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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Peter Murray Memorial Lecture: ‘How to form a national collection’

Francesca Castelli, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses the recent Peter Murray Memorial Lecture, delivered by Director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi. The lecture is named in honour of Peter Murray, who founded Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art in 1967 and is part of Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck, a series of events celebrating the Department’s 50th anniversary.

A full house with a captivated audience joined Birkbeck’s Clore Lecture Theatre on 30 November to listen to Dr Gabriele Finaldi as he took us through the events surrounding the foundation and the development of the collections of two museums: Madrid’s Prado and London’s National Gallery.

These two museums differ dramatically in their genesis. While the Madrid museum was very much conceived as ‘an act of royal generosity to the nation’, the London institution was born through the will of the British Parliament.

Opened in 1819 by Ferdinand VII as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, the Prado was to all intents and purposes a public showcase of the king’s personal collection. Indeed, all of the 311 pictures came from the Royal Residences in and around Madrid and were the works of Spanish artists. It was not until the nationalisation of Church property in 1868 and the incorporation of the holdings of the National Museum of Painting in 1872 that the distinctly local character of the collection started to move towards a more international dimension, with the introduction of works by Flemish and Italian masters like Rubens and Titian.

The National Gallery, on the other hand, was not born through the nationalisation of a royal art collection. It was instead established when Parliament offered a £60,000 grant for the purchase and display of 38 paintings from the estate of banker John Julius Angerstein, including Sebastiano Del Piombo’s s majestic Raising of Lazarus. The National Gallery opened its doors to the public on 10 May 1824 in Angerstein’s former residence at 100 Pall Mall, a building far too small and modest to accommodate a growing museum whose democratic ambition was to be ‘a gallery for all’. The collection was moved to its current location on Trafalgar Square in 1838 and was enriched with important Italian Renaissance works from the likes of Raphael and Correggio, as well as French paintings from the eighteenth century by Poussin and Claude through generous bequests. But it was van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, acquired in 1842, that seemed to pique the interest of Victorian crowds with its richness of detail and elegant symbolism.

The account offered by Dr Finaldi of the strength of the relationship between the National Gallery and its audience that became apparent during World War II was particularly poignant.  At a time when the museum was officially closed and the collection evacuated, former director Kenneth Clark began to organise daily piano concerts that were open to everyone. Myra Hess and other musicians played over 1,600 lunchtime concerts from late 1939 until the end of the war.  And in 1942, spurred by a letter written by a member of the public to The Times, Clark was persuaded to take one painting at a time out of storage and put it on display so that Londoners would have something to admire. This event marked the start of the tradition of the Picture of the Month that still exists today, and allowed the museum’s mission to offer the ‘enjoyment of beauty’ to be restored when it was needed the most.

Museums are thus places that bring people together and in more recent years both the National Gallery and the Prado have undergone extensive expansion projects aiming to provide a better environment for their visitors, as well as a modern space for their growing collection, temporary exhibitions and conservation facilities.

Dr Finaldi’s final point was about the opportunities offered by new technologies and social platforms and how these are instrumental in reaching out to new and larger audiences. Museums are called to have their own digital strategy in order to maximise the potential harnessed by the digitalisation of culture and to help people to experience art in different ways. Earlier this year, in a ground-breaking and unprecedented event, the five museums where the existing van Gogh Sunflowers are located, came together in a sort of virtual exhibition thanks to a live Facebook broadcast and gave life to a fully immersive digital experience supported by VR technology and Computer-generated Imagery.  An audience of some 6 million people connected to enjoy an interactive tour of the virtual gallery while van Gogh’s great-grandson shared his personal memories of the iconic pictures.

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The Man Booker at Birkbeck: author Julian Barnes on The Sense of an Ending

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker event at Birkbeck, which saw author Julian Barnes in conversation with Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing.

On 27 November 2017, prize-winning novelist, essayist, journalist, memoirist and art critic Julian Barnes came to Birkbeck for the annual Man Booker at Birkbeck event. Hundreds of Birkbeck students, alumni and staff – including many from Birkbeck’s popular and successful creative writing programmes – attended the event, while 2000 free copies of Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011), were distributed in the weeks beforehand. This is the seventh year of this ongoing, hugely successful initiative between Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation and, as Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, observed in her introduction, both institutions are committed to ‘the public good’ of bringing the highest cultural and intellectual achievements, including the very best of contemporary literature, to the widest possible audience.

In a genial, urbane and erudite exchange, Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck, discussed The Sense of an Ending with Barnes, interrogating him about the novel’s genesis, central concerns and themes, and readers’ responses. The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on the pleasures and perils of ageing, the slipperiness of memory, the contingency of identity, and the sting of remorse. It is narrated in the first-person by Tony Webster, an affable, very British everyman, who has happily – perhaps even smugly – sailed through life with as little friction and emotional upset as possible. In the first part of the novel, we are treated to Tony’s blandly straightforward memories of his sixth-form and university days, as the repressed 1960s begin to sputter into life with the falling away of old prohibitions. In a bravura middle section, Barnes glosses over four decades of Tony’s very ordinary life in just five paragraphs, emphasising the swift passage of time and the terse eulogy of a man who has lived entirely according to his own fixed self-image as a ‘regular, reliable, honest chap’, in Barnes’s words. In the second half of the novel, Tony’s life is upended by revelations about the death by suicide, forty years previously, of his precociously brilliant school friend, Adrian, and the return to his life of his acerbic first girlfriend, Veronica.

In a tussle over ownership of Adrian’s lost diary, Tony endures a series of baffling, bruising encounters with an indignant Veronica, whose constant refrain is, ‘You don’t get it, but then you never did’. The recovery of a half-remembered letter he sent Adrian in a fit of pique overturns his quietism, revealing a moment of youthful callousness that belies his lifelong self-image as an amiable, decent and morally equitable person. Tony is also confronted with uncomfortable truths about a child secretly fathered by Adrian, forcing him to reassess his memories and unleashing an irremediable, guilty sense of responsibility for contributing to Adrian’s suicidal despair. We might regard Tony as ‘cowardly’, Barnes observed, or as ‘emotionally practical’, but he is less an unreliable narrator than a narrator who simply gets things wrong.

Barnes located the origins of the novel in his 2008 memoir, Nothing to be Frightened of, which explored his own intense fear of dying and death. While writing this piece, he shared with his philosopher brother a memory of their grandfather slaughtering chickens, which his brother remembered so differently as to present Barnes with two alternative, ‘incompatible’ memories. This powered his interest in the precariousness of memory, which has profound implications for our sense of self, but also for the writing of history more generally. In the novel’s early scenes, the young Adrian quotes a historian invented by Barnes – whom some readers have fruitlessly Googled and even quoted as if he were real – who argues, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ The Sense of an Ending is thus shot through with concerns about causation, memory and the writing of personal and national histories. This ‘comic beginning’ to the novel was accompanied by the personal discovery of the death by suicide of a brilliant school friend many years before, which encouraged Barnes to explore in fiction how we can think of the dead as alive and fantasise about their unlived lives.

Barnes admitted that he liked wielding the authorial tool of a hidden secret, enlisting the reader as a detective or a historian, who must piece together events from Tony’s unreliable memories. Barnes also confessed to enjoying inflicting a correctional revelation on his complacent narrator, unearthing his buried, youthful capacity for ‘great emotional violence’, as well as delivering a shock to the reader, who has taken Tony at his word and understood him as essentially mild. Through Tony, Barnes explores how our memories, which can feel utterly truthful and foundational to our sense of self, can be sanitised, redacted and preserved in mental aspic. Barnes confessed that he shares Veronica’s punitiveness, as we come to understand the profoundly damaging effect Tony’s blithe letter had on her.  ‘Remorse’, Barnes expounded, has its etymology in Latin and originally meant ‘to bite again’, and it is through the sharpness of his regret that Tony comes to a deeper understanding of himself, his history and his actions.

Barnes discussed his own belief that our character is largely fixed in childhood and the illusoriness of our adolescent sense that our life ‘as free philosophical individuals’ will fully begin when we become adults. In distinction to existential philosophy, which emphasises individual freedom and action and which Barnes’s young characters affectedly adopt, Barnes argues that ‘your room for manoeuvre in your life is smaller than you think’ – as Tony painfully learns. An audience member remarked on Tony’s retreat into the mundane when confronted with uncomfortable truths – he instigates a hilariously petty discussion about thick-cut chips in a pub when he realises that he has met Adrian’s now-grown son – and Barnes revealed his own preoccupation, at a dear friend’s funeral, with the architectural history of the church in which the service was taking place. Grief, he argued, ‘is not as it is written down’ because ‘we oscillate between different levels’ and our grief is rarely unmixed with other emotions, responses and thoughts.

In reply to questions from creative writing students, Barnes confirmed his abiding interest in form and discussed the ‘technical challenge’ of a novel in which the bulk of a person’s life is hastily summarised and the emphasis is rather on the bookends to Tony’s existence – his youthful education, followed by his retirement. The authorial ability to move a narrative through time is something Barnes feels becomes stronger with age. For Barnes, form encompasses style, design and viewpoint and he quoted Flaubert’s observation that form needs an idea – and vice versa. For Barnes, when these two elements – form and idea – cross, there is a ‘fizz’, like electricity passing along a wire. Barnes insisted on the centrality of truth-telling to the art of fiction, arguing that it encompasses and expresses complex ‘truths [that] can’t be reduced to bullet-points or Christmas cracker mottos.’ Although he is an accomplished critic of art, Barnes argued that the novel, with its unique depth and intimacy, cannot be supplanted by other art forms.

The audience was interested in the film adaptation of the novel – ‘Take the money and run!’ was Barnes’s droll advice – Barnes’s influences, readerly responses to Tony, what Barnes is currently reading and his interest in translated literature. This successful, enjoyable evening confirmed yet again that Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation are a natural fit, with both offering multiple opportunities for cultural exchange, intellectual advancement and literary enjoyment.

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Happy Birthday Feminist Legal Studies! “We can share the joy of killing joy!”

PhD candidate Alexandra Koenig reports on the recent 25th anniversary of journal Feminist Legal Studies, which was celebrated with a lecture from Professor Sara Ahmed on The Institutional as Usual: Sexism, Racism and the Politics of Complaint.

If Audre Lorde once wrote “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, Sara Ahmed’s talk took this on board and offered the refreshing journey of a critical engineer of thought, who tours around the neatly cemented brick walls of the university. Equipped with a theoretically sophisticated and highly creative toolbox, and a flashlight that literally cuts through the building’s substance, she did not want to leave anything as it stands. As her poignant analysis advances, the flashlight moves around, in a circular fashion and she exposes what first appears as neat surfaces, in which each stone so happily seems to fit, just to dig beyond and ask “what’s the use?”

Sitting at my desk, it feels pleasantly impossible to give an appropriate summary of Sara Ahmed’s recent talk delivered on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the journal Feminist Legal Studies and hosted by the Centre for Research on Race and Law. What will therefore follow is a subjective journey through what made strong impressions on me. I will offer selective glimpses on a rich talk that contributed much to queer-feminist, critical legal scholarship and de-colonial thought, but that also devised important tools for activist interventions in grappling with the violence of the “institutional as usual”.

Rather than celebrating the university as a safe haven for critical thought, the concept of “use”, as developed by Ahmed, does the job of dismantling what seems tidy and sacrosanct. The university is a built environment, brick by brick – but put to use for what and for whom? A lot of decisions went into its institutional design to satisfy dominant ideas of “good use” for the “right kind of people”. However, the picture is more complex, as uses can be appropriated for something else, the institution occupied by those for whom the use was not intended. It is along this line of tension that Sara Ahmed developed her thoughts on the “institutional as usual” and the “politics of complaint” throughout her paper. The talk was based on her forthcoming book project, in which she traces the uses of use.

Let me pause shortly and set out some of the analytic insights Ahmed offered about the uses of use in her talk: use, as a verb signifies something to be employed, consumed. It is connected to the idea of relation and activity, how we get hold of or a grip on something. Use designates what an object is for. However, slides happen, as objects are put in and out of use. Something may be out of use because it is occupied. The occupation may be rooted in an activity that has no relation to the previous beaten track of use. It may be occupied for a short period – like a kitchen turning into the buzzing heart of a party, or it may be occupied for longer, for instance when a body makes itself at home in a space that was designed to accommodate for the needs of completely different bodies. A university built for white, old, able-bodied male professors of upper-class background, for instance, will not fit as easily around different bodies. For many bodies, the university is not a friendly, welcoming environment. A university is not just a building, but also an institution, and with this the idea of what and who it is for. However, as much as there may be a designated use, it cannot determine its actual use(s). This is the hopeful horizon – the queer potential when working on and in institutions, such as the university. This is how the “institutional as usual” can be challenged.

Use, Ahmed reminds us, is necessary to preserve something, a space, a path, the beaten track. Preservation, it seems, works like cement: it solidifies the walls and maintains the paths that some-bodies can so easily and comfortably tread upon without even noticing how little effort it demands, as if those spaces belonged to them. According to Ahmed, this is privilege, this is the normativity of the beaten track.  When effort becomes normal, a form has been acquired, you are not, but you become, the stone that happily fits the wall of institution.

Connecting the idea of complaint to the “institutional as usual”, Sara Ahmed engages with the complaint as a biography, a genre, and the politics of complaint. This way we can cut through to power relations in which complaints are going somewhere, but very often nowhere, except into the archival box, to gather dust. It is not a coincidence that a large proportion of complaints at universities is about how the complaint has (not) been dealt with; in other words, they are complaints about the (lack of) institutional response. Like talking to walls. There were also discussions throughout the evening about the role of policies of non-disclosure and how these wall in the complaint, contain it, keep it from being taken beyond and speaking back more effectively to the university from elsewhere. Tracing a biography of complaint also means looking into how often complaints are not made and why. The figure of the complainant is racialised and gendered. When you inhabit a space that is not made for you, it can be very uncomfortable. Your body is made to feel out of place. This is the institution at work. As the world has been assembled around other bodies, you have to make a lot of effort to work on your shape, not to appear too much, or to push too much. As Ahmed reminds us, “sometimes no amount of pushing will get you in”.

According to Ahmed, the existence of a complaint policy can be the blockage, the brick that allegedly posits, yet hinders the performativity of complaint. Complaint policies can be watered down to lip-service. A box-ticking exercise of the neo-liberal management culture at universities, here to show that “something” has happened for the statistics. Complaints and diversity work can, and are, getting co-opted into this culture, performing damage control rather than contesting the usual path of use. To make a complaint, Ahmed argues, activates a process which locates the problem as you. Hardly surprising that you may end up being perceived as the one who cut herself off from the collective, the institution, “because you get used to it, or get out of it!”, Ahmed underlined so that the “institutional as usual” can go on, must go on, and on.

“Lifting the lid” is for Sara Ahmed a call for creative engagements with complaint, for the art of feminist killjoy – against the grain of the foreseeable institutional paths. It means to think of other trails, multiple fora which might be more fertile for the performativity of the complaint. It could translate as resisting the institutional containment as much as you can. It is the hard labour of spillage, and spilling over, a call to puncture pipes, the need for more explosions, trafficking wires and acts of vandalism. Professional modes of conduct are trying to keep the lid on, trying to stop things from changing to preserve the “institutional as usual”. If we are to displace the university’s usual use, it means taking the university apart, brick by brick. It means scratching the surface and leaving marks proclaiming “We are here and did not get used to it!”, it means writing the “I” into the structures, for “I” am not you, and these paths are not mine. If we are privileged enough to get more comfortable, to occupy an institution or alternative spaces, then we hold a responsibility to make hostile environments more habitable, to consider how we take up and hold the space and how to accommodate others. We need to keep asking and responding to the question “whose use and what use”? We need to help build feminist shelters inside and outside of inhospitable environments because complaints come at a high cost and personal loss. Complaint calls for solidarity. The biography of complaint is also ours, for if many of us are here, we are here because others complained.



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