A Reflection on My Experience of the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell
A few minutes into the first talk of the 2018 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series, I experienced a new sense of kinship and belonging at Illinois. Clear as a bell, I understood in that moment how my contributions to and participation in the intellectual life at Illinois also marks a space in the academy. This shift in consciousness would not have happened had it not been for the summer I spent as a student and interlocutor at the School for Criticism and Theory (SCT) at Cornell. Indeed, traces of my SCT experience continue to show up in the bountiful and invigorating campus life that makes up my day-to-day as a doctoral student in Library and Information Science and Latina/o/x Studies. I want to describe in this reflection sites where I find SCT’s presence, and how what I learned this summer at SCT is showing up all over the place, increasing my joy and curiosity in the promise that theory-making has for the sustainability of life. May this reflection also serve to express my deep gratitude to the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and the funders of the Nicholson Graduate Fellowship for supporting my academic development and giving me access to the SCT. And, may it also express my gratitude to my teachers at Illinois, Professors Elizabeth Hoiem, Sandra Ruiz, and Junaid Rana, for believing in my intellectual promise and for preparing me well to engage at SCT.
Professor Heather Love led a seminar titled, “Reading the Social World: Observation, Description, Interpretation,” which I attended twice a week at SCT. We comprised a misfit crew of doctoral students in literature, languages, social theory, and cultural studies, with training in humanist and social science methods. Professor Love’s outstanding and expansive teaching cultivated a space where all of us felt deeply invested in the exciting philosophical terrains that opened up at each session. Our investments in the historical debates and the contemporary stakes involved in the ethics and epistemologies at play in theoretical and methodological inquiries of social scientists and humanist played out in passionate arguments and textually accountable critiques. It was pretty thrilling! This regular practice of moving back and forth and through close-readings allowed us to practice the distinctions between interpretive and descriptive methods that lie at the heart of reading and theorizing our worlds. Moreover, proximity to so many heavy-hitters of high theory (Eduardo Cadava, Veena Das, Avital Ronell, Alondra Nelson, Hent de Vries, just to name a few), and their odd-ball and aspiring students (of which I am a proud member) also afforded a lot of practice space for intellectual engagement.
I understood the importance of this proximity and promiscuity between ideas when, for example, Professor Anna L. Tsing in her keynote address at the recent Unit symposium, “Unnatural Disasters: Climate Change and the Limits of the Knowable,” encouraged us think with collaborative methods about the patchy landscapes of precarious human and more-than-human life wrought by capitalist devastation, and to interrogate the implications of our conceptualizing in and of the Anthropocene. This idea of “patchiness” has stayed with me. I was introduced to it first in Professor Love’s SCT seminar where we read Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. During a coffee break at Friday’s session of “Unnatural Disasters,” I had a chance to talk with Professor Tsing about the function of optimism as a method for making “patchy moves” in intellectual inquiry and activist work. The question I asked her had been brewing since the night before, when after her keynote, many of us rushed over to Krannert Art Museum to catch the debut ofLimbs, a live performance piece by minoritarian queer Latinx artist Erica Gressman. The dynamism and complex layering of emotional and intellectual affect enacted by Gressman’s visual, sonic, and spontaneous landscapes, sustained my meditation on “patchiness.” I thought about the radical optimism of Gressman’s performance and her alignment with genealogies of minoritarian insurgencies in their resistance to the manifold violences of imperialism and colonization.
The efforts and commitments of all those involved in creating these spaces of intellectual and aesthetic engagement, afforded me proximity to ask Professor Tsing what she thought about optimism in facing the end of the world. What does radical optimism do in its world-making efforts—aesthetic theoretical political and loving efforts—against devastation? Rather than giving one definitive answer, Professor Tsing engaged me in conversation and told me to keep pursing my projects in picturebooks, especially because children’s ways of looking at and interpreting the world can lend sensibilities for considering landscapes we might otherwise not see. I took her guidance as encouragement to keep seeking proximities and unlikely collaborations and welcome ways of theorizing that may not be immediately legible in the academe. In other words: Be patchy.
My exchange with Professor Tsing, and the unfolding meditations resulting from Gressman’s Limbs, reflect back to me the aliveness of networks and kinships across intellectual life that exist for me thanks to the experiences afforded by SCT and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. For this I am grateful!