Governor Andrew Cuomo leaves the New York Stock Exchange after trading floor is reopened, May 26. Photo credit: lev radin /

This seminar is part of an ongoing series. To read the previous issues in the “Sentencing the Present” series, see: part one, part two, and part three.

A sentence is protean: It can describe, question, or cry out. A sentence is critical: In passing judgment, it names wrongs, makes decisions, and declares publicly. In a spirit of both open inquiry and political advocacy, and inspired by the response of readers to our own “Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis,” we are convening an ongoing conversation of critical voices reflecting on the history of the present and the possibilities of the future. To start, we asked some of today’s most pressing thinkers to offer a “thesis,” raise a question, or reconsider a word. The texts that follow have come in response to this 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.”

Our contributors answered our call with concepts to think with and visions, however small, to mobilize us.

To make this a truly public seminar, we are interested in our readers’ contributions. If you would like to propose a thesis or suggest a topic for consideration, you can do so through this form. We imagine an expanding series of texts that will form new adjacencies and prompt new insights as time passes — new constellations that shed light on our moment and what’s possible beyond it.

We hope you will join us.

Jonathon Catlin, Berlin
Benjamin P. Davis, St. Louis

May 29, 2020

Moira Weigel / Susan Kang / Martin Shuster / Audrey Borowski / Stephanie DeGooyer

Publics & Practices

The ______ Virus: The week we stop seeing anyone, the baby, who has never cried much, starts wailing whenever I leave her sight. The internet says it is object permanence. When I am not there, now, she knows I am in the next room, and if she cries long enough (not long) I will come back. You’re telling me, I want to say, but instead, I stand there in the dark and sway like a mountain with wind sighing through it because the world that left last week is in fact gone. We never said goodbye. Everything I read about the pandemic feels like a conspiracy theory: shocking but not surprising. This includes the actual conspiracy theories spreading on social media, some of which happen to be true. (That footage they said came from New York did come from Italy! Those Stanford-affiliated researchers were spreading lies!) I realize this jadedness is just my trying to protect us, if only from having to keep up. We are so lucky. I am so tired. Conspiracy theories raise questions not only of epistemology—how do we know what we know—but also of narratology. Fredric Jameson described them as instances of failed “cognitive mapping,” but if they were really about knowing, the villains could not merge so easily. It would have to be the People’s Liberation Army or Bill Gates, 5G or the Deep State, Homer or another poet of that name. Absence of evidence would not be proof of the enemy’s power to cover his tracks. In the end, what the conspiracist wants to believe in is agency — anyone’s. If someone, somewhere did this, then justice remains possible. In the face of systems failure, the genre preserves the hope stated as law in Hollywood screenwriting manuals: Character x Action = Change. Social media companies are right to start checking the disinformation they help spread, but it would be wrong to imagine that better facts alone will fix this. The internet can connect anything with anything, and a virus capable of halting the world is an ideal projection screen. Trump insists on “Chinese” or “Wuhan virus”  to blame a hated “other” and to preserve the illusion that this crisis is a war he can win. By his twisted logic, the surge in attacks on Asian Americans that his words cause constitutes proof of his courage in the face of the experts demanding that he call it “Covid-19.” In his new book, the historian Federico Finchelstein points out that fascists use state power to make their lies come true. Cram hated populations into camps and prisons and they do in fact become dirty and diseased. As those who cannot afford to avoid exposure get sick at work, I fear some will see this not as a crime, but as a confirmation. In response, we need to create new kinds of agents, not just new stories.
Moira Weigel, Cambridge, MA

One of the most significant ironies of 2020 was the tragicomic timing of the DNC’s coalescing behind Joe Biden, the candidate least likely to present a viable and inclusive response to the Covid-19 crisis, and against Bernie Sanders, whose policies and ideological positions feel more pressing and necessary, as this crisis has indeed heightened the inhumane contradictions and inequalities of our time. One hundred thousand casualties. Thirty million Americans out of work. In the form of “reopen our state” protests, we see how the failures to implement a minimalist social democratic response to post-2008 economic growth has created the space for reactionary backlashes from the right. As someone who studies economic and social rights, as a political activist, and as a resident of Jackson Heights, Queens—called the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the epidemic—I see how political elites have succeeded in limiting what people imagine is possible in this time of great suffering and uncertainty. Andrew Cuomo, our now fantastically popular “progressive neoliberal” governor, skyrockets to celebrity, passing austerity budgets and financially starving our hospitals and schools while one in four people in New York City goes hungry. We celebrate the voluntary efforts of mutual aid networks who deliver groceries and medicines without unifying under a demand that such precarity should never exist. Our biggest task—as scholars, as activists, as citizens—is not to convince the political elites that they should be generous but to transform radically what our neighbors, community members, families, and loved ones think we deserve—and imagine as possible. We should demand nothing less than the very basic, fundamental understanding of our economic and social rights, guaranteed by every level of governance, with radical wealth redistribution as a norm, not a pipe dream.
Susan Kang, Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC

Value & Revaluing 

Crisis: used by Hippocrates and Galen, the original Greek “crisis” (krisis) referred to a turning point during the course of a disease, wherein a patient would make a recovery or would die. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that “when we count up the millions of those who died in the [Soviet] camps, we forget to multiply the numbers by two or three.” Any statistic leaves out the individual stories of suffering, which demand an acknowledgment that can never be discharged in the aggregate. Outside of medicine, crisis was used in cases of judgment or decision, as in Thucydides (in reference to an unfinished war) or in Plato (as in the choice between which life to lead). Such uses highlight that the very category of crisis is “structured by conventions about what is normal and whose pain is tolerable,” as Dara Z. Strolovich notes. Not all recoveries nor all deaths are the same (not to mention wars or lives or bedside manners). Crises are not natural kinds. If anything, they oftentimes reveal just how contingent their (worst) outcomes actually are, especially with our technological capabilities, even if their origins are “natural.” Thus, the aptness of the metaphor of the present crisis as an x-ray. In crisis, judgment can follow fixed categories, or such categories may make it practically or theoretically impossible to go on. It may become impossible to judge—to krino—by means of available resources, whether conceptual, imaginative or otherwise. A crisis may demand we invent new categories. A moment of crisis— like a disease, like a war, like a life—may thereby stretch out over months or years. Because Covid-19 is implicated with how we have organized ourselves—with our very form of life— the pandemic reveals that the moment of crisis has already been here, lingering beneath the surface, suggesting a sort of virus within a virus. A wide range of treatments is thereby needed, and the Covid-19 vaccine is not the only cure to be developed. And still, we have the kernel of how to move forward, not the least of which must be a path that acknowledges the ethical standing of every individual, no matter how systemic the outcomes of our intervention must be.
Martin Shuster, Baltimore, MD
The current crisis triggered by the pandemic is only the latest installment in a long series. By adopting perennial crisis and fear as a modus vivendi, we have abdicated our responsibility in shaping our destinies, an imperative inherited from the Enlightenment, in favor of a mostly self-imposed existential anguish. We have tacitly conceded that we no longer make history, we merely endure it. There is much talk of the world “after” the current crisis. Some doubt whether there will be one at all. Yet as Mark Lilla has recently observed, “The post-Covid future doesn’t exist. It will exist only after we have made it.” The ceaseless, complacent, and empty proclamations that “nothing will ever be the same” are a measure of our own sense—and acceptance—that fundamentally, nothing will change. Our futile obsession with the mastery of the conditions of human existence, with our graphs and predictive models at hand, coexists with the inability to assert control over them. All the ethical posturing and political gesticulation in the current performance of responding to the crisis ultimately fail to make up for our collective failure to reclaim responsibility for carving out a new one. We wrongly regard contingency as an aberration, an embarrassing ellipsis, rather than as an opportunity to free ourselves from the catastrophic trajectories we believe we are intent on. Walter Benjamin would have seen this as a potentially revolutionary opening in history to be seized upon. The current state of contingency and impotence may, paradoxically, have reawakened the potential for human action. Indeed, this is another way of understanding the radical uncertainty of the future: as an opportunity to rethink and change our outlooks and conduct towards each other and the planet we inhabit. The Adornoesque tragedy of the present is not that the current world may be gone forever, but that we are disinclined to let it go.
Audrey Borowski, Oxford, UK

To be “human, and nothing but human,” according to Hannah Arendt, is to be in a state of the “greatest danger.” Humanity is a source of vulnerability rather than a place of protection. Humans are what stateless persons and refugees are reduced to after they have lost the all-important right of membership within a nation-state. For Arendt, it is better to be a citizen than a human: citizens can claim belonging and protection from a state. Humans are disposable. With the global spread of Covid-19, the distinction between the human and the citizen has disintegrated well beyond Arendt’s stark framework. In the coronavirus accounting, superfluousness has become the norm for citizens and noncitizens alike. Hundreds of thousands of dead and dying citizens have become daily data points, contested or ignored by other citizens rallying for their liberty and freedom to move. Black and Latino people, for whom the virus has been twice as deadly, have been anonymized and cast aside by their own governments. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, left to navigate crashed unemployment websites, and long lines for food. Global supply chains with crates of PPE favor powerful elites—or just individuals online with credit cards—over the dire needs of specific nations. In a world in which citizens can be expended without actually being expelled, it is difficult to think of the citizen and human as antipodes, or of citizenship and nationalism as a great buffer against economic and social deprivation. Citizenship may provide political rights, but a right to membership in a national community does not provide bedrock against economic inequity. Perhaps it is here, in a focus on the shared states of economic and social deprivation, that we might restore something like unity across peoples and nations. We should, therefore, put aside Arendt’s pragmatic division in exchange for a campaign that focuses on economic equality and on the institutions—national and international—that might foster it.
Stephanie DeGooyer, Cambridge, MA

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 Ph.D. 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