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.


. Reply . Category: Institute for the Humanities, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Arts Week 2017: A look into “the everyday life of digital humanities”

laptop-819285_1920As universities are transformed by the constant presence of digital technology, there is a need to look at how this modifies higher education practices. Lesley Gourlay, from the UCL Institute of Higher Education, has studied the phenomenon of the “digital university” from a post-human perspective and, on Monday 15 May, presented some insights from her work. Her talk was followed by a panel discussion featuring Grace Halden (Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck) and Tim Markham (Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Birkbeck) who gave their own perspectives on the topic.

Theory: the post-human perspective on digital pedagogy

How should we go about studying digitalized pedagogical practices? Instead of unthinkingly placing the human at the centre of these technologies, Lesley’s post-human theoretical background challenges such naturalized perspectives. Lesley uses the work of Katherine Hayles (2012) to move towards a notion of extended mind, where the clear binaries between user and device are undermined. Lesley’s talk could in fact be given as an example of this extension of the human, and the movement towards the post-human. While Lesley was an engaging speaker, her talk was also made possible thanks to a presentation that included audio-visual elements from her research. The presentation functioned as an extension of her self, giving new context and meaning to the words she uttered.

Observing theory in pedagogic practice

The status quo of materiality within universities has changed. Lesley posits that the way to understand these changes is by rendering unseen practices visible and watching them unfold. Lesley’s research looks into what students actually do when engaged in independent study, revealing materiality as a dynamic process. Multimodal journaling records the ways in which students negotiate the boundaries between print and digital. This negotiation is personal but depends heavily on the settings, which are far from neutral. In the same way, materiality is not neutral to students. Some express a preference for markers, pens, and paper: they need the physical experience. Others prefer digital and go to great lengths (microwaving a book to separate the pages and digitalize them!) to obtain the material in the format they feel best suits their learning.

Through her research, Lesley brings Latour’s theory of the agentive importance of artefacts to life. Objects are mediators: they change the meanings they’re meant to carry. Recognizing this is necessary for studying the effect of digital objects in contemporary academic practice. Lesley’s presentation, in sum, sought to undermine certain binaries such as user/device as well as the ideal of neutral channels and stable human authorship and agency.

Multiple perspectives on technology’s multiple impacts

After Lesley’s presentation, Grace and Tim offered their own views on the impact of digital technology in academia. Grace adopted a practitioner’s perspective, as she questioned whether a traditional written essay continued to be the ideal assessment in an age that, as Lesley had described, was deeply multi-modal. Meanwhile, Tim discussed notions of education and identity, arguing that seemingly banal technologies such as departmental e-mail were constitutive of the community’s identity, and needed to be part of any understanding of technology’s impact. A rich discussion also took place during the Q&A segment, with topics ranging from the paperless office to the role of Wikipedia in research.

Today, it seems positions on the effect of digital technology in education often fall into either excessive pessimism or excessive optimism. The other speakers at this event shed light on what Lesley termed the “messy in-betweenness”, where richer insights can be found. In terms of the magnitude of impact, too, there is a need to get at this middle space. It is disingenuous to think digital text is only another neutral form of communication. On the other hand, it is unwarranted to predict a total transformation of learning practices where bookshops and lecture rooms disappear, and everything happens through MOOCs. Ultimately, this event illustrated the myriad ways in which the impact of digital technology on learning may be understood: ‘digital’ encompasses so many different technologies and practices that it does not make sense to talk about impact in sweeping terms in the first place.

Valentina Salvatierra is a writer and reader currently living in London. She is interested in literary theory, comparative literature, and speculative fiction.

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , ,