The London Critical Theory Summer School: combining theoretical thought with political urgency

Carolina Amadeo, MPhil/PhD candidate at the School of Law discusses this year’s London Critical Theory Summer School. The 2018 Summer School will be held from 25 June – 6 July and is now accepting applications. Find out more. 

Carolina’s Summer School cohort in 2015

I first joined the Critical Theory Summer School organised by Birkbeck’s Institute for the Humanities in 2015. At that particular moment, it provided the inspiration needed for me to quit my job as a lawyer and start to pursue the academic career I had always dreamt of. Coming from Brazil and from a law school background, I was struck by how the summer school created an academic environment where critical theory was taken seriously. Not only that, but it was taken seriously in a transdisciplinary way, in which all sorts of different ideas were welcome for discussion.

After getting to know Birkbeck I ended up enrolling for a master’s here straight away, which then led me to start my PhD in January 2017. My research combines critical geography, legal geography and critical legal theory, but it also draws on social and political theory. I explore the interconnections between law, space and resistance, in the context of social movements that use occupations as their main strategy. That is, I examine how space is being appropriated by these movements as a political tool and how property relations relate to this usage. My focus is the Brazilian context, mainly due to the emergence of the secondary school student movement, a series of occupations of public schools to demand better education.

This summer, two years after my first Summer School experience, I again reserved two weeks of the hottest days of the year in London to join this immersive experience. Even though I had a lot of work to do on my thesis, still I thought it was worth to just allow myself to read and discuss topics that although were not central to it, would still help me getting creative and shaping my arguments.

Indeed that was the case. In the first week, I learned a lot from Catherine Malabou’s very well structured classes about the evolution of the concept of the symbol. This gave me a philosophical basis to better understand many of the authors I have been reading. Then Drucilla Cornell introduced me to African Socialism and Paul Gilroy presented an interesting account of British Black culture. Finally, Costas Douzinas surprised me with his presentation of an analytics of resistance, which resonated directly with my own research.

In the second week, Jacqueline Rose, Stephen Frosh and Slavoj Zizek, once again fed my fascination with psychoanalysis. Although I don’t have a detailed background in psychoanalysis, it was still interesting to allow myself to just engage with their presentations, which was also the case with regards to Esther Leslie’s work on aesthetics and nature. Additionally, Jacqueline’s point about the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement from a psychoanalytical point of view gave me a new perspective on how to read student movements, such as the one I have been studying.

The best thing about the Summer School is that it combines an intensive studying environment – with dense readings and two weeks of all-day lectures – with the establishment of relaxed social interactions with like-minded people. At both summer schools I have met participants from all around the world with whom I still discuss my work, but more than that, they have also become good friends.

The selection of the lecturers is another important aspect of it. The list always combines renowned critical theorists from all different backgrounds. The topics range from political economy, to analysis of resistance, postcolonial theory, and psychoanalysis, among others. And you can learn a lot from the lectures and the discussions, even when they are dealing with topics that you are not strictly familiar with. The privilege to sit in a class taught by Etienne Balibar, David Harvey or Catherine Malabou, among all others, is something I could have barely imagined before coming here for the first time.

The environment created by the group is always welcoming and inviting. And the fact that we not only attend classes together but also share meals and small breaks, make it an on-going construction of a group. By the end of the second week, you feel comfortable around the participants and you build long-lasting connections with some of them.

Both experiences I have had in the Summer School have contributed immensely to my academic life. Not only in terms of the theoretical work I was introduced to, the references I have been given or the clarifications I managed to get from such important authors, but most of all, due to the relations I have built with professors and other participants. I could not recommend it highly enough.

Listen to the public debate from the 2017 Summer School.

 

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Avatar Activism: Limits and Possibilities

This post was contributed by Thomas Travers, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. He tweets at @TWLTravers

Avatar ActivismCrystal Bartolovich (University of Syracuse) opened her lecture last Wednesday (June 15th) at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities with a screening of the narratively condensed trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar. This abridged version of the film, in turn, formed the key reference point around which her presentation on the limits and possibilities of ‘Avatar Activism’ revolved.

Coined by American media theorist Henry Jenkins, ‘Avatar Activism’ describes a strategy whereby social justice movements appropriate images from popular culture and put them into service for struggles in the real world. Jenkins first proposed the term in response to a filmed re-enactment of Cameron’s blockbuster movie in the occupied village of Bil’in. Appearing in the likeness of the embattled Na’vi, Palestinian and Israeli activists stunningly rewrote Avatar as an allegory for the ongoing dispossession experienced by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Opposed to an august Frankfurt School style dismissal of Avatar as industrial spectacle, Jenkins detects within its globally distributed imagery of green anti-imperialism the raw material for a democratic ‘participatory culture’. Participation here refers to the dramatic re-contextualisation, or well-nigh hacking or glitching of the Hollywood cultural form, a tactic that enables oppressed people to re-narrate their struggles through the libidinal apparatus of the culture industry, shocking audiences into a heightened awareness of injustice. Affective and emotional investment in the symbolic realm inexorably leads, in Jenkin’s argument, to progress in the material world.

Yet is it precisely the efficacy of this seamless transition from symbolic gratification to social intervention that Bartolovich wanted to complicate in her bracing account of contemporary climate politics. Situating Avatar within debates surrounding the Anthropocene, Bartolovich highlighted a damaging rift between a symbolic recognition of the imperative to drastically cut carbon emissions and the minimal purchase this recognition has had in actuality. In order to arrest the unsustainable levels of energy consumption in the gated communities of the global North, Bartolovich forecasted the necessary implementation of unpopular, top down, draconian measures. And it is on questions of cost, of consent, of sacrifice that she finds ‘Avatar Activism’ desperately inadequate.

Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology

Where others might have chastised Jenkin’s work as the ‘intellectualisation of amusement’, Bartolovich provided an immanent critique of his thesis and a salutary reminder as to how easily the utopian qualities of cultural texts can reverse into ideological reconciliation with the present. Avatar’s ecological consciousness is typically considered to reside in the successful opposition of the Na’vi to the technological degradation and exploitation of Nature. This antagonism, however, may not be as stark as it at first seems. Nature on Pandora is, in a sense, always already technology: for each weapon or communicational network the colonisers have, the Na’vi have an analogous one. The message, as Bartolovich points out, is clear; not only do the Na’vi want nothing, but that their harmonious relationship with an intensified nature amounts to a purer, superior form of life. As T.J. Clark has recently argued in a series of lectures presented at Birkbeck, the land of Cockaigne is the fantasy of a world already cooked, where the need for sweat, labour, and toil has been thoroughly abolished. What should alarm us about the inscription of such codes in Avatar is that they perpetuate a delusion that the North can shrink its carbon footprint without any serious alteration to its current levels of consumption. Utopian resistance cartwheels into ideological containment as the necessary sacrifices of any viable climate politics are massaged into something more palatable entirely. Avatar offers, in other words, a reassuring image of an improved nature that is already dormant in the present, repressing the inevitable deprivations and constraints that would accompany a concerted effort to avert the worst permutations of the Anthropocene.      

Disavowing Defeat 

Another challenge to the endorsement of Avatar develops out of the observation that the military hardware of the sky people is surprisingly outdated. Where one might expect the fully automated arsenal of drone, chemical, and biological weapons, Cameron mobilises tanks, infantry, and helicopters. Coupled with the astounding ability of the Na’vis’ arrows to penetrate armoured vehicles, Avatar recodes the indigenous encounter with empire—a history of decimation, massacre, and genocide—with triumphant resistance. This aesthetic sleight of hand simultaneously disavows the asymmetry of such conflicts and, in doing so, implies that the vanquished were defeated on account of their own failings. The Bil’in video concludes with the Na’vi protesters doubled up, choking on tear gas; a potent reminder of the lethal economy that the armed state apparatus deals in. Bartolovich pointedly adds that the pristine Eden of Pandora is itself a phantasmagoric revision of the slums and toxic landscapes that the precarious communities of late capitalism are likely to inhabit. There is, then, a significant discontinuity between the types of imaginary identification entertained by the symbolic text of Avatar and the impoverished and defeated reality of the global surplus population.

Possibilities?

Bartolovich convincingly demonstrated the inadequacy of Jenkin’s proposed ‘Avatar Activism’, highlighting its inability to overcome the gap between symbolic attitude and material action. Cameron’s movie offers a green politics shorn of sacrifice, the fantasy of a world already made that the consumer can occupy without detriment to their present lifestyle. Confronted with the dilemmas of climate catastrophe, Avatar conjures away the negative, presenting an altogether agreeable impression of a greener, less alienated form of consumption. What of the possibilities? Against the ‘naïve’ interpretation of the plight of the Bil’in protesters as commensurable with the Na’vi, Bartolovich contends that the video détourns Hollywood spectacle. Wrenched out of its universalising context, the activists expose the particularity of Cameron’s movie, render visible the human damage, loss, and defeat the film silences, making perceptible the material costs the film seeks to vanish. The Bil’in video captures the uncooked raw material of a world in which radical social change can only be achieved through the sacrifices of collective action.

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Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Question of Progress

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visit research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies.

Here Dr Atluri gives an insight into her approaching BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop on sexual politics (February 18,  1.30pm-3.30pm, room 402, Malet Street Main Building)

Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Wei Wei states that, “The internet is a wild land with its own games, languages, and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings.”

And yet, how can one access cyber-utopias of meritocratic dreams on street corners and back alleys, in the traffic of cities, with no place from which to revel in blissful platitudes?

The “It gets better” campaign is predominantly a viral media campaign that began as a response to the suicides of queer youth in North America. The campaign involves online videos staging inspirational narratives of those who have overcome adversity. It is undoubtedly a tool of support for those who experience oppression.

However, one can consider how this viral media campaign exists in cyberspace, apart from the politics and economics of material space. ‘Betterment’ can describe individual embodiment. And yet, “betterment” can also describe “development” in ways that assume that economic wealth and the gentrification of cities are improvements. (Watch Guardian video: Anthony Gormley: “London is bought, developed and abandoned”)

We are told that cities “get better” with more expensive coffee bars where one can access Wi-Fi, and yet rising prices in rent and the disillusion of the commons can spell suicide for sexual politics in the streets.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner state, “There is nothing more public than privacy”(547) They further discuss `sex publics’ stating that,

Some of these publics have an obvious relation to sex: pornographic cinema, phone sex, “adult” markets for print, lap dancing. Others are organized around sex, but not necessarily sex acts in the usual sense: queer zones and other worlds estranged from heterosexual culture, but also more tacit scenes of sexuality like official national culture, which depends on a notion of privacy to cloak its sexualization of national membership. (547) (Read more here)

The authors discuss zoning laws that came into place in New York which lead to the closure of many gay bars on St. Christopher Street, once a well-known queer area. They state,

Now, gay men who want sexual materials or who want to meet other men for sex will have two choices: they can cathect the privatized virtual public of phone sex and the internet; or they can travel to small, inaccessible, little-trafficked, badly lit areas, re- mote from public transportation and from any residences, mostly on the waterfront, where heterosexual porn users will also be relocated and where the risk of violence will consequently be higher. (551)

Similarly, one can consider recent closures of many queer spaces in London such as the bar, The Joiners Arms in East London. While “betterment” within neoliberal discourse involves images of financially successful queers working overtime, the doors of the after hours that once housed alternative sex publics are slammed shut.

Far from being endemic to the West, questions of space, sex, and “betterment” cross borders. As Mayur Suresh writes,`

One of the first documented protests against police harassment of queer men in India was held in response to police raids targeting gay cruising in Central Park, Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

In the traffic of Mumbai, in the traffic of Delhi, flamboyant sari clad dancers strut between rows of cars asking tourists en route to airports, businessmen en route to offices, and middle class families in SUVs for change. Hijras, often referred to in secular English language discourse as male to female transgender persons are often found in contemporary neoliberal India, begging in the traffic of cities. The genealogy of the Hijra is connected to mythologies pre-dating colonial rule. Hijras originary religious role lay in blessing children.

In the space of neoliberal urban India, the Hijra body has not necessarily gotten “better” with Victorian colonial moralities and laws policing sex, or with capitalist models of “development.”

Suresh discusses a 2004 case of a Hijra who was gang raped and subject to police harassment,

Kokila told the police about the gang rape, but instead of registering a case and sending her for a medical examination, they harassed her with offensive language and took her along with the two men to the Byappanahalli Police Station. (Suresh, opendemocracy)

Beyond the tempo of Google there are bodies in the streets, beaten and harassed, living and loving in the streets. Solipsistic urban publics stare into cell phones, ignoring those whom they encounter in shared space. Privacy exists for the privileged few. Fear is fuelled by gated communities and an infinite array of private passwords. In the meantime, cities of wealth turn citizenship into a question of capital, dividing insiders from outsiders, with the colonizing spirit of settlers extending to the gentrification of dark corners of cities.

If we are to envision inspirational sexual politics today, we should perhaps avert our eyes momentarily from the glare of mall lighting and MacBooks. Before it can ever get better, perhaps it should get critical.

Tara Atluri will be giving a BIH and Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS) workshop (titled “Time Out: Sexual Politics and the Temporal Maps of International Development”) on 18 February (13.30 -15.30), Room 402, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here.

Works Cited

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The Same-Sex Couple and the State

This post was contributed by Naomi Smith, Birkbeck graduate and current intern in External Relations. Naomi recently attended a Birkbeck public lecture hosted by Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, featuring Professor Robert Aldrich of the University of Sydney

Image copyright torbakhopper (Flickr)

Image copyright torbakhopper (Flickr)

Using French history as a case study, Professor Robert Aldrich’s lecture explored the relatively recent global shift from sodomy laws to the embrace of same-sex marriage.

As the title of the lecture suggests, Professor Aldrich chose to look at sodomy laws from a historical and transnational perspective. Having trained as a historian of France, he is now a Professor of European History at the University of Sydney, although his work spans a much more global remit than this suggests.

Aldrich began by observing that ‘the movement for marriage equality has gone global’.

Next, he suggested that whilst the State often acts as an agent of oppression, it is also, at least in potential, an agent of emancipation. He noted that this is particularly obvious when the State manages to free itself of ‘certain notions of nature and sexuality that have much to do with traditional religious beliefs’; this generally involves a challenge to the state by sexual, legal and constitutional activists.

The cause of reform in attitudes

Aldrich proposed that two major changes or contexts could be identified as the cause of reform in attitudes, both social and legal, to marriage equality. Firstly, the belief in the State as the guarantor of rights, rather than the agent that denies rights. And secondly, the concept of governance that distances the State from the dictates of traditional or orthodox religious beliefs, whatever they may be.

We are only now beginning to combat what Monique Wittig called the ‘homosexual contract’, paraphrasing Rousseau’s notion of the ‘social contract’. She meant the profoundly embedded supposition that normality is relationships between a man and a woman with the intention of procreation.

Movement towards marriage equality has historically made us think about what marriage is, a notion that varies greatly from place to place, from culture to culture, from religion to religion. This includes notions of consent, ages of consent and the legality of divorce – Aldrich talked about campaigns throughout history to combat these notions and instigate legal change.

Homophobia

He feels that what is in opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage is not ‘marriage defence’ but homophobia. One of the ways that homophobia is most deeply entrenched in society is through law, although one of the key ways to fight homophobia is also through the law.

Because the State has always been so deeply intertwined with religion, one of the long term ways to break the ‘heterosexual contract’ has been bringing into question the received ideas about the relationship between the State, sex and religion. Aldrich went on to discuss this through a case study of the history of same-sex marriage and accompanying legislation in France with occasional comparison with Britain.

Interesting points included:

  • In France, a marriage is only legal if it is performed by a civil official; it is not recognised by the State if it is only performed by a priest, imam, etc.
  • The French National Assembly, in 1791, passed legislation which decriminalised homosexual acts (176 years before England). Previously, homosexuals could have been arrested, convicted, even burned at the stake, for committing sodomy. The change in the law, however, did not reflect a social change; homophobia was still considered to be a vice or evil.
  • Sodomy was decriminalised only because it was deemed to be taking place in the private sphere without causing damage to others and because the State had decided that the church should not be involved in law-making; separation between church and State.
  • Gay men continued to be a target for legal discrimination and harassment; e.g. via age of consent laws, etc. There were no laws to protect homosexuals.
  • Paris, of course, had the reputation for sexual licence. Even in the face of legal interdiction, there was ‘naughtiness’, as Aldrich put it, everywhere. Interdiction did not stymy gay and lesbian life but instead gave it a different slant.

Before taking questions, Aldrich concluded by asking ‘how widely applicable, how universalistic are the principles that govern such relationships’? Laws given to Britain and France’s colonies concerning sodomy laws were different but considered equally universal by both those they were given to and those who did the giving.

To Aldrich, the question of sodomy and the State is really about the constitution of society, about the boundaries of public and private, about relations between the individual and the polity.

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