Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Political Concepts Conference

February 25 – 26, 2022

The Political Concepts Initiative operates under the assumption that our era needs a revised political lexicon to help us better understand the world in which we live and act, and that the humanities can and should contribute to such a revision. This is all the more urgent today, given the dramatic and traumatic events of the past two years and their repercussions for all aspects of our lives, from the intimacy of our homes to our shared workplaces, countries, and planet.

The 2022 conference featured Brown and RISD scholars from a variety of fields working to revise, deconstruct, or create concepts in the effort to uncover or recover their political import. These concepts responded to recent historical experience and were meant to meet the challenges of an ominously uncertain future. What can this period teach us about our society and institutions, “us,” “them,” the planet, the historical present we share, and the future of this sharing?

The event, hosted by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities, was organized by Tim Bewes, Sharon Krause, and Adi Ophir.

View the conference playlist on YouTube


Session 1

Zachary Sng, German Studies • “Counting” (video)
David Frank, Philosophy • “Cooperation” (video)

Moderator: Amanda Anderson, Cogut Institute

Session 2

Lynne Joyrich, Modern Culture and Media • “Unthinkable” (video)
Vazira Zamindar, History • “Civilian” (video)

Moderator: Sharon Krause, Political Science

Session 3

Jinying Li, Modern Culture and Media • “Wall” (video)
Avishek Ganguly, Literary Arts and Studies, RISD • “Repair” (video)

Moderator: Adi Ophir, Cogut Institute

Session 4

Juliet Hooker, Political Science • “Loss” (video)
Yannis Hamilakis, Archaeology and the Ancient World • “Remains” (video)

Moderator: Rolland Murray, English

Session 5

Masako Fidler, Slavic Studies • “Impoverished morphemes” (video)
Thomas Schestag, German Studies • “Term” (video)

Moderator: Peter Szendy, Comparative Literature

Session 6

Holly Case, History • “Struggle” (video unavailable)
Leon Hilton, Theatre Arts and Performance Studies • “Destituence” (video)

Moderator: Tim Bewes, English


Late in 2013, Ta-Nehisi Coates concluded, “I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.” He then wrote, “Perhaps struggle is all we have.” With this sentence he was tapping into a long line of thought. One of the earliest known Russian historians, Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin, writing in 1795, compared the trajectory of human history to “the stone of Sisyphus, which, having been rolled up to the top of the hill, by its own weight rolls down and is again rolled up to the top by the hands of the everlasting toiler.” For the French 19th-century historian Jules Michelet, this meant that, “With the world began a war which will end only with the world; the war of man against nature, of spirit against matter, of liberty against fatality. History is nothing other than the record of this interminable struggle.” For the far-right Italian mystic Julius Evola, “vita est militia super terram” [life is a struggle on earth]; Hitler’s Mein Kampf [My Struggle] sought to raise his personal struggle to the level of a world-historic one; and for the French existentialist Albert Camus, human existence demanded “a confrontation and an unceasing struggle [that] implies a total absence of hope.” With Coates, then, have most implicit philosophies of history ended up where the reactionary right was over a century ago (with social Darwinism)? My paper will analyze the concept of struggle through various geographies, periods, and movements in an effort to determine its present and past shades of meaning, as well as its implied horizon of possibility.

A morpheme is defined as the smallest meaningful unit in a language that cannot be further divided: e.g., “-ly” in “convenient-ly” to derive an adverb and “-ed” in “talk-ed” to mark past tense. These might seem to be “impoverished” (or “semantically bleached” in cognitive linguistics). While contributing to grammar, morphemes are seen as far from ideas, let alone political concepts. 

Impoverished morphemes (IMs), however, can build implicit political concepts, which may not be accessible by close reading of a small number of hand-picked texts. A revealing insight into political argumentation can be potentially drawn from statistical prominence of these morphemes. For instance, there is a close relationship between the ideological stances of politicians and IMs over time in Czecho/slovak presidential speeches from 1918 to 2014 (Fidler and Cvrček 2017). An analysis of IMs further points to a dynamic political argumentation concerning Russia, Ukraine, and their leaders. Russia appears as the experiencer or recipient of action as well as a companion or a partner, while Putin is strikingly agentive. In contrast, Ukraine appears not only as agentive but also divisive, while Poroshenko appears as the experiencer or recipient of action (Fidler and Cvrček 2018 and Cvrček and Fidler 2019). IMs frame Ukraine as an unbridled state (one that takes action but is divided) and Poroshenko as a weak and therefore questionable leader, while they frame Russia as a worthy international partner but needing strong leadership by Putin. Framing effect is discussed by Lakoff 1996/2002 in relation to metaphors (larger linguistic units), but IMs can likewise play a meaningful role. In fact, IMs could covertly prime the reader’s political view of events in the long term since they could be more topic-independent than semantically “richer” linguistic expressions (cf. a more static qualitative analysis by Spahn 2021 on pro-Russia German media on Crimea).  

The current study with cognitive linguistic underpinnings (esp. Janda 1993, Janda and Clancy 2006), based on large corpus data and conducted under the auspices of Brown-Charles MoU, has general theoretical implications for understanding how political concepts might be built from linguistic units that seem to be negligible compared to more strikingly visible lexical items.

The concept “cooperation” in methodologically individualist economics and biology is usually defined as “strategic coordination for mutual benefit.” I distinguish this narrow, individualist, “value-free” sense of cooperation from an ontologically pluralist and normative political-ethical conception of cooperation as “strategic coordination in pursuit of a common good.” “Common good” should be understood not merely as an aggregation of individual material interests, but in terms of shared normative commitments or political goals like justice or sustainability, whose meanings must be constructed collectively in their pursuit by cooperators, and whose relations to their material interests are not always straightforward. Cooperation so conceived is thus a normative meta-goal, since successful cooperation entails successful pursuit of a common good, even when acting strategically “around” one’s political “enemies” or “adversaries.” By requiring strategic coordination, cooperation presumes autonomy, rejecting coercion or control of individuals or groups.

But by referring to a common good distinct from aggregate interests, cooperation can be better understood as a dynamic, creative process involving the articulation and construction of shared values, pointing to the possibility of transforming conditions that define and shape individual material interests conceived narrowly or synchronically. I believe cooperation in this extended, dynamic, multi-scale, and normative sense is useful in thinking about large-scale environmental problems like climate change or biodiversity loss, since while economists are right that these problems require cooperation, they are wrong to suggest they are merely problems of strategic coordination for mutual benefit.

Through a set of brief provocations, I propose to think with and through the notion of “repair” as a political concept. References to repair are becoming increasingly common in multiple sites and conversations from “right to repair” legislation being discussed in several countries to proposals for reparations for centuries of forced labor, servitude, and suffering resulting from U.S. slavery, European colonialism, and the genocide of indigenous peoples. Much of this contemporary thinking on repair derives from an intellectual matrix made up of the design disciplines (and to a lesser extent, architecture) plus some anthropology. However, in order to activate the full political potential of the concept of repair I would argue that it is imperative for the humanities to supplement this current conversation. While ideas about reparative reading practices have been around for more than a couple of decades (Sedgwick), I would attempt to think recent (decolonial) arguments about repairing design itself thus making the latter much more explicitly political (Escobar) together with a (postcolonial) notion of translation as a generative act of reparation (Spivak, Sanders, Apter). Two broad concerns would guide my inquiry: a) Acts of repair might have only recently gained prominence in affluent societies, but as a practice of living circumscribed by scarcity and austerity, they have had a long and widespread presence in the Global South as well as among the historically disadvantaged communities in the North. b) Unlike dominant concepts originating in the humanities, acts of repair often seek to retain a stubborn connection with material “re/making” even as they tarry with the textual and lingual, thus demanding a unique interdisciplinary engagement that might enable us to think design and the humanities together.

pieces or parts of something that continue to exist when most of it has been used, destroyed, or taken away.

Ruins and ruination have been the concepts that have captured our contemporary collective imagination, from the “imperial debris” of colonialism (as discussed by Ann Stoller, for example), to the “capitalist ruins” of ecological disaster (as in Anna Tsing’s writings, amongst others). But I will be proposing in my essay that instead of ruins and ruination, it is the concept of remains that holds enormous potential as far as the politics of emancipation and liberation are concerned. It is this potential I will be teasing out, as I will be carrying out an archaeology of the present — a present that I prefer to see as a fragile consensus shaped by multi-temporality. I will be exploring the ability of matter to last, to endure, and to force itself into the present, disrupting this fragile consensus. I will also be reflecting on the haunting potential of material remains and on their power to transform such haunting into hauntology (in the Derridean sense), into an alternative ontology of being, indeed the only mode of being that we can afford in the era of perpetual crises. In thinking about and with remains, I am interested not only in their potential to force themselves into the present and haunt us all but also in their ability to conjure for us unrealized futures, futures that have “not yet happened” (as Mark Fisher has put it), alternative potential histories, to invoke Ariella Aïsha Azoulay.

While I have been studying remains from the material, chrono-political, and sensorial-aesthetic point of view all my life, in this talk I will be reflecting on the remains of the largest refugee camp in Europe, Moria, located on the border island of Lesvos. I have been visiting, studying, and thinking about this material phenomenon since 2016. The camp was completely destroyed by fire in September 2020, and it is currently being erased as a material presence. And yet, its remains resist the official attempts to condemn it to total oblivion. Moria was a ruin foretold — it was from the start a monument to the European and global border regime, a monument destined to become a ruin. And yet, its remnants speak not only of the haunting presence of colonization and its contemporary border apparatus but also of alterative, potential, nomadic, as yet unrealized futures, grounded on an ontology of life.

This paper focuses on destituence as a political concept, querying whether destituent strategies of political action might be especially powerful and urgent to consider in relationship to contemporary terrains of political struggle. I first offer a genealogy of destituence within recent political and theoretical debates, tracing its origins to radical organizing groups in Argentina in 2001. In the wake of a popular mass revolt calling for the rejection of the leadership of the country’s political parties, the group Colectivo Situaciones proposed that the protests adopt a platform of “destituyente” — a movement that “doesn’t create institutions but rather vacates them, dissolves them, empties them of their occupants and their power.” More recently Giorgio Agamben has argued for a distituent position with respect to the ontological structure of politics itself. For Agamben, destituent power describes “the capacity to deactivate” the very apparatuses by which subjectivity is constituted and render them inoperative — in a way that does not simply seek to destroy or eliminate them but instead works “by liberating the potentials that have remained inactive” so as to “allow a different use of them.” The growing interest in destituence as a strategy of dissolving institutions and liberating the inoperative potential that lies latent within them has by no means been free from criticism: Anna Kornbluh has recently pointed out that Agamben’s concept of a distituent politics, with its “beatific fantasy of formless life” exemplifies a pervasive “anarcho-vitalism” that is a characteristic tendency of contemporary critical theory.

Rather than offering either a defense or a denunciation of destituence, my paper then turns to what might seem to be a more historically remote discussion of this term and the proper limits of its conceptualization, in a 1978 exchange between Félix Guattari and Fernand Deligny. An obscure but fascinating figure who worked at the cross-currents of anti-psychiatry, radical pedagogy, and experimental cinema, Deligny developed a unique approach to living communally with autistic individuals in ways that anticipate some of the key insights of the contemporary neurodiversity movement. Guattari was familiar with Deligny because of the latter’s brief residency at La Borde, the psychiatric clinic where Guattari pursued his clinical work for several decades. Drawing upon his years spent at La Borde, Guattari writes about the way that institutions can reveal how “signs and things engage one another independently of the subjective control that agents of individual utterance claim to have over them”: collective enunciations have the potential to “deprive [destituer] the spoken word of its function as imaginary support to the cosmos.” Deligny, however, objected to Guattari’s reference to his work with autistics in support of this assertion, asking, “destitute — language — does this not implicate the necessity of instituting ‘something else?’” Considering the two perspectives on the meaning of destituence that come into focus in this exchange, I argue that the questions each asks of the other can illuminate the ongoing — if unresolved — value of thinking through destituence as a political concept.

Loss is a universal human experience, but not all losses are political. Yet much political action is about how we respond to loss. Political theorists have therefore had much to say about loss. For some, loss is central to the activity of political theorizing itself, and it is a framework through which we can understand the history of western political thought. Democratic theorists in particular have mourned the loss of local participatory traditions, while others have bemoaned the paralyzing effects of “left melancholia.” The contemporary scholarship on mourning in political theory has focused on grievability as a ground for solidarity and the democratic possibilities of national public mourning. In contrast, I want to engage with a much less discussed tradition of thinking about loss — Black political thought — as especially generative for our present moment. Black thinkers have tended to resist reparative approaches to loss that privilege appeals to the state. They have had to grapple with how to mourn when loss is ubiquitous yet unrecognized by the dominant society, with what it means to grieve when loss is ongoing and not repairable. The struggle for Black thinkers has been how to hold on to hope in the face of ongoing loss, not the problematic fixation on loss of Freudian melancholia, nor the overcoming of loss that constitutes successful mourning from a psychoanalytic perspective.

From the beginnings of Donald Trump’s political career and throughout his presidential term, news outlets proclaimed that things had become “unthinkable” — with one outlet offering the caveat about Trump’s election that “The unthinkable is only unthinkable until it happens. Then, like the sack of Rome, it can seem historically inevitable.” What does it mean for something to be deemed both “unthinkable” and “historically inevitable”? How can we untangle this mediatized, epistemological, and political nexus — or is that tangle precisely what must be addressed? This presentation contends that Trumpian logics (or anti-logics) and politics can only be understood in relation to a media framework: a way of thinking constructed particularly by televisual forms that helped to produce the “un/thinkability” of Trump and other such figures. While it may be commonplace to assert that Trump’s presidency operated like a reality TV show, with its outrageous performances, affective extremes, (un)civil competition, play with “truth,” and obsession with popularity measurements trumping any “rational" perspective, unpacking exactly what that means requires a more specific analysis of televisual (un)thinkability and way of conceiving the inconceivable — of making the fantasmatic equate with “the real,” the performative produce “the truth,” the manufactured brand image guarantee “authenticity.” Further, these televisual conceptions are not simply opposed to those found within feminist, queer, and anti-racist movements, which, perhaps surprisingly, occurred simultaneously with the rise and reign of Trumpism: however discomfiting this may seem, there is not a simple opposition between the media logics that yielded Trumpism and those that have yielded identifications and imperatives within the performed realities of genders, sexualities, races, nations. By taking those media (particularly televisual) logics as the object of investigation, this presentation thus aims to move beyond binaries to better understand the operations of knowledge and politics in mediatized culture.

As global media networks promise boundless access, we are facing increasing layers of walls: the Great Firewall (GFW), the Facebook Walls … The existence of the walls shatters the myth of an infinitely open “space of flow,” and highlights the significant functions of certain apparatuses in managing, controlling, and mediating information, knowledge, and experience. My paper explores the concept of “wall” in media history by studying its archeological formation as a material object as well as its genealogical development as a discursive metaphor. I first examine the media archeology of wall as a material artifact, interrogating its asymmetrical and contradictory structure that is simultaneously a blocking barrier that is suppressive and constraining and a displaying surface that is transformative and enabling. As a mediating device of both blockage and display, the wall registers — metaphorically and structurally — the double logic of digital media, positioning the human subject at a contradictory interface between an open grid and a containing surface. This duality complicates the genealogy of wall as a discursive formation, which I examine by comparing the development of the wall as a structure metaphor with that of the window metaphor in the competing conceptions of screen as a media system. I argue that the wall-screen presents an alternative genealogy from the window-screen, shifting from optical apparatus to spatial devices. This conceptual shift from the window to the wall, from optical projection to spatial construction, is also a move away from the perspective-centric conceptualization of modernity, opening up multiple references including environmental management, mobility control and socio-political demarcation.

The term of “term” must have been on everybody’s mind these last one and a half years: as a desire “to come to terms” with the pandemic as disease, with lockdowns, social distancing, and various sets of restrictions. But what does “to come to terms” mean? What’s in a “term”? The question is all the more pressing in the context of an ongoing series of deliberations on “Political Concepts,” “concept” being just another word for “term.” The turn towards “term” is not simply “conceptual.” It does not contribute to the “field” of conceptual history (“Begriffsgeschichte”) but is about the demarcation of such a field. Term is a border(line) concept, for every concept, as concept, is considered a part of the terminological use of language. The turn towards “term” is not simply “historical” either, for no notion of history that is not haunted by the desire or fear of time limits and deadlines, by delays and extensions of history’s destiny or destination, oscillating between termination and indetermination.

In Greek and Roman antiquity “term” designates the stone that marks a liminal point: the border to distinguish the inside from the outside of a piece of land as possession. The stone as term, once posited, is supposed to “stand for” its irreplaceability. But what the stone exposes is nothing but the inconditional possibility of displacement and destruction. In order to both overcome and exhibit this most irritating “coincidentia oppositorum” materialized in the stone, the ritual of its installation as term required, according to “gromatical” writings by Roman land surveyors, to cover the bottom of the hole (“mundus”) into which the stone was to be placed, with so called “signa subdita,” underlying signs — such as pieces of lime, coal, glass, ashes, pearls, and coins — in order to “proleptically” remark the spot from which the term once will have been called missing. Hundreds of years later, in late medieval Summae logicae, these underlying signs reappear: a return of the oppressed; this time not in a “gromatical” but “grammatical” context, in order to stabilize the term in its propositional and terminological function. The term in order to fulfill its terminological task (marking the grammato-logical “ends” of a sentence) has to be supported by a series of so-called “suppositions”: underlying supplementary determinations of a term’s semiotic and semantic modalities. These presuppositions are supposed to determine the “positio pro” of a term inside and outside a “propositio.” But their task is impossible: the term has to be defined as “definiens.” What they expose is the radical indistinction of “definiens” from “definiendum” in what is called a term. The term not only remains abandoned but abandons the propositional logic which it is supposed to determine.

“Term,” because of its underlying conditions — “signa subdita,” “suppositiones” — marks, still today, the ruinous foundation-stone of language not only considered a “possession” but also considered the sphere of propositional logic inside the limits of its terminological use. We will not, even after the most recent pandemic, have “come to terms” with “term.”

Counting is how we deal with plagues, catastrophes, and crises. We count in order to reckon with disaster, tell stories of recovery, and celebrate resilience. But none of that has helped us to get through the previous year, for counting itself has become part of the chaos of our times. We watched as election officials across the country counted and recounted votes publicly, fueled by an unprecedented media frenzy. We obsessively tracked the mounting tally of COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, while also nervously following the sum of lives lost to gun violence, racist policing, crimes of hate. In the midst of it all, the nation conducted its decennial ritual of counting, in the words of the Constitution, “the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

Counting has always been a political exercise, but to make sense of its role in the crisis of our times, we have to ask ourselves what it is we do when we count.

To count is to count-as, and this demands that we sort signal from noise, figure from ground. To enumerate is first and foremost to classify, to subsume differences under schemes of identity. The practice of counting draws on pre-established distinctions (social, cultural, ethnic), but it also works to maintain them.

To count is also to be counted, to matter and make a difference. Straddling the active and the passive, counting re-enacts a Hegelian drama of intersubjective recognition. It exposes self-hood to the measure of the “other,” attesting to an agency that is not one.

My talk explores these conceptual complications of counting. It also reflects on the specific figure of the Asian immigrant who might or might not count, as represented in, among other things, Ha Jin’s novel A Free Life and Brown University’s DIAP Phase II document.

On April 13, 2017, the largest non-nuclear bomb, the “mother of all bombs,” the GBU-43/B, was dropped by the U.S. on the Achin district in eastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border. Almost immediately the cockpit video and images of the topographic impact of the bomb were available online, while the U.S. government announced that 36 ISIS militants were killed and there were no civilian casualties. It is here in the shadows of what has been called “the longest war,” that I want to examine the concept of “civilian,” not as an ancient distinction between combatant and noncombatant in laws of just war, but rather as a concept that requires and is constituted by anticolonial mobilization and thought.

Indeed, why is it that “no civilian casualties” requires asking “who is a civilian?” over and over again? I interrogate this question in the debates that raged around the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva in the 1930s as it deliberated on whether to legislate a complete prohibition on aerial bombing (for its inability to distinguish civilians), and in which the “frontier village” of the Afghan borderlands became a crucial point of contention (as an arena for routinized bombing). This is when Gandhi began to visit the frontier, in friendship with and at the invitation of Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Frontier Gandhi), the towering leader of the Khudai Khidmatgars. As Gandhi and Khan walked through villages on the frontier, I examine this work of anticoloniality, in gathering pacifists and photographers, building community around, and restituting the ever disappearing “civilian.”