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 what we hope will be 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.
May 22, 2020
Lindsay Atnip / Christina Heatherton / David Lloyd / Mac Loftin / John Lysaker
Publics & Practices
This morning, waking into sirens, I thought the city was under attack. I blinked and wondered what would happen if it were — if, on top of the ravages of the virus, the job losses, the hunger, the fear, uncertainty, and rage — the city was actually under military attack. In this pandemic, the United States has continued bombing Iraq. It maintains sanctions on COVID-stricken Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela over the protests of the UN. Recently, it launched naval ships into the Caribbean, one of the largest military deployments in the region since the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. There is a poignancy in having a large fleet of destroyers, combat ships, and cutters sailing towards war while, until the end of April, the USNS Comfort, a 45-year-old converted oil tanker, was docked in NYC’s harbor. While the morgues stand full and corpses are packed in container trucks, the Comfort offered 1,000 mostly unused hospital beds. Before New York, the Comfort was docked in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (2017), in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (2005), and in the Persian Gulf after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (2002). In each place, the services of this death ship were too little, too late. The Comfort illustrates this broken country’s priorities: endless new technologies for death, and for life, in bitter afterthought, the leftover disposable parts. Every evening, people lean out windows to clap, to bang pots and pans, to whistle and howl for life, and to acknowledge the people risking their own lives to keep us all alive. The noise rises to the sky. I join them with this plea: End the sanctions, stop the wars, cancel the rents, nationalize healthcare, and let us all survive this curse of a pandemic.
— Christina Heatherton, New York City
Theorizing often forgets its place and so falls out of time. When it issues commands, addressees become foot soldiers. Taking on more than its concepts can bear, it effaces the world it hoped would prove otherwise. Not that one can change the world without interpretation. But as Ofelia Shutte has suggested, deepening thesis eleven, interpretation modifies the world in order to fathom it, and in changing the world prompts the need for further interpretation. The world won’t stand still, becoming, differentiating. Words proliferate, things turn and twist, speakers and addressees change minds and places. So much is being born, so much passing away. Transforming agents must play changes, and with an inventiveness akin to improvisation. But this proves difficult when the catastrophe again cannot be ignored. In the roar of rediscovered suffering, the grand enclosures beckon — America, barbarism, capitalism, civilization, communism, Europe, freedom, patriarchy, socialism, white supremacy, and from several sides – “the West.” Strike those chords, listen and look, but push past too, conversing with all that moves, including movements. The cartoon will always be televised.
— John Lysaker, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
Critique, or critical theory, is preferable to theory. Critique, Kant said, reflects on the conditions of possibility of any given phenomenon. One starts, Marx went on, with the apparently self-evident, “trivial thing” to ask under what conditions it has come to be a possible thing. Critical theory’s value is that it reminds that the historical process conditions things, meaning the given is contingent. Critical theory’s danger is that it may mistake the historical process for the given and the given for all that is the case. To avoid that danger, it must remain alert to the possibilities that the given has occluded. The possible is not the given. It is what lives on out of kilter with what is. Living on, it gives hope that the means to living otherwise survive in everything the given has not managed to exhaust. In this way, without the slide into theology, a secular critique honors the dead. It finds their afterlife in the unredeemed possibilities that their passing, natural or catastrophic, suspended but did not annihilate. They live on in their unfinished desires and affections for which our own make way.
— David Lloyd, Los Angeles
States are beginning to “reopen,” and those that remain “closed” exempt workers officially “essential” (80 percent, in my city). Restaurants, hair salons, and beaches are becoming the altars of a mass sacrifice, a bloodletting of the poor meant to resurrect the economy. Vincent Lloyd rightfully calls on theory to grapple with death theologically. What would that look like? In the depths of war, Simone Weil wrote that the crucifixion of God is eternal. A theological grappling with death might include a refusal of the logic of resurrection, an insistence that some losses can never be returned, that some things cannot be righted because they were never right to begin with.
— Mac Loftin, Chelsea, MA
Recognizing that the virus spills indifferently across national borders but prejudicially harms the marginalized — for social, not biological, reasons — Ayça Çubukçu calls for internationalism but not humanism, insofar as “humanity” is “a concept that erases from view crucial political divides and unbearable inequalities within and among species.” But as a scholar in the humanities, I wonder whether in this global pandemic we can do without the idea of “humanity” to guide current responses and future plans. The pandemic threatens more than human bodies; it is befalling and transforming the whole human world, and humanity isn’t just a conglomeration of subgroups — nations, ethnicities, races, classes, genders — whose only ultimate commonality is biological species. We are the species with an idea of itself — an idea not fixed or given, but both revealed and constituted by how we represent and understand ourselves in and through art and literature and philosophy. I believe we can only fully grasp what is happening and imagine and prepare for “the After” (as a friend put it) if we read the world against the deep background of “the human” that comes into view through our cultural traditions. The humanities present the human to us as image, not just concept, “containing multitudes” but still referring to something shared and precious for which we collectively bear responsibility. In her essay “Human Personality,” Simone Weil writes, “there are words which possess, in themselves, when properly used, a virtue which illumines and lifts up toward the good.” She includes truth and justice; I would add human — but the meanings of these terms are not determined, not owned by any class or race, and only come into view through our stories and groping theories. Might one essential condition for imagining and sustaining a better — more human — “After” be humanistic education in the long and tangled tapestry of reflections, theoretical and artistic, on our aspirations and our limits?
— Lindsay Atnip, Chicago
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.