Experimental Critical Theory Program at UCLA (Chien-heng Wu)

Experimental Critical Theory Program at UCLA

Chien-heng Wu

Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Los Angeles, USA


I want to thank Comparative Literature Association for inviting me to offer some observations on the state of affairs for theoretical studies at UCLA’s Comparative Literature Department and say a few words on the way through which I keep in touch with intellectual communities. My discussion is organized into two sections. First, I discuss Experimental Critical Theory Program (ECT) at UCLA. This section offers a cursory look at the program’s theoretical orientation, its ongoing modifications, the success it enjoyed and the practical constraints it encountered. In a good comparative spirit, I also draw on Prof. Ioana Luca’s discussion of The School of Criticism and Theory (SCT) at Cornell University (see the Dec. 2012 newsletter) and highlight, via comparison, the advantages and disadvantages of ECT. I choose this topic because it has been a formative experience in my intellectual development and also because I feel that I am a little bit more qualified than others to say a few things about ECT simply by virtue of my seniority (four-year participation). In the second section, I move to a more general discussion about a few ways I employ outside the classroom context to keep abreast with the latest intellectual development.

The ECT Program consists of ongoing seminars held in Winter and Spring each academic year. The program has been in virtual existence since the early 2000s; it started out as a project and became an official program under Comparative Literature Department in 2009. Enrollment is by application. Each year around 20 students are admitted to the program who, upon completion of two core seminars, two other approved theory seminars and a number of other requirements, will be awarded a certificate in Experimental Critical Theory. In the early days, the participants were primarily graduate students from English and Comparative Literature. But the program has become much more interdisciplinary over the years as the seminar gains wider appeal to students from other languages departments and Departments of Political Science, Philosophy, Art History, Musicology, etc. The program also has other participants than graduate students; scholars, intellectuals, and artists from neighboring institutions or those who happen to be around the LA area attend the meeting every now and then, and their presence greatly contributes to the depth and breadth of discussion. In addition to regular seminars, there are also symposiums open to the public; reading groups can be arranged too. All these, in a way, are geared toward the biggest one-week event slated for the end of the Spring quarter. The event takes different forms depending on the theme of the year. For example, the 2012 event, centered around the idea of “change” and “the world” in the work of Alain Badiou, had Badiou and other militant intellectuals discussing Badiou’s book on the Arab Spring The Rebirth of History. The 2011 event under the theme “Philosophy, Art and Politics” featured, accordingly, conference, concert, performance, and film screening. Also as a part of the effort to enrich the experience, seminarians were given a chance to enjoy LA Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle without paying a premium for tickets. Life indeed could be good for graduate students! So unlike regular seminars that end at Week 10 and that, most likely, start experiencing the waning of students’ enthusiasm by Week 07, there is always a sense of anticipation and excitement here because of the change of scenery and the possibility to meet and talk with a group of people we usually read in books or watch on YouTube.

The seminar goes by the following format. A theme is chosen for each quarter or year. Initially, the seminar was organized in such a way that each week we brought in a renowned scholar and had him/her address the theme chosen for that quarter. The speaker would assign the reading in advance, and they would pick their own focus and decide on the method of the delivery. The format has evolved over the past few years (for better I think). Let me explain the limit of the initial format by way of comparison with Prof. Luca’s characterization of SCT as a house of theory with “not one window, but a million,” a vision that also informs ECT’s endeavor early on. There are objective and subjective conditions that lend themselves to the desire to be as diversified and inclusive as possible. Objectively, this was possible because the funding was then (prior to the UC budget crisis) sufficient enough for us to bring in different speakers every week. Subjectively, the desire to accommodate different theoretical approaches was addressed by inviting scholars of vastly different theoretical backgrounds to lead the seminar session. To be sure, contact and exchange are the oxygen for improvement and the best way to avoid intellectual atrophy. But given the quarter system under which we operate at UCLA, I have to say that I am not particularly fond of the availability of so many windows. Here’s why: although participants addressed the same theme, the seminar suffered from a lack of continuity and coherence, due partly to their different theoretical approaches and partly to the lack of awareness of the internal dynamic and development of the group as a whole. The quarter system is the major reason for my reservations about making ECT a house of theory with a million of windows. It is not that I am pushing for some kind of theoretical monopoly; it is just that there are different ways to be inclusive. Under certain circumstances, a single window could be a portal to a view vastly more encompassing than 10 different windows loosely grouped together in name rather than in substance.

The quarter system has only 10 weeks, which is too short for an adequate appreciation of four or five different approaches. When we open up a window, we also need time to look at the view outside. The quarter system does not really afford the opportunity to look beyond the window. My first stint with ECT thus ends up feeling more like going window-shopping than anything else. And this process could become mechanical, the endless repetition of the gesture of opening without exploring what is in store beyond the window. SCT has the advantage of having, on the one hand, four 6-week seminars and, on the other, a number of mini-seminars. Participants can decide on the core seminar of their own choosing and also get a taste of other mini-seminars on issues of their lesser research interests. The variety of its activities and the connected and coordinated paths of its social and academic events make SCT a highly productive platform for intellectual development. With ECT, however, we cannot have the cake and eat it. So the format of the seminar has to be tweaked and this change of direction also became necessary as the budget crisis went from bad to worse, making it difficult to bring in as many scholars. In the last two years, ECT has transformed itself and become more invested in the works of a few figures, with Badiou leading the way, followed by Lacan and Hegel. Rather than focusing exclusively on their works, we touch on issues, debates, genealogies, and controversies surrounding these thinkers, and the range of inquiries opened up by “one window” reaches out further beyond that afforded by my first-year experience with ECT.  So a single theoretical approach can branch out into different directions, but this time in a more tightly woven thematic assemblage. As for the seminar format, instead of having a different academic big shot each week, we find it more productive to have someone staying for two or three weeks or have them come back on a regular basis, which contributes to an atmosphere of an intellectual community with a better sense of familiarity, direction, and coherence.

In all honesty, this renewed focus is not well-received by a certain section of the graduate population in my home department. As a result, ECT was mocked by some as providing an occasion for the Badiou orgy. This is often the result of an erroneous judgement made on the basis of impression. As far as I am concerned, today’s ECT has more identity and character without sacrificing diversity and openness.

Now I want to move to ways through which I maintain connection with intellectual communities. One of these is, of course, the mailing list. But sometimes I feel that this method meets some of my needs but not others. With more and more subscriptions, the influx of information could be overwhelming; furthermore, the discussion is quite uneven and sometimes ends abruptly or just digresses endlessly. Nowadays the thing I rely on most is called the Blogsphere. Blogs can be accessed with any browser, but they can be effectively organized with a RSS (Rich Site Summary) Reader (e.g., Google Reader) which would allow the user to receive updates of the subscribed blogs. Blogs have become increasingly popular among younger scholars to share information and communicate with like-minded friends. For many professors-cum-bloggers, the medium offers a new way of doing scholarship as they can post on a topic and receive immediate responses from their readers. The post could be a quick thought or lengthy elaboration; there are few constraints and formalities; the flow of exchange is faster too; it is a matter of hours and days, rather than months, before the bloggers receive feedback. Blogging thus offers an alternative model of doing scholarship, and there are already some exciting books published as a result of this mode of intense intellectual exchange.

Unlike the mailing list, each blog has its unique flavor, reflecting the blogger’s theoretical and non-theoretical interests, their ways of argumentation, people they associate, and people they dislike. Selected information about books, conferences, reviews, etc. are posted there. In an age when everything becomes excessive, it is good to have information filtered by people with whom you share a degree of affinity. If you enjoy reading a particular blog, it is likely the case that you also find information posted there interesting. The best part is that you get to know other people’s projects and have a chance to read manuscripts and draft translations which might not see the light of day for another two or three years. There are also some quick reviews of other people’s books, or responses to people’s criticisms. Of course, those views cannot be taken as the bloggers’ definitive statements, but if you take time to compare what is written online and what eventually gets published, you observe the making of an idea or even a school of thought. Last but not least, the blogging culture is sometimes peppered with gossips, acrimonious remarks and other ingredients that certainly help spice up one’s boring academic existence.

Here are a few of my personal favorites: I read Levi Bryant’s Larval Subject, Graham Hartman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy to keep myself informed about the latest development of Object-Oriented Ontology which, according to some, is the most significant development in Continental philosophy in recent years. Fractal Ontology is another site I visit to access some of the unpublished translations of Gilbert Simondon and François Laruelle, who have become increasingly visible in the English- speaking world. Since the Blogsphere is an interconnected domain, I will spare myself the trouble of going through details. Interested readers can visit one of the aforementioned sites, take it from there, and expand their own distinctive spheres.