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.
— Jonathon Catlin, Berlin
— Benjamin P. Davis, St. Louis
May 4, 2020
Andrew Cole / Bonnie Honig / Joy James/ Mark Kingwell / Vincent Lloyd / Sarah Schulman / Dara Z. Strolovitch / Enzo Traverso
Publics & Practices
Forty: 2020, an election year, marks 40 years since Reagan was first elected, 40 years of mistrust in government, cynicism about collectivity, and disparagement of democracy. That is a long time, but the number 40 comes with hope. In the Bible, 40 is the number of years it took for the slave generation of Israelites to die out in the desert and for their children to be raised up for freedom. The tents that dot New York’s Central Park call to my mind the Bible’s desert dwellings, the manna that fell, and the violence the people witnessed and suffered during these long 40 years. The tents also remind us that in quarantine we mourn for the dead in isolation, though the dead cannot be mourned in isolation; they can only be missed. The word “quarantine” dates back to seventeenth-century Venice and refers to the 40 days of isolation imposed upon ships at ports to minimize the threat of contagion before landing. Quarantine structures temporally what the Exodus story figures spatially: a desert of deprivation with promise awaiting us at the end. That promise is not just a return to normal. The animals now taking to our emptied city streets are showing the way. They are turning up in places where the prior partition of the sensible said they did not belong. They do not encounter the expected resistance; so they keep coming. There is a lesson there for us. In the fast time of neoliberalism’s everyday, we are not all “essential workers,” but we have all been told daily, for decades, it is essential that we work. Must it be so? Once we exit quarantine, let’s turn the tents in Central Park into a multipurpose memorial: a monument of the 40 years lost, 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.
— Bonnie Honig, Warren, VT
The outbreak of the COVID-19 disease seems to be changing everything, but it also confirms what we already knew: We live in a global world in which a pandemic immediately affects all dimensions of life. It intensifies the enormous inequalities of our societies, bearing down on the most vulnerable, and, at the same time, it reinforces the biopolitical dimension of our states. This means the Left will have to invent new practices able to replace — at least transitionally — traditional forms of mass mobilization, starting with the rehabilitation of underpaid essential work. This is the meaning of the spontaneous manifestations of people who clap from their windows for ambulance and bus drivers. Until now, we have experienced an amazing and heartening wave of solidarity and collective mutual aid. A country like Italy, whose political stage was dominated by a racist and xenophobic leader until just a few months ago, is currently welcoming Chinese, Cuban, and Albanian doctors and nurses like heroes. People seem to have understood that we need a global and solidary response. But I am not sure that this feeling will still prevail after a year of economic depression. Despite the risk of sounding irremediably archaic, I would say that we have to be prepared for a durable change, and this might update the old alternative: socialism or barbarism, either a New Deal for the twenty-first century or neoliberal governance with even more inegalitarian and authoritarian features. A politics for the future should find a convergence between the struggle for saving the planet and the struggle for a “universal right to respiration” — as Achille Mbembe pertinently calls it — a right to exist for every living being, regardless of economic status or state sovereignty.
— Enzo Traverso, Ithaca, NY
So much is changing. People are still clinging to hierarchies that may no longer actually exist. Systems of deference, adherence, and dominance may just be based on habit, and no longer on real power or impact. This is true at work, in cliques, in every groupthink we live within. Every time a media outlet cuts away from the presidential non-event, we move closer to a recognition of real value. Every time we stand up to someone we used to defer to because they controlled some aspect of our lives, or had power they never deserved or lived up to, we move towards a new collective. Standing up for the person with no currency defies the void. Sometimes real fears free us from shallow ones.
— Sarah Schulman, New York City
Value & Revaluing
Essential labor: Every crisis has its metaphysics, including our current one involving COVID-19. Suddenly we’re talking about what’s “essential,” as if the term now means something deeper than “important.” The conversation is mostly about work. Whose labor is essential? Answering this question even on the best of days, you’ll eventually get to Marx, who — while criticizing Hegel for describing “labor as the essence of man” — spoke of “abstract labor” as the “essence” or value of a commodity destined to circulate. Marx named this essential circulation “the starting-point of capital.” These aren’t specialized questions for a history of theory; they bear on reading the present moment, which theory may elucidate. Check any gubernatorial executive order, and you’ll find that what’s “essential” about labor is merely a list of job descriptions. Never is there an “is,” a definition of essentiality. It’s as if our governments are worried that if they go there, they’ll say too much. At stake in essentiality is the disclosure of a fundamental dynamic that could end this phase of capitalism: essential workers are ordered to imperil their health in public for unlivable wages with few if any protections (rights, insurance, PPE), and everyone else goes unnamed, unseen, as inessential workers who must risk their lives by receiving no wage and no social protections whatsoever. Our version of capitalism cannot possibly tolerate this dynamic much longer: mandated work leading to walkouts or bodily collapse unto sickness (in either case, cascading breakdowns); and spiraling unemployment far in excess of what capitalists call labor “reserves.” Every metaphysics in a time of crisis has its politics, too, not all of them pursuant to the status quo. We’ve come to a break, a brake… An opportunity with survival at stake.
— Andrew Cole, Athens, GA
Crisis and non-crisis: This pandemic underscores the relationships between episodic hard times and the ongoing and quotidian hard times that structure the lives of marginalized groups. COVID-19 has revived Rahm Emanuel’s admonition to never let “a serious crisis… go to waste” and the idea that past crises have been generative of progressive change. But while it may “take a crisis” to expand rights and resources for marginalized groups, crises also privilege normative constructions of value, deservingness, and citizenship. Attaching redistributive and liberatory agendas to crises can therefore constrain which issues are addressed, delimiting who gets helped, and reconstituting racial, gender, and economic orders along modified but familiar inegalitarian lines. Whether or not something is a “crisis” is at least partly endogenous to politics and structured by conventions about what is normal and whose pain is tolerable. So while COVID-19 has been labelled and treated as a crisis — a critical juncture deemed worthy of and remediable through government intervention — the structural inequalities it has thrown into relief have more typically been normalized as non-crises — treated as unfortunate but nonetheless natural and inevitable results of unremarkable conditions that are regarded as immune to, and therefore as not warranting, state intervention. For example, Anthony Fauci has framed the racialized health and economic disparities that have translated into disproportionate rates of infection and death among African Americans as external to the crisis and beyond the power of the federal government to remedy. We should disrupt the line between crisis and non-crisis and use policy windows opened by the pandemic to address the ongoing and deeply entrenched inequalities that have been revealed and fueled by it, so that returning to “normal” does not mean, as it so often does, returning to pre-crisis conditions of normalized injustice.
— Dara Z. Strolovitch, Princeton, NJ
Emotional intelligence, a constituent of critical theory, expands capacity to confront predatory capitalism, slavery, and consumption. Racism, gender violence, and imprisonment determine survival rates, during and between pandemics as we live and die amid climate devastation, increasing poverty, and repression. Fear and fury are rational responses to abandonment and exploitation by authoritarians as well as to ineffective coalitions with concerned benefactors. As a “super power,” trauma has a role in analysis, leading to resurgent political engagement.
— Joy James, Manhattan, New York City
The basic question of all human societies has been who will live and who will die. We in the developed world have been living in a resource-rich fantasyland of apparent prosperity and taken-for-granted comfort. It is and always has been a house of cards. Justice does not mean a return to normal. It starts, at least, with a recognition that the normal was deeply and inherently unjust. There were already population firebreaks before the pandemic, brutal mechanisms of immunity constructed of barbed wire fencing and birthright exclusion. New firebreaks of the reckless and stupid are not defensible in current discourse, which is a victory for decency but maybe a defeat for global equity. The conversation about viral counter-measures and the timeline for “liberating” the economy is muddy because we are not simply brutal, even as we also feel long-term pressures that are scary. We are talking about people and not trees. We lurch on into our near future, caught between the dilemmatic horns of mass death and economic collapse. Is there any resolution here? We must hope so, but whatever it is will not, and should not, mean a return to what went before.
— Mark Kingwell, Toronto
Theory has done better addressing life — flourishing, vulnerable, haunted, distended — than addressing death. Theology has done better addressing death — the fears and hopes it conjures — than addressing life, which it habitually instrumentalizes. Theory that is secularized theology risks ignoring death and instrumentalizing life. Our time of pandemic offers an opportunity for theory to grapple seriously with death, and this may mean grappling with death theologically, with fear and trembling and the hope of liberation.
— Vincent Lloyd, Philadelphia
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.
2 thoughts on “Sentencing the Present”