The Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory

The first step in creating the Project in Experimental Critical Theory will be the convening of a seminar for the 2008-2009 academic year. The seminar will meet Winter and Spring quarters as a faculty and graduate seminar in New Directions in Critical Theory; graduate students would be able to take the seminar for credit, and faculty would be invited to present their own work or recent work by contemporary theoretical thinkers. Each quarter, two or three distinguished theorists, some of whom would be potential candidates for the Professorships in Experimental Critical Theory, will speak at UCLA and present their work to the seminar. Visitors scheduled for the winter are Barbara Cassin, Alain Badiou, Ronald Judy, and Etienne Balibar; visitors scheduled for the spring are Slavoj Zizek, Catherine Malabou, and Quentin Meillassoux.

The faculty Steering Committee will meet beforehand to elaborate the specific agenda for the two quarters of the seminar, the first quarter of which would be devoted to the question of “the human” and the second to “the collective.” The idea of the human is, of course, central to the project of the humanities and the history of humanism, and constitutes a key line of questioning for the development of an Experimental Critical Theory. Historically, the question of the place of humanity between animals and divine beings was fundamental to developing notions of subjectivity, agency, and identity. Any certainty about the status of that place, however, was quickly dislodged by scientific, political, and cultural experience, and the human became increasingly difficult to isolate from the non-human – whether animal or inanimate. This quarter will investigate some key classical formulations of the nature of the human, and then focus on contemporary transformations of the concept around such questions as human rights and their critique; the relationship of biological existence or “bare life” and the cultural or political fields in which it emerges; and the status of the non-human, the “post-human” and the “inhuman” in the ongoing history of the concept of humanity. What – if anything – is essential to the concept of the human today? How are developments in science and technology transforming the experience and idea of human being? How have new concepts of the human in turn informed our political and ethical understandings of such experiences as diaspora, exile, refuge, and asylum?

The notion of the collective, the topic of the second quarter of the seminar, is equally fundamental to the questions asked by Experimental Critical Theory. Ethnic, political, religious, and cultural collectivity have all been sites for the expansion of human creativity and the production of new ideas and ways of being; concepts of collectivity however have also been manipulated for the exclusion or destruction of human beings, their artifacts, and the worlds they inhabit. Thinkers from Plato and Aristotle through Marx, Freud, Durkheim and Arendt, to Balibar, Ranciere, and Habermas more recently have investigated the conditions and contradictions that structure the modes through which groups coalesce, persist, and dissolve, and these continue to be some of the issues that most trouble our world. This quarter will begin by examining some of the key theories of collectivity in classical and pre-modern texts, but will devote most of its attention to modern and contemporary theories of collectivity. Experimental Critical Theory has an essential relationship with the idea of the group, insofar as it makes explicit the interrelated problematics of universal, particular, and exception in “theory,” “critique,” and “experiment.” Hence this quarter will provide the springboard for the next phase of activity around the Project in Experimental Critical Theory, in which future seminars, programs, and other initiatives will be developed.