Debayudh Chatterjee (English), Unit for Criticism SCT Fellow, Summer 2022

Reflections on the School of Criticism and Theory, Summer 2022

Attending the six-week summer camp offered by the School of Criticism and Theory (SCT) at Cornell University was an invaluable experience. The opportunity to interact with professors and peers in the humanities and social sciences—affiliated with other universities across the United States, and different corners of Europe as well—was nothing short of enriching. I learned and unlearned, as I interrogated my theoretical foundations in the light of observations from young and mature researchers invested in serious scholarship.

I signed up for Prof. Amy Allen’s seminar on “Marxism and the Problem of History” as it aligns closely with my area of research: Marxist literary and cinematic imaginations in India in the age of globalization and Hindutva. Prof. Allen, amicable and industrious as she was, prepared an eclectic set of readings to reexamine the relationship between the philosophy of history and the critique of the capitalist order not just in the writings of Karl Marx, but in the corpus of a series of twentieth-century thinkers, philosophers, and activists influenced by Marx in different corners of the world. Therefore, our odyssey began by re-examining selections from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, The German Ideology, and the first volume of Das Capital. We paid close attention to how Marx dealt with the theme of history as we borrowed from theorists such as GA Cohen (Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense), Michael Heinrich (How to Read Marx’s Capital) and David Harvey (A Companion to Marx’s Capital), among others, to enhance our understanding.

Retaining Marx as the cornerstone of our theoretical foundation, we moved over to Althusser, Balibar, EP Thompson, and Rosa Luxemburg, in the subsequent fortnight. While the first half of the seminar was devoted to European Marxists, the second half pushed back against eurocentrism. We read WB Du Bois, Silvia Federici, Glen Coulthard, Robert Nichols, JC Mariátegui, and Enrique Dussel, among others to scrutiny how Marxist thought synthesized with critical developments in race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality across the globe. Prof. Allen included her own research on Marx in the final session. As someone coming from literary studies, taking a seminar with a bona fide philosopher assisted me to transcend the limits of my disciplinary boundary. While I was initially surprised to find a lack of exigence to historically contextualize the texts before unpacking them (I firmly believe that every argument is a product of its material conditions), I learnt a lot from a philosopher’s close read of an argument to evaluate its position across time and space.

Each of Prof. Allen’s sessions was divided into two parts. We discussed and debated the prescribed readings for the first one and a half hours. Two participants were assigned to speak on how their research concerns Marxist theory during the final hour. Fifteen to twenty minutes of the presentation was ensued by pertinent questions from Prof. Allen and their peers. I found these conversations to be extremely helpful. Listening to peers across disciplines (history, philosophy, political science, gender studies, comparative literature et al) at various points of their program deliberating on numerous issues, such as prostitution, migration, military history, deconstruction, and so on, yet seeking resort in the common tool of Marxist critique enabled me to visualize my own project at the onset of writing my dissertation. Each presentation was met with as much encouragement and enthusiasm as ruthless criticism; precisely the kind of feedback that every scholar at the beginning of their career looks forwards to.        

Apart from the rigorous seminar, the grueling six-week program contained a plethora of invited lectures, mini-seminars, publication workshops, and faculty colloquiums. This gave the participants a chance to engage with professors and peers beyond their immediate cohort. With four working days full of intensive reading and brainstorming, it was not strange that we felt burnt out on Thursdays, yearning for the happy hours at the downtown pubs to set in. Tompkins County, as picturesque as it is with its waterfalls and gorges, boasts of having fine wineries and perfect weekend getaways within its vicinity. We basked in the mirth of newfound camaraderie as we hosted house parties and went to karaoke nights together. My favorite memory of Ithaca will constitute the countless swim sessions at Wells Falls; I shall fondly recall the summer full-moon night that was spent conversing, singing, and reciting poetry by the water. I am grateful to the Unit of Criticism and Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign for selecting me as this year’s Nicholson fellow. Otherwise, I probably would have never experienced the marvels of Cornell University and tasted the delectable ice cream that its dairy bar vends!


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