December 15, 2013, by ajzeg

Vital Theory – Eva Giraud’s keynote

We promised we’d publish talks, so I thought I’d kick things off by putting my own up. Mine was less of a keynote, more of a discussion about what we were doing in the centre this year and my thoughts about theory more generally – so I thought I’d write it up in a more formal way (and refrain from saying embarrassing things such as ‘and that’s why I love theory’, as I did on the day).

I’d insisted on putting a terrible Christmas CD on (full of guilty pleasure music like Wham! And Frankie Goes to Hollywood), and put a slide up of Coca-Cola Santa that also featured a happy robin shouting ‘consume, consume, consume’. As people arrived and were confronted with this, there was a mixture of amusement and thinly veiled horror (I’d have been a bit of both, if things had been reversed). As well as trying to generate an end of term feeling, part of my motivation for the music, images, etc was a segue into why theory mattered to me (and hopefully ‘us’, as in the collective who put on the event). This is the third Vital Theory and when we put on the first one in 2011 we’d had an extensive discussion about wanting to have some sort of critical theory ‘market’ (where we all did very short introductions to thinkers we loved and thought were politically important), but at the same time we didn’t want to actively call it a ‘market’ as (and I’m aware this perhaps sounds overly serious!) this sort of commercial sentiment was precisely what we (and the theory we engage with) works to critique. This unease at the term ‘market’ is why the critical theory ‘anti-market’ was born.

Obviously this was partly a joke, but it did carry some more serious connotations. Theoretical work, particularly from a broadly leftist and/or radical tradition, often finds itself at odds with an increasingly neoliberal institution. As well as the perennial marginalisation of theory for being ‘difficult’, ‘detached from reality’ or ‘elitist’ (criticisms I don’t have time to go into here, but are contentious to say the least), there is a sense that theory is being side-lined for its perceived lack of economic productivity.

This is compounded by (frankly offensive and patronising) portrayals of students as passive consumers who want to be spoon-fed and certainly don’t want to engage with challenging materials. This argument suggests that our role should simply be teaching students theory in a simple and easy way, that is directly relevant to the ‘real world’. What ‘the real world’ means in this context, however, are the norms, values and business practices established by a particular socio-economic system. This argument, therefore, leaves no space for questioning whether these norms are desirable or even inevitable. In contrast, theory creates space for understanding and interrogating this system and asking whether things could be otherwise. (This last point was the theme of last year’s event, Hopeful Theory, where we discussed how critique was important in clearing space for crafting more hopeful narratives about these alternatives.) What’s interesting is that – belying this framing of students as passive consumers – students themselves have actively been embracing (and even calling for) this form of political critique. This has been evident both in my own teaching, where I’ve engaged in some absolutely amazing discussions with students over the past few years, but also on a national level (such as recent student criticisms of economics degrees, for their failure to teach alternative economic theories such as Marxism).

These narratives of productivity and what students ‘want’, therefore, don’t seem to map onto reality (or certainly not the reality of what I’ve experienced). There is an urgent need, therefore, to craft counter-narratives that challenge these arguments and create space for alternative ways of thinking – and this sort of project has been at the heart of work engaged in by many of my colleagues at the centre.

We currently have three key themes that underpin different research clusters in the centre:

Sensing Change

Technology and Resistance

The Digital Unconscious

After a series of events on the theme of sensory studies, including the Affective Atmospheres study day in 2012, with talks by Tim Edensor and Ben Anderson, members of the centre saw a need to formalise research in this area. This was initiated by a longer event, the Sensing Change conference (March 2013), which saw the launch of the university’s Sensory Studies Network – which currently also involves academics from Geography, Music, History, Business and Film. Future events for the network are pencilled in for 2014 and include a day on Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis (17/1/13) and an event in the Geffrye Museum on the sensory home (more information here).

The second strand, technology and resistance, has developed after we had a host of speakers deliver related talks on the theme over the past few years: including Alan Liu, Lydia Liu, Joss Hands, Jenny Pickerill, Seb Franklin and Jussi Parikka. In March 2013 we dedicated a whole day to the theme, on our Jodi Dean study day – where we had a workshop based on her book Blog Theory, followed by short position papers exploring themes generated from the discussion, and culminating in a keynote talk on the Communist Horizon. Following this, myself and Andy ran a philosophy of technology reading group at Nottingham contemporary (to go with their Mark Leckey exhibition), which we thoroughly enjoyed. Again, members of the centre felt these events generated a lot of enthusiasm so in 2014 we are running a conference developing ideas from the theme in more depth (see our CFP for Friction! here).

The final strand, the digital unconscious, has again been something members of the centre have been exploring for a long time – that has steadily been gaining momentum since our conference on psychoanalysis and the posthuman in September 2009. In 2014 this theme will be developed further with events including the Subject of Addiction, which will be addressing the theme of technological addiction alongside its broader concerns with cultural discourses surrounding addiction (CFP here).


In the talk itself I then tied the centre’s themes into some broader theoretical issues – relating to communicative capitalism, critical digital studies, and posthumanist politics (and the rise of the ‘anthropocene’). This has already been a very long blog post though, so I think I’ll stop here…

…Or, at least I’ll stop after mentioning two last things:

1)      Email us or submit CFPs if you’re interested in any of the above events or networks.

2)      The image is my own entry for the critical theory biscuit competition… somewhat less impressive than Tracey Potts’ Walter Benjamin biscuits (as showcased in the previous post), but I enjoyed making them nonetheless.

(If you would like to attend Rhythmwork please email tracey.potts[at] as soon as possible, as places are limited.)


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