Saturday, January 30, 2016

New from Theory & Event: "The Polis Artist"

I'm very pleased to announce the publication of my article on Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis and the politics of literature in Theory & Event. Here is the abstract:

Recent work on literature and political theory has focused on reading literature as a reflection of the damaged conditions of contemporary political life. Examining Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, this essay develops an alternative approach to the politics of literature that attends to the style and form of the novel. The form and style of Cosmopolis emphasize the novel’s own dissonance with the world it criticizes; they moreover suggest a politics of poetic world-making intent on eliciting collective agency over the commonness of language. As a “polis artist,” DeLillo does not determine a particular politics but shapes the conditions and spaces of political life with an eye toward alternative futures.

If you would like a PDF of the final version, send me an email.

While the Herodotus project has continued to percolate, I have given a good deal of energy to this project on political theory and literature. Building on my article “Socrates in a Different Key: James Baldwin as Black American Socrates,” I've been interested in contemporary American literature and its relationship to democracy. In three essays substantially revised and drafted since coming to Bryn Mawr, I've explored how literature not only figures democratic deficits of various kinds – legitimation crises, absences and silences in ethical life, pathologies inherent to the experience of freedom, and so forth – but also how literature responds to these deficits, how it intervenes in the very problems it diagnoses. On my reading, writers like DeLillo and Joan Didion not only share an epoch of recent history; they also share a reflexivity about the work of literature (and writing more generally) in this epoch. I see this commonality in their attention to form, compression, and the language codes and keywords of their times; these aspects of their writing suggest modes of political work entailed by their literary practice.

At this spring's meeting of the Western Political Science Association, I will present another essay in this series, examining the poetics of citizenship in contemporary American poetry.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Spring 2016 Courses

The semester approaches and I have drafted new versions of my "Modern Political Philosophy" course as well as a democratic theory course entitled "The Power of the People." I'm also supervising eight outstanding thesis writers in the Political Science department, so it will be a busy winter and spring!

In "Modern Political Philosophy" (draft syllabus here) I'm teaching Adam Smith for the first time as well as devoting a few weeks to colonialism, multiculturalism, and the politics of recognition with readings from Frantz Fanon, Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Audra Simpson, and Glen Coulthard. When I taught a course on capitalism at Deep Springs a few years ago I first recognized the proximity of Smith and Marx; teaching them in succession leads students to see how much the latter emerges from the former and thus how communism can really follow from capitalism. My addition of readings around questions of recognition also stems from the last time I taught "Modern Political Philosophy" at Bryn Mawr when I saw how much students wanted to think more about multiculturalism and issues of identity in diverse societies. Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks is so brilliant and my experience teaching that as a prelude to work on contemporary work (in my Hegel and the Politics of Recognition course at Deep Springs in Spring 2014) showed its effectiveness in opening up these questions even to students insulated from the struggle for recognition.

"The Power of the People" (draft syllabus here) examines democracy and democratic theory with a special emphasis on deliberative democracy. This course owes a lot to conversations with two of my good friends from graduate school and especially David McIvor, who taught a very similar course at Colorado State last year. I'm excited to teach contemporary work by folks like Danielle Allen and Jeffrey Stout as students consider what democracy could mean beyond national elections, both at the grassroots level in the United States as well as around the world. I'm also experimenting with a critical literature review aimed at helping students to join the research conversation about democracy so that they can contribute to (and popularize) this work.

I will post final versions of these syllabi in the coming week under Teaching.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Further reflections on the fall

Reflecting on the two courses I taught during fall 2015, I've come to realize the importance of another part of my teaching: the book club that I helped to organize and facilitate in a Philadelphia prison. Every Friday I and two of my colleagues along with seven or eight of our students from Bryn Mawr's "Arts of Resistance" 360 Cluster (website) traveled to northeast Philadelphia to a women's prison where we read and discussed books together for ninety minutes. We read Claudia Rankine's "Citizen," the Seamus Heaney translation of Antigone ("The Burial at Thebes"), John Edgar Wideman's "Brothers and Keepers," and some other short pieces. The books constituted our curriculum: students took turns preparing "lessons," which usually consisted in questions and activities to stimulate discussion; we left a great deal of space for the conversation to emerge and develop in the most organic way possible. ("Organic" insofar as we're still talking about a particular kind of hot house, one surfeited with "artifices" of domination and oppression, inequality and difference.)

I'm still making sense of this learning community but it's cast different light on some of my criticisms of conventional colleges and universities. For one, the degree of freedom -- to study, to discuss, to experiment with one's life -- at American colleges and universities amazes me. For another, the way that ideas circulate in material terms through texts and the special pleasures of these texts, pleasures one does not fully recognize until they're lost or, as in my case, witnessed anew when the incarcerated people took the books we gave them and came to treasure them -- this astounds and impresses me.

Most of all, I'm struck by how the lack of a powerful reality principle -- the narrowing and focusing that the career mentality imposes on all students to varying degree -- changes the tenor of a learning community like the one in the prison. Here we were in a situation of radical unfreedom and yet I and my Haverford and Bryn Mawr students often felt freer than we felt in any classroom. It was a playful and imaginative space devoid of posturing and the dynamics of reputation and shame. I kept (and keep) wondering: Why can't we have something like this without having these horrific institutions of incarceration? And how can we bring together folks from such different places and with such different stories for something like this -- a simple book club, yes, but also a space for genuine reflection and dialogue untethered to any specific politics or collective decision?