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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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?

Find out more

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