), and social justice.



Ontological Pluralism as Anthropological Critique

Philippe Descola
Chair, Anthropology of Nature, Collège de France; Director of Studies, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

From Tylor’s famous dictum that “the science of culture is a reformers’ science” to Lévi-Strauss’ qualification of ethnology as a “science révolutionnaire” there has been a long-standing trend among anthropologists to view their discipline as a critical instrument with which to look back at their own society. The reason for this is obvious and predates the emergence of anthropology as a science: observing the institutions of other people, the purpose they serve and the values they carry is a powerful reminder that one’s own institutions are historically contingent and may not be the best to ensure the kind of world we aspire to live in. However, the methodological relativism of anthropology, and the political consequences it implies, has been carried through only half-way. For the way we think about institutions, ours and those of other people, is still completely dependent upon the concepts that the Enlightenment has bequeathed to the social sciences to qualify reflexively Europe’s own destiny: society, nature, history, economics, politics, art, religion, etc. These concepts are anything but universal; they are the products of a very specific ontological mapping which other forms of collectives elsewhere did not share (and which quite a few persist in not sharing). Criticism thus does not mean reflexivity alone, it requires a complete revision of the concepts through which we describe and analyze the shared worlds of humans and non-humans so that they may problematize ontological pluralism more aptly and thus provide more efficient intellectual tools to bring about new forms of cosmopolitics.



Literature and Vulnerability

Shoshana Felman
Robert Woodruff Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and French, Emory University; Thomas E. Donnelly Professor Emerita of French and Comparative Literature, Yale University

History has put on trial a series of creative thinkers. At the dawn of philosophy, Socrates drinks the cup of poison, to which he is condemned by the Athenians for his influential teaching, charged with atheism, and corruption of the youth. Centuries later, in modernity, similarly influential Oscar Wilde is condemned by the English for his homosexuality, as well as for his provocative artistic style. In France, Flaubert and Baudelaire are both indicted — brought to court as criminals –for their first, remarkably innovative literary works; Emile Zola is condemned for defending a Jew against the state which has convicted him, and flees from France to England to escape imprisonment.

However different, all these accused have come to stand for something greater than themselves: something that was symbolized — and challenged – by their trials. Through the examination of selected literary texts that mirror or reflect upon these legal dramas, this seminar will ask: Why is literature important, why does it matter? Why are literary writers, artists and philosophers, repetitively put on trial, and how in turn do they put on trial culture and society? What is the role of art and literature as (willing or unwilling) legal actors, and as political performers in the struggles over ethics and the struggles over meaning? The seminar will focus on the case of Wilde as an exemplary case of conflict between literature and law and of encounter between poetry, vulnerability, laughter, cry, desire, justice and injustice, comedy and tragedy, courage, language, silence, beauty.



Just and Unjust Wars

Avishai Margalit
Schulman Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; former George F. Kennan Professor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

War is violent, but also a means by which political communities pursue collective interests.  When, in light of these features, is the recourse to armed force justified?  Pacifists argue that because war is so violent it is never justified, and that there is no such thing as a just war.  Realists, in contrast, argue that war is simply a fact of life and not a proper subject for moral judgment, any more than we would judge an attack by a pack of wolves in moral terms.  In between is just war theory, which claims that some wars, but not all, are morally justified.  We will explore these theories, and will consider how just war theory comports with international law rules governing recourse to force.  We will also explore justice in war, that is, the moral and legal rules governing the conduct of war, such as the requirement to avoid targeting non-combatants.  Finally, we will consider how war should be terminated; what should be the nature of justified peace?  We will critically evaluate the application of just war theory in the context of contemporary security problems, including: (1) transnational conflicts between states and nonstate groups and the so-called “war on terrorism”; (2) civil wars; (3) demands for military intervention to halt humanitarian atrocities taking place in another state.


The Smooth and the Rough: Surfaces Psychological and Architectural from Adrian Stokes to Rem Koolhaas

Anthony Vidler
Professor of Architecture, Cooper Union; Vincent Scully Visiting Professor of
Architectural History, Yale University

This seminar/workshop will study the theoretical construction of the architectural surface in modernity, from “rough” Brutalism to “smooth” late Modernism, as read through the critical lenses of Walter Benjamin, Adrian Stokes, Melanie Klein, and contemporary architectural theorists Rayner Banham, Peter Smithson, and Rem Koolhaas.  The campus of Cornell contains a gamut of such “surfaces” for on site study and discussion from the Herbert Johnson Museum of Art to the new Koohaas extension to the School of Architecture.

Readings: Adrian Stokes, “The Smooth and the Rough”; Colin Rowe, “La Tourette”; Rosalind Krauss, “Rodin”


Visiting Guest Lecturers

Political Psychology: Theory and Doxa

Amanda Anderson
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English; Director, Cogut Center for the Humanities, Brown University; Honorary Senior Fellow, School of Criticism and Theory


Narratology and the Lyric

Jonathan Culler
Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cornell University; Honorary Senior Fellow, School of Criticism and Theory


Molding Populations: Deep Education

Frances Ferguson
Ann L. and Lawrence B. Buttenweiser Professor and Chair, Department of English, University of Chicago


The Humanities in the World

Mariët Westermann
Executive Vice President for Programs and Research, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation