The Unit for Criticism is an interdisciplinary program located within the Graduate College and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Since its founding in 1981, the Unit has advanced the study of theory and shaped major debates about poststructuralism, Marxism, cultural studies, feminism, and postcolonial theory. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Unit emerged as a leading center for materialist thought and cultural studies in the United States.
The Unit’s first major event was the Marxism conference in the summer of 1983, supported by grants from the NEH and the University’s Research Board. The conference was preceded by a four-week summer institute led by luminaries such as Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, Gayatri Spivak and Stuart Hall. 200 people attended Hall’s lectures, which he delivered with no other prompt but a single notecard. Joining the institute for the conference were stars and rising stars such as Cornel West, John Berger, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Henry Lefebvre. Even as it was happening, the conference was recognized as an intellectual gathering of international significance, and it drew 900 attendees - the French Ministry of Culture even sent a chartered plane of participants.
Conferences and Unit publications such as Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988) and the landmark journal Cultural Studies (1991) set a bold agenda for research in critical theory. The original proposal for the Unit provided a description of the theoretical work to be undertaken:
We may define an interpretive theory as a body of general principles that makes possible the description, analysis, and evaluation of texts, cultural institutions, and historical and interpersonal processes. Such principles, then, describe and structure the relationship between concrete physical events or objects and their human significance or meaning….
We may define criticism—whether it occurs as aesthetic analysis or social explanation—as interpretive discourse that explores the relations pf theoretical models to texts or problems. These relations run both ways, the theory serving to investigate, clarify, and even reconstitute the object of study, while the concrete properties of the object force refinements in theory…
However, in the twenty-first century, as the epicenter of global transformation shifted to the global South, critical theory has fractalized, creolized, and tropicalized. New fields such as disability studies, environmental studies, post-development studies, and Indigenous studies have emerged, opening a space for new scales of analysis, objects of inquiry, and frames of comparison. Recent initiatives on “Unnatural Disasters” “Racial Capitalism” “Planetarity” and “Monolingualism and Its Discontents” exemplify the possibilities of working from “the South of theory.” Rather than responding to Eurocentrism solely with the corrective of producing theory from the South, working from the South of theory requires theorists located in the North and South to bring the centers of theory into critical and constructive dialogue with its peripheries. At the same time, the Unit is exploring materiality, visuality, the senses, and queer theory. These new visions animate the Unit today.