Seminar 7: Tuesday May 23rd, 2017

Humanity as a (Property) Right

The final seminar of the academic year will speculate through and with the work of legal scholar Sora Han and the philosopher Charles Mills on the vicissitudes of personhood under the law. These two essays analyse this theoretical entity (and its associated attributes of self, rights, and ownership) using de-colonizing critical techniques but without yet proposing a new concept of ‘humanism’ as does the critic Sylvia Wynter. The person as a legal object is an emblem for autonomy which exists in a web of (disavowed) dependencies – on regimes of power and knowledge from one side, and on the economic structures of capitalist modernity.  It is thus a site of historical and social contradiction, a resistant object – just like ‘the law’ – which navigates through the naturalised abstractions of right, money and security in sometimes emancipatory, sometimes repressive ways. The person or the self as the closest experience of reality as its intercut with social abstraction should not blind us to its equivocal character as a tool of normalization: the division between the normal and the deviant of gender, religion, race and desire. Yet the person or the human is an index of epistemic and historical antagonisms – of ‘truth-shaped lies’ -  that other terms, such as the virtuous signifier ‘bodies’, are as powerless to unpack as would be a sudden return of the pre-modern term ‘souls’.

Han, in a text that has been cited and discussed by Fred Moten among others, highlights the case of the enslaved woman who would not be liberated by the judgment of the court. Her approach is subtle, arrestingly literary and pessimistic, Charles Mills, on the other hand, rigorously delves into the relationship between the emergence of personhood and modern conceptions of property rights in 18th century Anglo-American capitalist societies. They are thus complementary readings of the intertwined institutions of freedom and slavery that only such societies can reproduce, as effectively and durably as they have. For those of us who were in the seminar last year, this session will form another complement, namely to last year’s final reading: ‘Fractal Freedom’ by Hannah Black.


Sora Han (2015) ‘Slavery as Contract: Betty's Case and the Question of Freedom’, Law & Literature, 27:3, 395-416, DOI: 10.1080/1535685X.2015.1058621

Charles W. Mills, ‘The Political Economy of Personhood’, part of ‘On the Human: a project of the National Humanities Center’, April 2011,

(please note – this text is quite short but you may find the below-the-line discussion quite interesting as well)

Seminar 6: Tuesday April  25th, 2017

Decolonizing Violence and the Dialectic

This seminar will be an opportunity to engage in-depth with one of the most significant contributors to mid-20th century anti-colonial liberation struggles and to critical race theory – the thought and praxis of decolonization, Frantz Fanon. The introductory section to 1961’s Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth, 1963), ‘On Violence’ offers at once a source text for the debates explored in the reading from last term and a problematic item in their archive, given its attention to organised violence in the decolonizing process and imbrication of epistemic change in the colonial, and then anti-colonial, situation of forces on the ground. Departing from phenomenological, existentialist and Hegelian concerns with the formation of the self in antagonism with constituted reality, the collective overcoming of this reality by those reified into the objects of racialized colonial domination has a therapeutic no less than a political dimension, or perhaps a re-inscription between the two for Fanon as variously a militant and a psychotherapist. By reading ‘On Violence’ we see how the question of epistemic justice and epistemic violence is articulated with the terrifying pragmatics of a liberation struggle, in which contradictions, ambivalences and repressions become more visible in the rearview – also a fitting principle in the year of the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This further discloses the need to articulate and weave what can be termed ‘shifts in consciousness’, such as the ones propagated by the crucial discussion on decoloniality and decolonizing in the contemporary discourse around aesthetics, practices and institutions, with often drastic, unpalatable and irredeemable aspects of drastic social change which may be needed to put these into operations. Or, put more simply, the nature and scale of the notion of ‘violence’ as it splinters between structural and grassroots, stabilizing and de-stabilizing in its aims – a distinction itself blurred by the multiple scales of ecological damage in vastly differentiated social experience.

Finally, the question of the relationship between theory and political program has been perhaps exhaustively showcased in the instance of, and the scholarship on, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. We will see how Fanon appropriates and transforms this dialectic in ways that extend its focus on the pedagogy of oppression, but bring it to an open-ended historical logic where the very sense of the human is at stake, and not only a role reversal.


Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Richard Philcox, trans., Grove Press: New York; ‘On Violence’, pp. 1-62

Suggested Reading

George Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, Duke University Press: Durham, NC and London, 2017; ‘Ruptures’, pp. 9-14; ‘Toward a New Dialectics of Race’, pp. 47-73; ‘The Decolonial Nation in Motion’, pp. 75-102

Seminar 5: Monday March 13th, 2017

Decolonial Feminist Critique

For our fifth seminar, we edge closer to a current of thought which departs from the seminar’s explorations of lived knowledge as an mutable, entangled process with determinate institutional and material conditions – the speculative basis of a politics of negativity to all that exists, on the one hand, and an affirmation of recursive, fragile and passionate coalescence on the other – but places it in the geopolitical framework of decolonial critique.  Capitalist value does not just rely on labouring bodies, but the accumulation and disposal of bodies through gender and race, on ontologies of humanity and use whose systematic deployment comprises modernity. Foreshadowing next seminar’s look at theories of the human through the lens of black feminism and anti-colonial struggle (Wehelye and Fanon, respectively), we here encounter the crucial discussions around violence, epistemic and structural, and a new plotting of episteme and structure able to  connect historical document with philosophical proposition.  Further articulated in Maese-Cohen’s introductory text is the ‘unthought’ gender dimension of the best-known of these discussions and what it could mean to operate on a ‘planetary’ scale in projecting any emancipatory politics.

Accompanying is a short reflection on the present moment by Hannah Black.

Marcelle Maese-Cohen, ‘Toward Planetary Decolonial Feminisms’, qui parle, Spring/Summer 2010, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 3-27.

‘New World Disorder: Hannah Black’ 27 February 2017

Seminar 4: Tuesday February 14th, 2017

For our fourth seminar, we turn again to the question of method. While this is a question which is an abiding concern for this seminar, it was foregrounded in our first meeting when we looked at the construction of a materialist politics of critique. This week, the concern is mediated through the politics of writing.  A writing diagonal to a field outlined but not totally determined by the demands of the academy and the market – but this does not exhaust the question of the logic of the form and address of critical writing. In a time traversed by crises that are ongoing but also punctual and uncanny in their extremity and historical evocation, who we address in our writing and how the form of writing itself is a vehicle of responsibility is a question that struggles to find a relevant framing. In The Essay as Form, Theodor W. Adorno suggests we conceive of critical writing ‘methodically unmethodically’. That is, in a broader, more self-reflexive, non-disciplinary way. The violence of disciplinarity is exorcised and defused by texts that finish when the writer is bored. It proposes an approach to writing that's predicated on one of the key principles that Max Horkheimer famously used to distinguish critical theory from traditional theory: that it reflects on the conditions of its own making rather than assumes it is a transparent tool for defining objects 'out there' in the world (as the epigraph has it, what is illuminated and not the light itself).


However, this should not be taken as an argument for a practice form-determined by its opposite:  post-disciplinary genre-bending free for all, as it were. This is about finding a form that is adequate to the content, and the distinction between them made porous. It is also about defending and developing the fundamentally extrinsic nature of criticism to its contents, or, more accurately, maintaining the distance between the writing and its subject in such a way that a relation can be developed within and over that distance (and here we can think maybe of the related concept of mimesis in Adorno and Walter Benjamin that they take over and transform from German romanticism). We thus approach Adorno’s essay in the matter and spirit of its letter: the essay is an ephemeral form, an uncomfortable form, a form lacking any inbuilt legitimacy.


Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form’, in Notes to Literature vol. 1, Shierry Weber Nicholson, trans., New York : Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 1-23


Secondary Reading

Antonia Birnbaum ‘The Obscure Object of Transdisciplinarity: Adorno on the Essay Form’, Radical Philosophy 198, pp. 15-24.



Seminar 3: Tuesday January 17th, 2017

The Phenomenology of the Rubber Subject

For our third seminar, we will delve further into what exactly is productive about speculation by revisiting the question of the subject – not as a centre of experience but as a glitch or a blur.  What are normally thought to constitute quite antipathetic trajectories of inquiry - speculative dialectics and affect theory - are sinuously brought together by the philosopher Katrin Pahl, whose project is to excavate the work of emotion in Hegel’s philosophy as a theoretical, theatrical but also immanently cognitive faculty.  Emotion is linked to mediation rather than the immediacy of direct experience, and the loss of self-control, or ‘transport’, is revealed as the clearest form of self-reflexivity. She thus aims to overcome some of the more simplistic and unhelpful binaries which have crept back into the theoretical debates, such as affect vs. rationality. The subject is shown as constitutively divided, and its experience of emotion is that of an impersonal process rather than a property - ‘emotions always include reflexive awareness but that this reflection does not require a human self.’ Hegel’s text thus proceeds in a ‘trembling’ between the loss and gain of the self to an always-hazardous and provisional self-awareness, and the Phenomenology, rather a fearsome philosophical operating system, emerges as a performative narrative that charts the itinerary of the subject as ‘plastic’ (Malabou) and self-deforming. Such an aesthetic view of the subject, if we read the subject as that which is always undermined and dissolved by its encounter with an object or an other, is further developed by Pahl in her engagement with Clarice Lispector’s saga of social class and the death of a cockroach (The Passion According to G.H.).

 Please be aware that we will mainly be focusing on the selection from the Hegel text, which is much shorter (and much denser), with the Pahl as an insightful commentary/companion. Both are necessary to read, however. 

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Phenomenology of Spirit, Terry Pickard, trans., 2012 [1807], Introduction, pp. 69-85

Katrin Pahl, Tropes of Transport: Hegel and Emotion, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2012. Introduction, esp. pp 3-11; Chapter 7, 181-210

further secondary texts on Hegel you may find interesting:

Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011

Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2009

Werner Hamacher, Pleroma – Reading in Hegel, Nicholas Walker and Simon Jarvis, trans., Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1998


Seminar 2: Tuesday December 13th, 2016

Artist at Work: On a Speculative Labour Politics in the Field of Art

This session focuses on the relationship between artistic work and artistic labour – as the content and the form of artistic practice – in order to find the political implications of the focus on ‘conditions’ central to the developing discussion in this seminar. A type of intervention whose terms seem to increasingly call for emergency re-thinking in a moment when we see social critique being rapidly derailed into violent authoritarian political projects, and aesthetics once more formalized as (memetic) identification with power. At the same time, there needs to be a concrete reckoning with the real significance of what has been gestured at over the last years, frequently with a very low degree of precision, as the ‘immaterial labour’ of the artist or cultural producer somehow exemplifying or prototyping what ‘capital wants’ from all its productive subjects, and the normative, gendered elements of this. Is this a materialist diagnosis, or is it a type of wishful thinking which tries to position artistic processes and artistic subjects at the centre of a systemic crisis while avoiding the struggle and decision immanent to the situation of politics?  As the performance theorist Bojana Kunst writes in the preface to her short book,  ‘the criticism and the provocativeness of art seem to be a part of the exploitation of human powers.’  If the phrase signals a familiar trope of recuperation, Kunst intends it only for a working hypothesis to be unpacked into a method of developing criteria to assess art’s political claims, whether they locate themselves in the work’s content, its mode of production and reception, or transversally to these. The remainder of the argument delves concretely into temporality, subjectivity, performance and gender to outline the conditions of the organisation of artistic labour and how the speculative content of art’s politics may or may not hit the ground in revising these conditions, not just for workers in art but for the enactment of a wider political imaginary predicated on speculative and militant practices of un-exploitable work and non-productive collectivity. 

For this session, we will concentrate on the following sections:

Introduction: The Uneasiness of Active Art, pp. 6-18.

Chapter 2, ‘The Production of Subjectivity’, section 2:1, ‘The Crisis of Subjectivity’, pp. 19-32

Chapter 5, ‘The Visibility of Work’, 132-175. 

Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism, Zero Books: Winchester, 2015.


Seminar 1: Tuesday October 25th, 2016

A Note on Method: Critique and Anti-critique as Dispositions Toward the Real

We will commence the 2016-17 year in the Speculation as a Mode of Production seminar with a collective reading of Benjamin Noys’ ‘Skimming the Surface: Critiquing Anti-Critique’ in order to clarify something to ourselves when it comes to the methodology of doing ‘things’ with theory (which would include ‘theory’ among the set of possible ‘things’).  Noys sets out a catalogue of positions in contemporary theory which strive ‘get closer to things’ by, paradoxically, staying on the surface. They thus distance themselves from a presumptively obsolete model of critique, with its pretensions to insight and mastery, in favour of a more engaged approach that takes seriously the fluctuant materiality of objects and relations and does not attempt to ‘transcend’ them in favour of a ‘view from nowhere’ that could grasp the whole. This would seem to recapitulate the older post-modernist rejection of master narratives, although this time avoiding the preoccupation with signs and going straight for the ‘stuff’, as we see it being valorised in ‘new materialisms’.  However, there is also a very interesting, and telling, dialectics of nearness and distance, surface and depth, in the turn towards proximity and direct experience, one which is no less theoretical than the spurned ‘critique’ but perhaps less interested in the politics of its own implication with the object.  We follow Noys as he navigates the various examples and debates on this terrain, with the aim of arriving at a more nuanced understanding of critique to inform our method of productively speculating in the year to come. This would be one that doesn’t polarize the close and the far, or oppose the realism of affirmation to the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, but tries to displace critical models from academia to the wider conditions of production and reproduction in capitalist life, with its messy ‘real abstractions’ of identity, violence and value.



Benjamin Noys, ‘Skimming the Surface: Critiquing Anti-Critique’, Journal of Cultural Research. ISSN 1479-7585 (Print) (In Press), 2016, pp. 1-29.

If you have time, it is recommended to take a look at the introductory reading from 2014-15, Theodor Adorno’s ‘Subject and Object’. This is provided in the Dropbox for the seminar.