2021 Session

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. 

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.

The 2021 summer session at the School of Criticism and Theory will be held in-person in Ithaca, June 13 - July 23, 2021, modified to allow for appropriate social distancing and safety as necessary.

2021 Faculty

Six-Week Seminars

1-Week Mini-Seminars

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.

Critical History and the Archive

Camille Robcis
Associate Professor of History and French, Columbia University

This seminar examines how scholars from various disciplines have turned to the philosophical tradition of critique to write history and rethink the archive.  Rather than encompassing a specific object, critical history has functioned primarily as a method seeking to understand the “grounds of a system’s possibility” (in the words of Barbara Johnson).  How do particular systems of thought, of analysis, and of truth come to appear natural, self-evident, or inevitable?  How are they presented as transcendental or universal?  How do these systems produce particular norms designed to include certain subjects and certain forms of knowledge while excluding others?  How has critical history addressed the problems of temporality, truth, and evidence (all of which are central to archival processing and historical analysis)?  We will begin by reading a series of philosophical texts (including Foucault, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Fanon, Deleuzeand Guattari, CLR James) before turning to several contemporary scholars who have wrestled with these questions in recent years, including Wendy Brown, Dominick LaCapra, Joan Scott, Gary Wilder, Kristin Ross, Michel-RolphTrouillot, Massimiliano Tomba, Saidiya Hartman, Marisa Fuentes, and David Eng.

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.

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.

Global Religious and Secular Dynamics

José Casanova 
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Theology and Religious Studies and Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University

Our global world is becoming simultaneously more religious and more secular. This mini-seminar will try to explain this seeming paradox by looking at patterns of secularization in Europe and religious revivals around the world as historically interrelated dynamics. 

Taking a longue durée global perspective from 1492 to the present, one can contrast two seemingly divergent roads: the internal European road of secularization without religious pluralization and the external colonial road of global intercultural and interreligious encounters leading to the global system of religious pluralism.

Presently we can observe the intertwinement of religious and secular dynamics through the globalization of the secular immanent frame and the expansion of global denominationalism.

Conflicting Logics of the Mind: Lessons from Kant and Freud

Béatrice Longuenesse
Julius Silver, Roslyn S. Silver and Enid Silver Winslow professor, professor of philosophy emerita, 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.

Re-Orienting the West

Tomoko Masuzawa 
Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and History, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor 

“The West” as a putative entity—as a tradition, location, population, or even ethnicity and race—is often referenced in various forms of contemporary theory and criticism, from postcolonial criticism to any of the philosophic endeavors to mine the archives of what is generally called Judeo-Christian or, perhaps better, Greco-Mediterranean antiquity. But what, where, or who is the West, or what counts as the West? How old is this notion, and how solidly historical is the geopolitical reality that it is supposed to name? This seminar invites you to consider one of the most critical moments in the consolidation of “the West,” namely, the very long 19th century (which actually begins in the latter half of the 18th). In particular, we will focus on the correlation among the following cultural and academic trends: (1) Romantic and largely positive reassessment of the so-called Germano-Nordic Barbarians who are reputed to have either caused or followed the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire; (2) rising prominence of the philological demarcation of the Indo-European (a.k.a. Aryan) and the Semitic language groups; and (3) hypervaluation of the ancient Greeks as quintessentially European, Western, and Aryan.

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, TsinghuaUniversity, Beijing, China