School’s IN for summer: Reports from the London Critical Theory Summer School 2015

This post was contributed by Matthew McManus who is attending the London Critical Theory Summer School 2015, which is run by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

Summer-SchoolAcademics sometimes forget what motivates them to start the masochistic project that is a multi-year graduate degree. It can be all too easy to become wrapped up in one’s own research; huddling indoors insulated against distraction with a beaten copy of Discipline and Punish glaring at you accusingly from the table.

One of the pleasures of the Birkbeck summer school (aside from giving everyone the chance for some fresh air during a uniquely beautiful London summer) has been the feeling of reinvigoration and dynamism that permeates the whole atmosphere.

The surprisingly international cabal of students-many of whom converge for just this event every summer-bear the unmistakable marks of intelligent and creative critical theorists everywhere. One can’t walk through the room without hearing someone mentioning Hegel, Lacan, or, of course, Marx and Marxist political economy.

While such can occasionally be a breeding ground for pretension and competitiveness, the program seems mercifully free of that. Participants share war stories, ask questions of each other, and probe the nuances of each other’s projects with generosity.

Of course, this is because everyone draws inspiration from the greats, and the roster this year has been exceptional. Wendy Brown, Balibar, Harvey and Douzinas are all excellent lecturers, and bring sagacity and often dry wit to their subject matters.

Political theory

There is surprisingly little overlap in lecture themes-a blessing when you don’t think you can hear another word about the expropriation of surplus value after going through it for two hours-but there’s no doubt each lecture topic contributes to the other.

The general theme this week seems to be political economy. Specifically, each lecturer wishes to situate themselves in relation to Marx’s epochal critique of capitalism. Various Marxist categories are interrogated and applied to the contemporary neo-liberal situation our world faces. Sometimes it seems there is significant life in the movements of the dialectic yet; at other points the lecturers are candid in admitting the task may lie with us to look for new sources of inspiration.  Perhaps the lecturers on Lacan next week will provide some inspiration, or at least allow us to manifest the inner neurotic lurking beneath the skin of every graduate student.

Becoming friends

The night life around town has been quite enjoyable as well. Quite surprising given London is a quaint little place….After a few genial days of getting to know one another, everyone has become quick friends. Being in England, this naturally means the sarcasm and friendly jibes (not to mention the pints) have started to flow freely. Many of the best conversations had taken place on a patio over a beer, as the subject of the days’ talks are reflected over and criticized.  This is naturally when people’s real opinions start to show themselves, and one begins to filter the Derrideans from the Deleuzians.

With any luck these connections will bear interesting fruit down the line.  Speaking personally, I’ve already bitterly returned to my dissertation with a number of frustratingly accurate objections in hand. What more could you want?

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Ideology Now – part 1

This post was contributed by Eliane Glaser, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbecks Department of English and Humanities.

On Saturday 28 April a diverse group of academics, journalists, commentators and students gathered in Gordon Square to explore the role of ideology today. The premise of the conference was the strange death of ideology within political discourse. When politicians use the word ‘ideology’ now, it’s invariably an insult. Politics is supposed to be pragmatic, consensus-building, about doing ‘what works’.

But is the narrative of the death of ideology itself an ideological move? Are ideologies and agendas still in operation, just under cover? Is ideology today primarily a covert force, creating a topsy-turvy world in which appearance is the very opposite of reality? In my book Get Real I lament the fact that Conservatives boast that they are the party of the poor, BP petrol stations are coloured an environmentally-friendly shade of green, and our TV screens are filled with celebrity chefs baking sourdough as sales of ready meals soar.

Is it time to revive ideology critique, both inside and outside the academy? And is it time to restore overt ideologies to our political culture? Since the financial crash, the Occupy movement has revitalised citizen activism. But would that movement be more effective if it embraced overt objectives and ideals?

These are some of the questions I set out in my introductory remarks, before handing over to Esther Leslie, professor in political aesthetics at Birkbeck. Esther gave a wonderfully rich and provocative talk in which she simultaneously illustrated the workings of ideology in culture today and also critiqued the very notion of ideology, arguing for a version of the term that is more rooted in social being and action. Matthew Beaumont, who teaches English at UCL, then did a fascinating reading of disaster films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, arguing that at a time in which capitalism is in crisis, these films enact Fredric Jameson’s observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.  

Two former heads of policy at Number 10 reflected on ideology in political culture. Ferdinand Mount, author of the newly published The New Few, was head of policy under Margaret Thatcher, and he argued for a post-ideological liberal democracy which allows for a diversity of positions. Nick Pearce, director of the IPPR and head of policy under Gordon Brown, made the case for a single ideology: social democracy.

After lunch, author and Guardian columnist Steven Poole exposed the financial metaphors that pervade everyday speech – with philosophy lecturer and activist Nina Power pointing out during questions that, conversely, capitalism is often clothed in humanising language. Author Dan Hind described how the ‘end of ideology’ thesis has obscured the rise of a single ideology, market capitalism, and pointed to new, non-hierarchical forms of public discussion and protest as the way forward.

We had two highly stimulating papers on ideology in architecture and theatre by writer Owen Hatherley and lecturer in theatre and performance at Birkbeck Louise Owen. While Owen Hatherley identified the ideologies embedded in a whole range of architectural styles, Louise Owen detected ideologies lurking beneath what passes as theatrical realism today.

In the final session, a lively and politically-engaged talk by Nina Power linked Althusser’s theory of interpolation to the current behaviour of the police and judiciary in ‘public order’ cases, and argued that protesters attempting to defend the public good are being penalised in the name of an imaginary ‘good’ public. And Renata Salecl, professor of law at Ljubljana University ended the conference with a brilliant and entertaining puncturing of contemporary assumptions about reality and wellbeing. 

What I loved about the conference was the way in which the papers linked theoretical analysis with urgent issues in today’s politics and culture. The perspectives were unusually broad for an academic conference, and the discussions over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner were engaged and convivial. I was left with the positive sense that there is a great deal more to say on this subject; that in the contemporary world, reports of ideology’s demise are both symptomatic and premature.

All the papers are available to listen to online via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company.

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