Julie McCormick Weng, Unit for Criticism SCT Fellow, Summer 2013
When I told professors at UIUC that I was attending the School of Criticism and Theory, each had a unique, supportive response: "Ithaca is my favorite place"; "This experience will change and better your dissertation"; and from one member of my advisory committee, "I wish I could go with you. This year's slated speakers are the best I've ever seen." With such a chorus of affirmationand perhaps a little envyI left for "gorges" Ithaca, discovering that each comment resonated yet in no way captured the dazzling dimensions of the SCT.
At the SCT, I found the combination of seminars, public lectures, and social gatherings a stimulating platform for what director Amanda Anderson dubbed in her introductory address "live intellectual work." I took part in Jane Bennett's seminar, "A Political Ecology of Things," which worked as a forum for understanding and elaborating the evolving field of new materialism. For me, the seminar became an epicenter of the mesmerizing and unexpected. With readings ranging from Walt Whitman and George Perec to films such as Agnes Varda's Gleaners and I and Fiamma Montezemolo's Traces/Rastros, the class sought to evaluate canonical as well as unexpected sources in the search for a meaningful philosophy of materialism.
By the end of our six-week seminar, our class reiterated some of our central concerns as questions: How is novelty produced and do we need it for political action? When should scholars enact or withhold acts of judgment and critique in order to examine material interconnectedness and ontological possibilities? Can scholars be humanists without being anthropocentric? And perhaps one of our more polarizing questions: Does new materialism have a feminist or feminine sensibility? Overall, the range of related topics discussed in our seminar, mini-seminars, and public lectures prompted a key acknowledgement that our time constitutes a strange, paradoxical moment in historya moment where some theories in new materialism call for a move away from human centrality while notions of the anthropocene reinstitute the human as a source of primary agential power.
These questions and conversations were not limited to SCT scheduled events and venues. Part of what makes the SCT the SCT are the participant-organized activities, including dissertation-writing workshops, film screenings, reading groups, etc. My favorite of these extracurricular activities was an impromptu roundtable comparing historical materialism with new materialism. During this well-attended event, participants from various seminars articulated strengths and weaknesses to both approaches and discussed ways scholars might use one method or the other to treat a concrete issue like, as our group attempted, Guantanamo Bay.
Perhaps what surprised me the most about my participation in the SCT is the manner in which I will carry this experience with me, beyond my dissertation. As I move forward into my academic career, my time at Cornell will continue to contribute in fresh ways to my thinking, my scholarship, and my network of allies in the field of critical theory. In this way, the SCT offers participants like myself a vibrant means to intellectual insight and emerging possibilities.