Joseph Coyle (Anthropology), Unit for Criticism SCT Fellow, Summer 2021

I embarked for Ithaca uncertain but optimistic about what it would mean and feel like to do things in-person again. I was excited about having conversations in the flesh at the Cornell School of Criticism and Theory summer session, looking for some inspiration after a year-and-a-half of Zoom-screen sociality. The short response is that I found it thanks to the support of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and the dynamic, interdisciplinary set of SCT participants. The longer response is about what it was like finding that inspiration during the on-going pandemic.

We all arrived, got our negative test results and uploaded our vaccination cards. We sat socially distanced in lecture halls with masks- for a day. Then pandemic optimism set in and the masks came off and we started to sit next to our friends and go to bars (you know where this is heading).

Because a lot of the large-gathering inter-seminar social events were COVID-cancelled, I spent most of my time with the people in my seminar- Magic, led by anthropologist Matthew Engelke. The major seminar is valuable as a place to work through a theme relevant to your dissertation project or other major work with a group of scholars from around the world. Many US institutions will send 1 or 2 students, like UIUC does. While “Magic” is not a theme of my dissertation per se, it is quite proximate. Spending six weeks with ~20 scholars in close-study working on related themes is really a gift. As it pertains to my work, my time with this seminar group was important in helping me think anew about forces animating contests over religious practices and social life.

Beyond the major seminar, SCT offers several lectures, mini-seminars, and colloquia on a rich set of themes taught by eminent scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. These opportunities helped me map out the “field imaginary” of critical theory more expansively and thus were also quite useful as I consider how my dissertation project situates itself in relation to theory more broadly.

It was hot in Ithaca. It was hot in the world- the hottest July on record, in fact. I didn't have AC. Most of us didn't. So outside of formal SCT activities, we wandered around too-hot and looking for the magic of doing things “in-person.” We did the things you might expect. We formed reading groups on the fly and gossiped about each other. Barbequed and partied. We went on hikes in the gorges, complained about the heat and other people's theoretical contradictions and projections. We constantly went out for ice cream.

As other previous fellows will tell you, some of the richest offerings at SCT happen outside of official events. The unplanned things that emerge, the collective ways of feeling things out. When you find things that you didn’t think you were looking for. I’m a cultural anthropologist, but the most fun I had at SCT was discussing Wuthering Heights and gossiping about the Bronte sisters with scholars in English and Comp Lit.

This ends how you might expect, too. Some of us got COVID, right as Delta started its sweep across the US, and just days before we departed back to our home institutions, scattered around the world. Some got positive tests while still in Ithaca, and had to figure out how to cancel travel plans and find safe places to isolate. Others got positive tests after arriving back home. It was a mess. The mess we still find ourselves in.