Hannah Fitzpatrick and Anindya Raychaudhuri discuss a topical podcast that covers politics, power, and pop culture

What is the State of the Theory podcast?

Hannah Fitzpatrick: Like most podcasts, State of the Theory is a manifestation of our narcissism. It began as an optimistic hope (albeit with few expectations) that our casual conversations might be of interest to, and spark debate among, our friends and colleagues. We used to commute together a few times a week, and the car became a sort of impromptu seminar venue, but without the audience. After the last research auditing exercise undertaken by the UK government in 2014, Impact and Public Engagement became quantifiable entities that might be used for or against us later in our careers, so the podcast is a sort of compromise, a way for us to demonstrate that our thoughts have value beyond the walls of the Vauxhall Astra, while still doing it on our own terms. A way of selling out without entirely selling out, if you will. Also, we missed the long drive, where all we could do was chat, and we could have these long, multi-stage conversations over the course of a week or two, so the podcast was a way for us to recreate that time. (more…)

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Michel Foucault

“The shape of Foucault’s intellectual trajectory was already controversial during his lifetime. Readers asked, for example, whether his late turn to the ethics of self-care was a betrayal of his earlier Nietzschean prophecy that the concept of “man” was destined to disappear. How could he distinguish between right and wrong in human actions without a commitment to the self and the human? Had Foucault finally renounced Nietzsche, and if so, was that a good or bad thing?

The lectures, diverging as they often do from the books that made Foucault famous, only added to the controversy. They are—along with various manifestos, unpublished drafts, interviews, and other miscellaneous writings—now also the subject of two fascinating new books by Stuart Elden: Foucault: The Birth of Power and Foucault’s Last Decade. In the former, Elden tries to soothe some of the long-standing tensions between Foucault and Marx, in part by displaying hidden continuities between Foucault’s early work on madness and knowledge and his later work on power. In the latter, Elden deals with the 10 years after Foucault finished the manuscript of Discipline and Punish and began (on the same day!) The History of Sexuality. He shows how much of Foucault’s interest in sexuality was actually an interest in governmentality, or technologies of rule. When Foucault talked about subjectivity, Elden argues, he was also talking about the formation of subjects in the political sense, or how human beings become subjected to power.”

— Bruce Robbins, The Nation

Jeffrey R. Di Leo on a new essay collection that explores the legacy of critical theory since the deaths of some of its leading figures

How did you come to put together Dead Theory?

Jeffrey R. Di Leo (ed.), Dead Theory: Derrida, Death, and the Afterlife of Theory (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Jeffrey R. Di Leo (ed.), Dead Theory: Derrida, Death, and the Afterlife of Theory (Bloomsbury, 2016)

I was writing a review of Vincent Leitch’s Living with Theory (2008) several years ago and could not help thinking that the opposite might also be the case, namely, that we are “dying with theory.”  At the time, it was nothing more than a passing thought, but one that stuck in my head.  A few years later, when I was reading about “critical climate change” and the proposal that the time scale and size of climate change calls for an entirely new critical language the thought came back.

It was a volume edited by Tom Cohen on the topic of critical climate change published by Open Humanities Press (Telemorphosis: Theory in the Area of Climate Change, Vol. 1, 2012).  I wrote an essay for symplokē on the subject entitled “Can Theory Save the Planet” (2013).  The subject of whether the work of philosophers like Derrida, who were now deceased, could have any bearing on current discussions in critical climate change intrigued me.  As I started to discuss this issue with some of my colleagues as well as the topic of “dying with theory,” the idea of a collection of essays on dead theory began to take shape. (more…)

Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?

The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?

That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out. (more…)

Michael Richardson discusses how literature can help shed new light on our understanding of torture, trauma, and affect
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)

How did you come to write Gestures of Testimony?

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to declassify the Torture Memos of the Bush Administration. Suddenly, the architecture of American torture was visible to an extent that it had never been before. At the time, I was working as a speechwriter in Canada for Jack Layton, who was then the leader of the New Democratic Party, and watching very closely what was happening across the border. I became obsessed with how torture was articulated and authorised, and even more so with the effect it had on both survivors and perpetrators. I’ve always understood the world through writing and literature, so I wanted to understand torture in that context too. That led me to a PhD on torture, literature and politics, and from there to writing Gestures of Testimony. (more…)