July 19, 2006

Not stuffy, not pretentious, School of Criticism and Theory finds fun in intensity and mental rigor

During the summer, Ithaca usually languishes in energy-sapping heat. Not so Cornell's School of Criticism and Theory (SCT), an annual gathering of faculty and advanced graduate students passionately interested in critical theory. This month Cornell is hosting the 30th annual meeting of SCT from July 18 to 26, bringing together an array of international scholars embodying interdisciplinary interests from humanistic and related disciplines, including English, comparative literature, history, political theory, film and theater studies.

What this dynamic group proves is that critical theory has a vital political and personal purpose, and SCT actively seeks to meld theory with human action. The endeavor is far from stuffy or pretentious, says former student Tue Anderson Nexo from Copenhagen University. Of a previous conference, he said, "It was a kind of fun that wasn't opposed to mental rigor or mental challenges. It thrived on them."

Eneken Laanes from the University of Tartu, Estonia, added: "Although I have studied in a number of different countries, SCT still surprised me with its exceptionally wide international range." At a past conference, he said, "I spent many nights with a map of the world and with an encyclopedia, just to make sure I knew the context in which to place the long conversations with my fellow participants."

For Dominick LaCapra, SCT's current director and the Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies at Cornell, SCT's hallmarks are "intensity, vitality, interdisciplinarity and intellectual stimulation."

Originally conceived in 1976 at the University of California (UC)-Irvine, SCT is now in its 10th year at Cornell, serving as a cutting-edge forum for the exploration of work by leading thinkers and scholars in humanist and social science disciplines. The program is now largely international in flavor, last year attracting 92 participants from 24 countries.

Democratic in intellectual approach, SCT embodies the give-and-take of intellectual debate. While there are no writing assignments or grades, participants can present their own work in colloquia, study groups and often in the seminars themselves. The weekly faculty colloquia are now legendary for the rare opportunity to explore profound issues in depth, said LaCapra.

Participants choose one faculty-led course from a series of six-week seminars, which meet twice a week, all broadly concerned with the cultural politics of knowledge production. This year, Amanda Anderson of Johns Hopkins University is teaching "Literary Theory/Political Theory," which explores the problematic intersections between the two fields. Brent Hayes Edwards (Rutgers University) is offering "Black Intellectuals," analyzing the links between race and knowledge. Eric Santner (University of Chicago) is presenting a seminar on "Creaturely Life" that addresses the boundaries between human and animal life. Two scholars from New York University, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, are focusing on "Traveling Debates in Translation," probing the efficacy of cultural labels like Eurocentrism, multiculturalism and postcoloniality.

SCT participants also attend a series of one-week miniseminars: Brunno Bosteels (Cornell) is offering "What is philosophy?"; Judith Butler (UC-Berkeley) is exmining violence as critique; Geoffrey Hartman (Yale University) is scrutinizing poetry and divinity through William Blake's work; Stephen Nichols (Johns Hopkins) is interrogating recent theories of language; and Haiping Yan (UC-Los Angeles) is outlining the problems of transcultural theater.

SCT faculty are also taking part in a public lecture series featuring Stamm on July 24, Yan on July 18 and Butler's lecture, "Aesthetics and Ethics in the Early Benjamin," on July 25. All lectures are held at 4 p.m. in Hollis Cornell Auditorium of Goldwin Smith Hall.

Paul Hansom is an Ithaca-based freelance writer.