New York City health care workers kneel as part of the “White Coats for Black Lives” protest on June 6, 2020. Photo credit: Jennifer M. Mason / Shutterstock.com.
This is a final reflection by the curators of the seminar series “Sentencing the Present,” which was republished in full last week as “An Archive of a Crisis.”
Because readers have asked us about the process and production of “Sentencing the Present,” when Public Seminar asked us to write a “post-mortem” on the series, we knew we would start with questions our readers posed to us.
How were the contributors selected? What responses did you receive? What was your goal? What will you do next?
To start, we asked some of today’s most pressing thinkers to offer a “thesis,” raise a question, or reconsider a word. This was our prompt:
In light of Marx’s 1843 conception of critical thought, how does your perspective contribute to “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age”? In a time of social breakdown and uncertainty, we find that critique comes almost too easily. Hence we also take inspiration from the historian E. P. Thompson, who wrote in his 1959 call for the New Left, “It is always the business of the Left to foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality — and then some more beyond.”
In an attempt to be democratic, and to offer a way in for voices that might ordinarily go unheard, we also featured a form through which readers could submit their own paragraphs. We included in our series every paragraph submitted that way. Still, the overwhelming majority of our contributions came from people we asked to offer their perspective. Overall, in five weeks we received just over 30 paragraphs from half as many cities, several countries, and four continents. We hope this will be a touchstone, an archive of theorizing the continuities and changes, across a number of places, at the outbreak of Covid-19.
Early on we had the most time to reach out to potential contributors before editing a document for submission. The following weeks we had to grapple with turn-around time for weekly publication, and then with the additional, wonderful fact that many contributors and editors were organizing, not writing.
Our primary criterion for soliciting responses was who we felt provides the most pressing analysis at present. One of those perspectives belongs to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is still incarcerated, and with whom we were indirectly in touch in April and May, even though he was not able to contribute to the series due to the difficulties of communicating from prison, recalling his line that “the state would rather give me an uzi than a microphone.”
Because Abu-Jamal’s captivity constrains his voice, we want to start this reflection with his own words, placing them in dialogue with our heading “Humanity,” and giving them space to speak to questions of what it means to be “sane” in this maddening moment: “The greatest form of sanity that anyone can exercise is to resist that force that is trying to repress, oppress, and fight down the human spirit.” Claudia Jones adds, “American history is rich in examples of the cost — to the democratic rights of both women and men — of failure to wage this fight.”
While “Sentencing the Present” proceeds in the wake of Frankfurt School critical theory, we are cognizant of the latter’s traditional lack of engagement with non-European theoretical considerations. Theory, like everyday life, has a racial inheritance, a performance too often re-iterated with each letter typed. Siddhant Issar addresses this inheritance directly in week two.
Ideas for clarifying the struggles of the age are “positional,” as Stuart Hall puts it. Identities informing positions are both a site of contesting inheritance and “a source of agency in action.” “It is impossible for people to work and move and struggle and survive,” Hall continues, “without investing something of themselves, of who they are, in their practices and activities, and building some shared project with others, around which collective social identities can cohere.”
We remain committed to viewing the present from multiple vantage points and relations to power, building a critical theory and practice that depicts the uneven topography of the moment. And as curators, we could always do better. “Analysis involves mistakes,” we said in our own “Theses.” “Correctives always can be — should be — issued.”
Almost all of our contributions were written outside shuttered university offices, often in the presence of children and family, sometimes in strange homes and new places. They were written at a time when so much discussion had moved online, accelerating the uneasiness we already felt about our reliance on internet platforms.
Early on in the project, when the scale of the crisis was becoming clear and intervention seemed most urgent in the United States, some contributors answered within an hour with several pages that then had to be pared down into our short form.
Several invited contributors declined: “I think people are making statements too quickly,” one said. “I sit with problems until I’m doing more than polishing how I already see things.” Others hesitated, because reality was shifting so fast: “I wish I had something significant to say. But at this point I am just disoriented.”
Yet we were never after polished social theory, or even clarity. We wanted evidence of thinking that could be rough and opaque, textured and tentative, and thoughtful enough to defy the commentariat’s stream of heedless hot takes. We wanted our respondents to react to the crisis from many angles in order to counter the fatalism of panic.
What we saw overall was the laying bare of embodied practices of thinking: typos from contributors, tired and erroneous editing on our part, and near-miraculous turn-around by the team at Public Seminar — everything you might expect of writing produced in the interstices of aberrant days.
Toward the end of the series, these days included protesting — and so writing and editing was conducted amidst the anxieties of having faced the National Guard and the exhilaration of having marched with others.
The collective effort of the project reminded us that “theory” should really be called “conceptual labor” or “concept work” (Ann Stoler). It takes place one concept at a time — “value and revaluing,” as our subcategory has it. Collective theorizing, and the way it is shared, testifies to the fact that “knowledge does rather than simply is” (Eve Sedgwick).
And politics is always at play. Too much of what is called “theory” has been complicit in institutionally taming the kinds of political dissent that social movements, such as the Movement for Black Lives, want to foreground — and so academic theory has been used to “to displace an activist culture with a textual culture” (Aijaz Ahmad).
We nevertheless remain invested in doing our part in cultivating a kind of theorizing, a way of thinking, that foregrounds political dissent — hence our references to Marx and E. P. Thompson in our original prompt.
Our call for contributions went out in the same week that Bernie Sanders suspended his 2020 presidential campaign. The thesis that began our series, from Bonnie Honig, implicitly speaks to that context. Honig invokes the Exodus story to call for repurposing the white coronavirus hospital and testing tents dotting New York’s Central Park into “a multipurpose memorial: a monument of the 40 years lost [to neoliberalism], a place of mourning for the dead, a community meeting place to dream and to idle, a polling station to vote ourselves out of this mess. A public thing.”
We began this series when many on the Left worried that stay-at-home orders would suppress activism, organizing, and democratic processes. But oh how voices have risen into public life to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David Dungay, Tony McDade, Eyad Hallaq, and too many others. Between our fourth and fifth seminars, as uprisings swept across the country, we asked some of our contributors to re-work their paragraphs so as to acknowledge the intersection of Covid-19 with long-present structures of anti-Black racism — to acknowledge a “pandemic within a pandemic,” as California Representative Barbara Lee put it in calling for the creation of a truth, racial healing, and transformation commission.
Our final week’s theses reflect that the outbreak of Covid-19, the ensuing economic crisis, and the myriad racialized state murders serve as “flash points of trouble” that reveal deeper intersecting “nodes of crisis” (Nancy Fraser) — unpaid debts and crimes not atoned for, all related to long histories of racial domination and imperialist expropriation, conflicts of capitalism and care work. State crimes are usually, and intentionally, rendered invisible or forgotten amidst standard U.S. forms of life. A crisis, then, can generate a conversation: about recognition and redistribution, about repatriation and reparations. We support these required efforts of corrective justice.
Some readers and contributors have suggested that our next project be curating reflections on the concept and practice of “racism,” using this platform to promote another conversation about a term whose definition will condition political responses this fall and beyond.
This suggestion raises several questions that also emerged as our series proceeded, and which say something about the state of progressive theory at present: Should white theorists be actively curating and contributing to conversations about race? On whom does the burden lie to think through the struggles of the present? Or, is background work another way of controlling discourse? Indeed, who has the opportunity and the platform to shape these important discussions?
Ruha Benjamin observes that “[r]acist structures not only produce, but reproduce whiteness.” Much theory is reproduced in this way, giving life and afterlife to white theorists who want to say something and to be heard. In our case, should voices along intersecting axes of oppression be sought out and foregrounded, or is that another way of exploiting labor, here conceptual labor? Should theorizing take a hint from organizing meetings across the country, where fatigued organizers of color have asked white folks to start stepping up and speaking out — for once to put our bodies on the line? Or, quite simply — the never-spoken-of option amidst declarations of support for diversity and inclusion and “target” hires — should white scholars for once cede our space, our prestigious positions, our claims on discourse and culture?
Answers to these questions depend both on whom you ask and on who reaches out to you. And answers to these questions will not be reducible to identity: Different readers and contributors, different women and different people of color, have given us contradictory suggestions.
The most consistent feedback we have received is that “Sentencing the Present” has taken on a life of its own. We have asked each other: Just what kind of life is that? “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly,” Theodor Adorno wrote. Translated literally: “There is no right life in the wrong one.” This is perhaps the best-known line from his own reflection on crisis in the 1940s, written, like many of our paragraphs, from a situation of displacement: Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. In which he also stated: “There is nothing innocuous left.”
A version of that claim has become commonplace with regard to the virus: No door handle, no friend, no lover, is innocuous. Part of the point of “Sentencing the Present,” and our “Theses” before it, has been to make the medical diagnosis social, as Adorno did in his time. To state as clearly as we could that U.S. life before “the crisis” was “wrong life” — and hence to raise our voices against any return to “normal.” But our intention did not remain negative: We also wanted our diagnosis to amplify some particularities of the present, not simply negate them, and so, upon John Lysaker’s suggestion, we reached out to other voices.
The poet Jericho Brown said earlier this year, in regard to climate change and the end of the world, “Beauty is not over.” He added that it is worth staying with art so as to have something to hold up “in the opposite direction.”
Our aim has been to present a constellation of critical voices, a sentencing of the present. Yet where there is light there are shadows, where there are words there are silences. If we have tried to shed light on wrong life and to invite clear statements, we have also aimed to document the lives that live on in the shadows and the silences of the present, the beauty that is so far from over, as when our contributors made time, after passing off their baby (thank you, Moira Weigel) or returning from the park with their children (thank you, Susan Kang), to offer a few lines.
The paragraphs collected in this series have taught us that we can diagnose what is false without ceding what is beautiful. As Christina Heatherton shows us, to begin we can condemn U.S. empire while celebrating claps, whistles, and howls for life: sounds and senses of a life that if not yet lived rightly, remains risky, resistant, and certainly rational, as Joy James underscored in beginning our conversation around theory. And so together we raise our voices, together we hold up something in the opposite direction.
Jonathon Catlin is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Princeton University writing a history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. Follow him on Twitter @planetdenken.
Benjamin P. Davis is a PhD candidate in the department of philosophy at Emory University. He will be the 2020-21 Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. His writing can be found on his website.