Second Session: Terror and Trauma

Our second meeting will take place on Thursday 25th February in Room GSB2, 2 Gower Street between 1 and 3pm, and we will discuss chapter 2 and chapter 5 of Judith Butler's Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 'Violence, Mourning, Politics,' and 'Precarious Life.'

As optional secondary reading, we suggest Adriana Cavarero's Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, Trans. William McCuaig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

The session's key questions will be as follows:

'From the subsequent experience of loss and fragility, ... the possibility of making different kinds of ties emerges' ('Violence, Mourning, Politics', p. 40). Does Butler's theory of mourning and vulnerability provide an adequate ethical response to acts of terror in the West?

'[W]e would be wrong to think that the First World is here and the Third World is there, that a second world is somewhere else, that a subaltern subtends these divisions. These topographies have shifted, and what was once thought of as a border ... is a highly populated site ...' ('Violence, Mourning, Politics', p. 49). Has a shifting of global borders in the early twenty-first century rendered ideas of 'otherness' and 'difference' newly problematic?

'The Other makes an ethical claim upon us ... the Other is the condition of discourse' ('Precarious Life', pp. 138-9). What does Butler mean when she uses the term 'discourse', and does she employ it in an appropriate way?

'The derealization of loss - the insensitivity to human suffering and death - becomes the mechanism through which dehumanization is accomplished. This derealization takes place neither inside nor outside the image, but through the very framing by which the image is contained' ('Precarious Life', p. 148). In what ways can literature and/or critical theory effectively respond to a dehumanising 'derealization of loss'?


First Session: Introduction

Our introductory meeting will take place on Thursday 11th February in Room GSB2, 2 Gower Street between 1 and 3pm, and we will discuss Catherine Belsey’s article “The Death of the Reader” (Textual Practice, Volume 23, Issue 2, April 2009, pp. 201-214). The article can be accessed online at Senate House Library from the computers provided and at most other libraries from the University of London. Hard copies should also be available.

The session’s focus will be on the following:

- Is the reader dead?

- “Critical biography is not an aid to reading but a substitute for it” (p. 212). Is this true?

- Are the “Death of the Author” and the “Death of the Reader” mutually exclusive?

- “Literature can be dangerous” (p. 203). Is reading a political act?

Mission Statement and Archive

It was amazing in a way, what he’d said, one sentence, five words, and think of everything it says about everything there is. The sun is a star. When did she realize this herself and why didn’t she remember when? The sun is a star. It seemed a revelation, a fresh way to think about being who we are, the purest way and only finally unfolding, a kind of mystical shiver, an awakening.
Don DeLillo, Falling Man

Thinking about the present can be a difficult, disorienting and sometimes even dangerous task. Lacking the perspective afforded by hindsight, acts of interpretation can be made extremely problematic: what one assumes in the present to be a self-contained truth may, in time, reveal itself as merely one in a vast number of interconnected historical realities.

The purpose of this Seminar is to question the extent to which critical theory in the early twenty-first century has both shaped and been shaped by a contextual ‘framing’ of the present. In doing so, we want to find out is whether today’s theorists, like their more established forebears, can still help to construct the kind of critical language necessary for the establishment of new, more textured understandings of our place in the world. Although the group is aimed primarily at students of English, it is highly interdisciplinary and those with backgrounds in other disciplines are very welcome to attend. All perspectives are valued, and we try to encourage questioning and debate among a diverse range of participants, no matter how well-acquainted they may be with theory or the complex terminology that it often employs.

‘Reality is a question of perspective,’ Salman Rushdie wrote in his 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children: ‘the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible’. Using the example of a cinema-goer who slowly moves up towards the screen, his narrator goes on to explain that ‘Gradually the stars’ faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; the illusion dissolves – or rather, it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality’. What takes place here is a form of radical ‘unconcealment’ that, to borrow DeLillo’s phrase, is not unlike the wide-eyed childhood realisation that ‘the sun is a star’. The very lack of perspective is itself revealed to be a kind of perspective. Moreover, it is precisely this kind of paradoxical understanding of the world – a simultaneous ‘dissolving’ and ‘making clear’ of reality – that critical theory, in dialogue with literature, can help weave into a figurative language for our time.


27/02/13: Dr Adeline Johns-Putra (Surrey) - '"Caring" for the Environment: Notes Towards a New Materialist Critique'

06/02/13: 'Latourism: 5 Bruno Latours': Collaborative Session with the Contemporary Fiction Seminar

30/01/13: Professor Tim Armstrong (RHUL) - 'Problems with Trauma Theory'

23/01/13: Dr David James (QMUL) - 'Enduring Consolations'

30/05/12: Professor Josh Cohen (Goldsmiths) - 'Something Lost: Words and the Voiding of Psychic Reality'

23/05/12: 'Theory Shaping Fiction | Fiction Shaping Theory': Collaborative session with the Contemporary Fiction Seminar (Institute of English Studies) - Speakers: Mark Blacklock (Birkbeck) and Emilia Borowska (RHUL)

16/05/12: Professor Catherine Belsey (Swansea) - 'Dangerous Dead Women and the Practice of Criticism'

02/05/12: Professor Wendy Wheeler (London Met) - 'Biosemiotics and the Book of Nature: Realism, Nominalism and Science Beyond Gnostic Earth-Hatred'

07/03/12: Coming to Terms With the Digital - Speaker: Zara Dinnen (Birkbeck)

15/02/12: DVD Screening: Examined Life

01/02/12: Dr Kristen Kreider (RHUL) - ''Reflections on a Future Nostalgia: Exploring Andrei Tarkovsky's Film Image and its Expansion through Contemporary Art'

18/01/12: DVD Screening: Edward Said - The Last Interview

15/11/11: Dr Jane Elliott (KCL) - 'The Prison-House of Agency: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Aesthetics in Britain and the US'

18/10/11: Dr Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths) - 'Seeing Socialism: The Aesthetics of the Plan and the Transparency of Politics'

11/07/11: UNCERTAINTY: THEORY IN THE 21ST CENTURY SYMPOSIUM; Keynote Speakers: Professor Martin McQuillan (Kingston) and Professor Mark Currie (QMUL)

07/07/11: Dr Dan Varndell (Southampton and Winchester) - ''Excrementality' in the Movies: Can Hollywood be 'Incoherent?''

25/05/11: Interculturalism - Speaker: Emer O'Toole (RHUL)

29/03/11: Dr Steven Morrison - 'Breathing the Same Air: Posthuman and Preanimal'

14/03/11: Professor Robert Eaglestone (RHUL) - 'Discourses of Biopolitics, the Human and Mass Murder'

28/02/11: Violence - Speaker: Dr Eva Aldea (Westminster and Goldsmiths)

14/02/11: Professor Derek Attridge (York) - 'What Does it Make You Feel?: Responding Affectively to Literature'

31/01/11: Posthumanism - Speaker: Louise LePage (RHUL)

10/01/11: DVD Screening: Derrida

08/12/10: Environmental Disappointment: Bruno Latour and Anthony Giddens

24/11/10: Dr Simon Glendinning (LSE) - 'The Deepest Wounds: On Blows to Narcissism'

15/11/10: DVD Screening: Democracy and Disappointment: Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley in Conversation

10/11/10: The Politics of Disappointment: Simon Critchley

27/10/10: Professor Andrew Gibson (RHUL) - 'Intermittency and Disappointment: Jambet, Rimbaud and the Melancholic-Ecstatic Conception of Historical Time'

13/10/10: Disappointment with Politics: Alain Badiou

25/03/10: Criticism and Crisis: Slavoj Zizek

11/03/10: Ecocriticism: Ursula K. Heise and Hubert Zapf

25/02/10: Terror and Trauma: Judith Butler

11/02/10: Introductiory Session: Catherine Belsey's 'The Death of the Reader'