This essay looks at the relationship between political movements in the streets and critical theory in the academy. It asks whether today the lack of innovation in critical theory we see in some disciplines occasions, if not reflects, the muting of political dissent outside of the university. Contemporary critical theory now seems split into two separate fields, “criticism” and “theory,” revealing a configuration quite unlike what we saw in the earlier Frankfurt School, where these two terms were merged in the name of “critical theory,” which was practiced with attention to social crisis. We’re up to the neck in crises now. How will critical theory respond?
Critical Theory in Times of Crisis
Hortense Spillers is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Over the years, she has taught at Wellesley College, Haverford College, Emory, and Cornell Universities, in addition to serving as a guest professor in the Program in Literature at Duke University (2002–3). Among her publications are foundational essays like “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race.” Her scholarly writings are collected in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (2003). She has also edited Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text (1991); and coedited, with Marjorie Pryse, Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition (1985). Recipient of many honors, she received a Lifetime Achievement award from the literary journal, Callaloo, in 2016, and was honored with the Nicolás Guillén Lifetime Achievement award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association at its most recent international conference in summer 2017.
Hortense Spillers; Critical Theory in Times of Crisis. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 October 2020; 119 (4): 681–683. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-8663578
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