Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25: Theories for the New Millennium
Guest Writer: Debleena Biswas

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Cary Nelson opens the symposium
[On February 8, 2013 the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted its spring symposium on “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25:Theories for the New Millennium." The below contribution is from graduate student Debleena Biswas.]

Theorizing (Dis)Unities: Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25

Debleena Biswas (English)

The Unit for Criticism’s symposium, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25: Theories for the New Millennium” brought together voices that attempted to ‘world’ our modes of understanding our current situation as intellectuals, theorists, and teachers in North American universities. Some of the participants had already read the work of the invited speakers at two meetings of a faculty/graduate student seminar, and the event built on and extended those lively debates.

In the articles we read for the seminar, Carolyn Lesjak and David Kazanjian drew attention to “reading dialectically” and the productive effects of “overreading facts.” Laura Chrisman discussed the exclusion of Africa in much “black Atlantic” theory since Paul Gilroy’s seminal work, while Shu-mei Shih described new ways of thinking about world literature. Lesjak’s attention to the academic worker and the potentially revolutionary subject found echoes in Nikhil Pal Singh’s essay on race relations (a topic that resonated with closing roundtable speaker Jessica Greenberg’s description of her fieldwork with activist students in the former Soviet bloc).

Cary Nelson opened the symposium by discussing the publication of Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture in 1988 and its efforts to respond theoretically to the history of Marxism in the twentieth century. His reminiscences about the summer conference that eventually became Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture threw light on its aims in the 1980s while also speaking to many changes that have taken place in the last 25 years. According to Nelson, Marx is still urgently important at a time when there is ever less solidity to “melt into air.”

In a paper subtitled, “Why We Must all be Marxists Now,” Lesjak tried to imagine an alternative future for the university through the practice of dialectical thinking she had outlined in her article: she also referenced Nelson’s framing of the importance of struggle over the condition of the university in books such as Academic Keywords. Lesjak’s paper drew on Theodor Adorno’s introduction to Minima Moralia in which he critiques Hegel’s view of the individual as an irreducible datum, when in fact the individual is in a period of decay. Lesjak found the university to be “ill” (in a Derridean sense) and called both for theoretical and practical work on one’s own campus as well as in dialogue with the global “commons.”


Shu-mei Shih calls for new arcs of “relational comparison"
Shih, speaking again on the topic of world literature, called for new arcs of “relational comparison” based on historical connections by way of injecting new scale and scope into our conventional notions of world literature. What happens, she asked, if we consider pre-modern history as we think about global networks and relations of power? Or if we look at Western history from the perspective of its debts to the Middle and Far East as scholars like Andre Gunder Frank have done? Shih cautioned against either a reflexive anti-Eurocentrism or a rosy Sinocentrism; instead she proposed the idea of a “literary arc” that links up multiple nodes (texts, spaces, events, issues) in an open system. Literary arcs give us connected histories, one example of which is the post-slavery plantation arc that Shih wrote about in her article for the seminar. As Nelson pointed out in the discussion that followed, the arc cannot model the entire network of power relations in which it is embedded; but, as Lauren Goodlad observed, temporal arcs, which do not claim to be inclusive, can help us to do justice to particular swathes of space and time.

In a series of talking points on black internationalism that continued the exercise of evaluating old systems by the light of new facts, Chrisman looked back on a significant omission in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. She argued that the book largely neglected to look at the history of revolutionary, anticolonial, and independent movements in Africa which included significant Marxist activity. Choosing examples from the archives of The Negro Worker which dated back to the 1930s, she argued that these early Marxists had articulated political, cultural, and theoretical concerns that long predated Paul Gilroy’s work on the Atlantic and much else in recent theory. These articles highlighted a comparative, global, anticolonial, and anticapitalist consciousness inserting itself into critical debates long before the publication of Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Why weren’t such texts or at least the movements they derive from included? What would it mean to import readings of those colonial thinkers into African-American studies in the US?


David Kazanjian converses with Ericka Beckman
Kazanjian’s "For a Speculative American Studies" argued for a radical over-reading to complement the omissions of more abstract kinds of theory. He emphasized a particular meaning of speculation (the term Hegel preferred to what we call “dialectic”) and argued for scaling up everyday history-making by reading documents as if they had a speculative component. The paper built off the approach described in his essay-length review of Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti: and Universal History in which Kazanjian argues that the writing of an emancipated slave living in Liberia should not be viewed merely as concrete history but also as 'theory' in the sense that Hegel’s philosophy is.


Gopal Balakrishnan gave the audience a sense of his work in progress on an as yet unknown early Marx. The idea behind coverering these lost connections to Marx’s early criticisms of civil society was to provide a necessary defamiliarization when, (to borrow Ericka Beckman’s rephrasing of one of Balakrishnan’s points), we can no longer rest our theories on laws of motion of capital alone. Goodlad drew connections between questions posed by Eleanor Courtemanche and Michael Rothberg. Turning back

Gopal Balakrishnan addresses the audience in the Levis Faculty Center
to Balakrishnan’s essay on “The Stationary State” she asked what the impact of rising inequality might be on the current capitalist crisis.

Other closing remarks by Ericka Beckman, Tariq Ali, and Jim Hansen also raised broad questions about conceptions and ontological presuppositions in Marxist thought. How do the logic of actions and observed movements and not given conditions reveal relations of power? Can we get beyond Marx’s emphasis on the live-ness of things? Is Marxism still unable to deal with indigeneity? How do we encompass diversity, now?

At the concluding round table Ali, an assistant professor in History, taking debt and commodification as central terms, opened with questions about the relation of the project of political economy to the project of Marxism now, and whether they have a similar shared project. How might the quotidian be taken to larger and common scales and how can the grassroots be used for universal critique? To this end, he suggested, everyday theorists should be taken seriously, including anticolonial, nationalist, Marxist leaders outside Europe and America, because our vantage points matter. It is possible, according to Ali, to speak of the crisis of capital at venues such as this, but the legitimating discourses of capital are still powerful in Asia and Africa, and Marxist thought coming out of there would necessarily be different.

Beckman, an associate professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, spoke about imagining a future for Marxism with an awareness of our "present saturation." She asked that we rethink "coercion" in a world where coercive apparatuses coexist with economic apparatuses in pernicious ways. She reiterated the problem of Eurocentrism mentioned throughout the symposium and emphasized the need to remain open to ideas from places to which we do not normally accord theoretical agency.

Closing Roundtable from left to right: Greenberg, Ali, Beckman,
Hansen, & Nelson

In a vivid vignette of changing zeitgeist among student activists, Greenberg, an assistant professor of Anthropology, described a "pragmatic politics of disappointment" with utopian ideas where assurances that "It will be better" hinder political revolution as people stand in place waiting for a future that never comes. Urging us to think of Marxism itself as a cultural formation, Greenberg argued for a scaling up of everyday forms of resistance into theory and a "politics of the now" following Antonio Gramsci’s idea that utopia is the opposite of politics and the present is a site and time of revolution. The struggle over grand narratives is never only ideological; people on the ground make sense of them through political actions within available horizons.


Finally, Hansen, an associate professor of English, in an apt summary of the cognitive mapping of the day, reminded us that the original collection of essays within Marxism and the Interpretation of Theory and this symposium were not the final words on academic political theory, but rather building blocks on future political thought. A necessary part of this project is imagining and testing a new language for nodes, trajectories, movements and "the people"--"masses," "commons," "occupy"--to meet our need to theorize the "now."

Cary Nelson’s closing words, emphasizing the forms of Marxist inspiration available now and the need for collective action within the politics of academia, brought back the relevance of Marxist thought within the anti-necessitarian trend in theory. Our attempts to theorize thick nodes, times and spaces of intense connections, without sacrificing an awareness of translocality or the articulations of group desire in different parts of the world, aid in connecting and constructing the complex, flexible network of (human) relations we inhabit and in which we must remain aware agents.

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