Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Political Concepts: The Graduate Student Edition

The Spring 2021 edition of Political Concepts at Brown took place virtually from May 20 to May 22, inviting the featured graduate speakers and the conference participants more broadly to generate and rethink concepts from the positions of the student. The conference addressed a moment of crisis indicated in the U.S. by the failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, sustained state violence against Black Americans, and increasingly active White supremacist movements. Proposed as early as April 2020, all the concepts discussed from across the humanities and social sciences link the structural conditions of, as well as the persistence of popular resistance to, this crisis. The conference wagered that graduate students have a distinctive political role as intellectual workers whose avowal of their lack of knowledge drives their will to generate concepts—insisting that the world is not reducible to what already is, but might be otherwise.

The event, hosted by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities, was organized by Brown University graduate students Felicia Denaud (Africana Studies), Jeffrey Feldman (Political Science), Julia Huggins (Modern Culture and Media), Kristen Maye (Africana Studies), Marah Nagelhout (English), Rachel Nusbaum (Political Science), and Nick Pisanelli (English).

View the conference playlist on YouTube

Brown University co-sponsors: Hispanic Studies, Italian Studies, Modern Culture and Media and the Malcolm S. Forbes Center for Culture and Media Studies, Religious Studies, and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Banner image: “Almost Heaven” by Tate Hudson.

Copresence has been written about as a mode or sense of being with others — humans and non humans, crossing both physical- and technological-generated environments (Goffman 1963, Mead 1934, Zhao 2003). It is that which makes subjects mutually accessible to each other, engendering a social relationship that is sensed between them. Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, in her book Electric Santería, urges us to think about Santería copresences as a “somatic experience” of walking with, as opposed to a mind reaching toward an unobtainable (evident in meditation’s transcendentalism). Here, copresences are sensed through chills, shivers, tingles, premonitions, and possessions; they produce haunting sensations that can be revealed through the body, creating a primarily affective and sensory mode of relation between objects, people, ghosts, etcetera. Traversing time, copresences also undo linearity and show up in the form of a past that is not past, making themselves known through memories, stories, and events. Consequently, thinking about presences as a substrate of relation may have implications for studies of historical continuity and/or disruption. If copresences are a form of hauntology, how might we approach the histories of academic disciplines and their subsequent copresences? How might the history of Christian colonial violence produce several different racial, sexual, national, and diasporic copresences, and how do they, in turn, interact and negotiate with each other?

2021 bio: Debbie Frempong is a third-year doctoral student in the anthropology department at Brown University. Her ethnographic project on colonial Christianity in Accra looks at the forms of womanhood that were institutionalized by several missionary churches in the mid-19th to early-20th century, and its subsequent effects on the current politics of gender and sexuality. Her more contemporary work looks at returnee women’s modes of belonging through their reintegration experiences in Accra, connecting questions about transnationalism, belonging, gendered subjectivities, and Christianity. Consequently, it explores how the gendered politics of reintegration produces and mediates ideas of modernity and (post) colonial subjectivities.

This presentation engages the concept of “structural adjustment” as a lens for approaching the landscape of Black political thought in the U.S. Structural adjustment refers to both imposed and consented-to modifications in political grammars that are based on the disavowal of one’s structural position within U.S. civil society. Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton present Afropessimism as an intervention into a political landscape that increasingly creates conditions which structurally adjust Black political demands and practice. Placing Wilderson in conversation with George Jackson, the presentation examines how the theorists understand the structural position of “the Black” as coterminous with slaveness and considers the implications of assuming, rather than disavowing, this position.

2021 bio: Justin A. Lang is a second-year Ph.D. student in Africana Studies at Brown University. His research interests include African and African diasporic revolutionary thought, post-1960s Black political history, and prison/police/state abolitionisms.

Viewed from Earth, the planet Mercury will appear to move backwards through the sky three times in 2021: between January 30th and February 21st, May 29th and June 22nd, and from September 30th to October 23rd. Even though neither planet has changed direction, this apparent retrograde motion occurs when Earth’s orbit overtakes that of Mercury. In astrology, this phenomenon is associated with difficulty communicating and breakdowns in electronics, and it is ill-advised to sign contracts or have elective surgery while Mercury is retrograde. This paper takes the concept retrograde as an access point to the study of modern astrology, and is offered as a critique of rationalist history in the retrospective mode. To “think retrograde” challenges scientific observation as the knowledge standard to which modern astrology is held: although astrology is unprovable within the experimental paradigm, this should not result in its total relegation from interpretation.

Given the 2019 valuation of the astrology industry at $2.2bn, the need for specialized language to interrogate astrological cultural forms is clearer than ever. While astrology has been a cultural mainstay in its modern, Western form since the introduction of horoscopic newspaper astrology in the 1930s, critical approaches to astrology have remained time and again at an impasse. Complaints that astrology is unscientific, anachronistic, and irrational proliferated during the 20th century: examples include Theodor Adorno’s 1957 analysis of Carroll Righter’s horoscope column in the Los Angeles Times, and the 1975 open letter “Objections to Astrology: A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists” published in The Humanist. These approaches, however, make little effort to appraise astrology on its own terms, and did little to erase the tenacious notion that planetary positions influence terrestrial affairs. Tackling such objections, I argue that early 21st-century astrology is not anachronistic but has rather been constructed within modernity: apps such as Co–Star address astrological subjects caught in a continuum between an essentialized self who emerges at the moment of birth, and accumulated data points based on planetary movement and relation to other subjects. By appearing to move backwards whilst still moving forward, this paper sheds ideological assumptions and addresses astrology head on.

2021 bio: Rose Rowson is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She has a B.A. (hons) from the Slade School of Fine Art and a research M.A. from the Universiteit van Amsterdam, where she wrote her thesis on magical writing practices in digital culture. Her research interests include continental philosophy, critique, media archaeology, new media theory, science technology studies, and pop culture. Rowson has presented her research throughout Europe, the United States, and in Japan. She is currently developing a dissertation project about metaphors of birth and babies in the history of computation. She is a union workplace steward for the Graduate Labor Organization (GLO).

Transgender bodies are a challenge to the Marxist concept of transition. Considering us requires a genealogical reorientation of the concept that drastically alters its structural operations. My presentation ponders the role of gender transition in a rethinking of transition between processes of production, state policies of reproduction, and of reproduction in general. In line with feminist interventions, I trace the place of transgender folk in Peru in dialogue with the responses from the Peruvian government to COVID-19. In an articulation of a trans-Marxist theory of transition I ask: How is it productive to think of this time less in terms of crisis than in terms of transition? My proposal is that, if we analyze the development of the pandemic from the positionality of trans bodies (with the inequalities and differences that exist between people who fall under this category), it becomes clearer that what we are living through is indeed a transition. Moreover, the hope is that a feminist analysis of transition can orient us towards the significance of thinking through a transition while still living within it, flagging its potentialities in the form of political strategies as always aligned with our ever-changing perceptual limits.

2021 bio: Vered Engelhard is a Peruvian artist and scholar based in New York. Their work is centered in radical ecologies and dissident sensorialities. Engelhard has performed in venues such as National Sawdust, Areté Gallery, the Segal Theatre, Columbia University, Human Impact Institute, Museo de Arte de Lima, among others. Their writing has been published in Kunstmuzik, Columbia Law Blog, Asymptote, Brooklyn Rail, Museo de Arte de Lima, Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, among others. They have participated in residencies at Mildred’s Lane, Works on Water at Governors Island, the Interdisciplinary Art and Theory Program, and soon the Watermill Center. They are a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow in the Latin American and Iberian Cultures department at Columbia University.

 In Islamic discursive traditions, salah has had a diverse semantic range: alternately expressing moral rectitude, the social weal, and eschatological salvation. My purpose here is to consider the entanglement of these three meanings of salah in the context of radical politics.

To do so, I begin by sketching the use of salah by Muslim rebels in 14th-century Central Asia and Iran as a means of legitimating sociopolitical dissent. Such persons argued that salah “takes priority over revealed law and rational knowledge,” agitating against despotism in both theory and reality. The argument was a contentious one: various proponents of royal power refused such propositions, themselves invoking salah in their condemnations of ‘rebellious’ behaviors.

I do not intend to settle this debate, nor is it my goal to graft 14th-century political theory onto contemporary epistemological frames. The authoritative potential in salah is rooted not in sovereign bodies nor the people, but in the communications of Allah; to merely resurrect an historical notion of salah would limit its use to only those who consider such communiques authoritative. Rather, I mean to consider the possible interplay between radical (republican) politics and the notion of salah. This interplay invites a redefining of salah as ‘social salvation:’ one in which the anarchic possibilities hinted at in its historical deployments are openly stated.

At the same time, I want to ask what sort of pressures—if any—historical notions of resistance place upon contemporary radical political language. Can such conceptual tensions displace the hegemonic dominance of a main tradition of radicalism? How might cognitive and imaginal justice be attained with respect to the past? My hope is that asking these questions will help us push toward radical futures which do not submit to colonial, neoliberal, Orientalist erasures.

2021 bio: Tanvir Akhtar Ahmed is a graduate student at Brown University’s Department of Religious Studies. He holds a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University, with a specialization in Middle Eastern Studies. His dissertation, “Radical Shadows of God: Islam and Sociopolitical Dissent, 1240–1600,” explores the conceptualization of rebellious behaviors among nonelite persons—artisans, preachers, rural school teachers, soldiers, dervishes, and others—who resisted governmental authority in historical Central Asia and Iran. In it, he aims to recover the sociopolitical imaginaries of these persons, attending in particular to the significance of religious materials such as miracle narratives, cosmology, and Islamic law. His research interests include the critical historiography of Muslim societies, the intersection of religious and radical/leftist politics, and contemporary speculative fiction. In the coming weeks, he plans to take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Iranian Studies, where he will be working on the Nomads’ Manuscripts Landscape project.

Contemporary debates about the political impact of digital platforms in the West often revolve around a central, limiting dichotomy: Does digital media revitalize or hurt democracy? This project shifts the focus to show how digital platforms are not only facilitators—of both democratic and anti-democratic tendencies—but also engender their own normative conceptualization of democracy. This includes defining what information is in the public interest, what constitutes “healthy” public discourse, and what are good citizenship practices and pedagogies. What emerges from such efforts is a political imaginary I call “User Democracy.”

User Democracy is informed by a technocratic understanding of politics, including the valorization of data and automation, predictability, and systematization. Community and popular sovereignty are here imagined as operational and, thus, potentially programmable, which devalues the need for political contestation, inherent in questions of history, justice, and equality, to play out in a truly public setting. Instead, digital public life is facilitated for political subjects through the ‘service’ of interface-design, algorithmic filters, or user manuals. Under this framework, democracy is seen as a project of optimization and management, not common struggle. Subjects are encouraged to imagine themselves as ‘citizen-users’ in the service of digital public space, where citizenship is an improvable and quantifiable skill—instead of a shared responsibility.

My project asks how to resist such reductionist conceptions of collective world-making. It argues against a depoliticized understanding of democracy and instead emphasizes a counter-approach rooted in the political ethos of (digital) agonism, which emphasizes that popular sovereignty is not an object to be facilitated from above, but a continuous, collective process of struggle around what it means to be in common with others.

2021 bio: Irina Kalinka is currently a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. Kalinka holds a B.A. in Politics & Human Rights from Bard College, N.Y., and an M.A. in English Literatures from Humboldt University, Berlin. Her previous work experience includes being a research assistant at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, developing digital climate science communication at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, and serving as an elected county-council representative for the Green Party in Teltow Fläming, Germany. During the 2021-22 academic year, she will join the Cogut Institute for the Humanities as a graduate fellow. Her research interests include platform studies, communicative capitalism, political subject formation, and digital geographies, infrastructures, and architectures.

We might think of progress simply as a process of normative improvement or as the view that history is marked by the sutured continuity of past and future. If we adopt one or both of these views, we might be concerned with progress talk because, in light of numerous worsening crises, we may come to question its validity as a description of the human condition. We might also become suspicious of progress talk even as a normative goal because if progress is conceived as a logic of continuity, then we might rightly wonder how we can normatively endorse the continuation, even in altered form, of systems and practices that have produced spiraling crises in the past and present. But my particular interest concerns how progress talk organizes the temporal register and energies of political life in ways that tend toward treating present time as an instrument for acting on and changing possible futures. The feature of progress that I want to highlight, then, is how it suggests a distribution of value by which the (mis)relations we feel toward the present are neutralized by an orientation to the future, which might mitigate the intensification of political energies and passions, diverting them away from presence and toward futurity.

2021 bio: Siraj Ahmed Sindhu is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Brown University, where he studies political theory and philosophy. His interests include, broadly, the intersection of democratic theory and socialist traditions, the position of more-than-human beings within orderings of agency and standing, and political accounts of subjectivity. He is currently at work on a prospectus project exploring what he is thinking of as “temporalities of politics,” drawing on various traditions to rethink concepts such as “progress.” Sindhu enjoys literature, music, mountains, and the oceans. He is originally from the North Country of New York State.

We inherit the word “collect” from the Latin colligere—to gather together— and from the 15th century on, to “collect” has meant to gather together into one place that which has been spread out. Noah, as many have noted, might be identified as the first to achieve the ultimate mark of distinction among all collectors: a perfect set. So too might a broad range of activities and institutions be understood under the rubric of collecting, ranging from the culturally sanctioned (banks, museums, archives) to the quirky (seed-banks, niche-museums, private collections) and to the neurotic (hoarding). Indeed, the figure of the collector is often shadowed by its negative, the hoarder, who has ceased to discriminate and instead accumulates, as mere matter, all that which cannot be justified by any form of use whatsoever. How does the collection function as a form or vehicle of knowledge, and why have thinkers ranging from Walter Benjamin to anthropologist Krzysztof Pomian found in collecting something which exceeds, rather than merely caricatures, the logic of commodification?

2021 bio: I read and write about early modern poetry and drama, and am particularly interested in questions surrounding allegory, the Baroque, and corporal metaphors of the state (or the “body politic”). My dissertation project (“Early Modern Hoarders: Matter, Idolatry, and Inheritance in English Poetry and Drama, Spenser to Milton”) tracks the figures of the “hoarder” and the “collector” in early modern thought and art — from popular icons of greed or miserliness to less obvious “hoarder” figures, including priests, nuns, usurers, cuckolds, sodomites, idolators, encyclopedia compilers, jail wardens, librarians, “blocking” characters, cave-dwelling monsters, art collectors, and list-makers. My project, as well as my work more generally, is primarily informed by queer theory.

Kenosis, the self-emptying of divinity in the incarnation, offers an account of evacuated being that might refigure the epistemological and ontological constraints of the subject and its body in queer theories and theologies. In the leaking body of a crucified Christ, the promise and problem of queer blood finds its most porous theological urtext, one that both subtends and threatens prevailing theopolitical imaginaries in which spilled blood suggests both salvific power and viral load. Amid the increasing regulation of bodily fluids in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I argue that self-emptying offers a relationality grounded in the giving and givenness of the self, which does not precede but rather appears only in its giving. In doing so, my aim is to interrogate the political ontologies and temporalities produced by particular arrangements of blood, subjectivity, and difference. I introduce kenosis as a key term for the study of queer political life, in which the queer subject that insists on its dissolution does not pre-exist its emptying, but rather is constituted in bodied movements out of itself. The relations such a kenosis makes possible figure an otherwise way of being-with, centered on giving up the self, on having already given up the self, and on the givenness of giving up. A queer kenosis thus provides a resource for a self-risking queer politics, in which self-evacuation might reveal strategies of relation and survival already taking place under theopolitical regimes of revered and restricted blood.

2021 bio: Scott Jackshaw is a Ph.D. student in English at Brown University. His research convenes queer theory, critical race theory, and political theology to analyze configurations of difference, subjectivity, and being in contemporary poetry. His academic and creative work foregrounds poetry as a way of performing theoretical inquiry and the possibilities that research-creation and formally innovative poetry present for queer and otherwise thinking. His essays and poetry have appeared in a number of journals, including Jacket2The Capilano Review, and Contemporary Verse 2.

The term “elliptical ontology” developed particularly in my reading of the poetics of intersubjectivity at work in Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a return to the native land. This long poem’s vexed, lyric encounter with the colonial reality of Martinique is involved in an immanent critique of Enlightenment universalism whose subjective grammar Césaire inflects for the discursive purposes of negritude. At the heart of this (inter)subjective and anti-colonial disruption of the universal and re-conception of global relation are the ontological questions of blackness—that is, black (in)existence in white metaphysical structures, systems, and technologies of representation. The term “ellipse” comes from the Greek word “meaning lack, [which] applies to the grammatical ellipse, since something is omitted, and to the geometric ellipse, since it lacks something that would make it a perfect circle” (Dictionnaire Littré). Therefore, elliptical ontology, on one level, speaks to the processes of the violent onto-epistemological negation as well as overdetermination that render the “stable,” transparent centers of European discourse and self-hood at once possible and, as Denise Ferreira da Silva notes, unstable (Toward a Global Idea of Race, 33). Then, in line with both the grammatical and mathematical definitions of ellipse, this concept interrogates the related grammar of (onto-epistemological, social, legal, economic) dispossession at work in the numerous fields or, as Tiffany Lethabo King notes, “technologies of conquest”—in the case of Césaire’s poem and the scope of this presentation, linguistic and cartographic representation (Black Shoals, 77).

2021 bio: Tyler Grand Pre is a doctoral student and ICLS affiliate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His research interests revolve around the intersections of language, translation, and space in African-American, African-diasporic, as well as francophone and Caribbean literature and culture. His master’s thesis entitled “Inflecting the French: The Poetics of Intersubjectivity in Aimé Césaire’s Notes of a Return to the Native Land,” which received an honorable mention in the Wetzsteon Prize for Best MA Essay in 20th- and 21st century poetry, explores the way Aimé Césaire rearticulates the formal desires, ontological exclusions, and grammatical relationships of apostrophic address through a vexed, lyric encounter with the colonial infrastructures and cartographies of Martinique. Given his interest in the semiotics and discursive valences of mapping, he has begun practicing radical cartographic practices while participating in a workshop hosted by the Center for Spatial Methods of Research at Columbia. Aside from the translation work he has done for the NGO Women’s Global Education Project, Tyler translated the article “The Historical Origins of Sartre’s Account of Temporality” by Grégory Cormann from French to English for The Sartrean Mind (Routledge, 2020).

The concept of originary technicity addresses the aporetic relationship between the human and the technical as new technologies redefine the conditions of the political. For the individual, digital technologies today expand the limits of experience by extending scales of perception. Within institutional contexts, digital technologies allow for a more intimate knowledge of populations through ubiquitous tracking and accelerate the movement of capital through the widespread use of machine-learning in financial markets. Algorithms also produce a displacement of political responsibility from the human to the nonhuman as their calculative processes are black-boxed and operate beyond human perception.

Given that technology constitutes time, space, and bodies inherent to any political thinking, there is a need for a renewed understanding of how technology is originary to the human condition and therefore to its sociality. In underlining the constitutive role of technics, originary technicity does not only contribute to a rethinking of the technological, but also reconfigures what it means to be human in this assemblage. As such, this paper analyzes originary technicity as a deconstructive concept that sheds light on the transformations and redistributions of capacities, roles, and affects across human/nonhuman entanglements. Our paper retraces the Derridean genealogy of the term from its inception in Socratic philosophy’s concept of the pharmakon (technology as both poison and remedy), to the work of deconstruction on the binary of human/technics, and to finally its use in the contemporary new media theories of Mark Hansen, Patricia Clough, and Arthur Bradley.

2021 bios: Talha Issevenler is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center CUNY. He teaches at City College, Macaulay Honors College, and Queens College. His research explores the ways in which temporality and historicity become the material and the topic of political rationality. In other words, his work focuses on the relationship between human and nonhuman temporality by taking timelines of social media platforms as its historical ground in formation. In 2016, he co-authored an article with Patricia Clough responding to the works of Kathleen Stewart and Mark Hansen. In 2018, he wrote an essay on the intentional decohesion in deportability. In 2020, he started a series of mourning essays on the historicity of religious experience on the heels of Maurice Blanchot.

Sandra Moyano-Ariza (she/her) is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY, in New York. Her research works at the intersection of philosophy and digital technology, with interests in the fields of affect theory, speculative philosophy, new materialisms, and feminist ontologies. She focuses on how digital technology reconfigures the human, and how this entanglement produces a new social. More specifically, her work grapples with the highly computed and accelerated experiences of love and intimacy in dating apps and their cultural representations. She is also an Adjunct Lecturer at Baruch College (CUNY) and a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow at York College (CUNY).

Swarming has recently emerged as a harbinger of post-humanism and a snake oil for strategy consultants; as a watchword for revolution and a resource for biomimetic innovation; as an organizing principle and a military venture. Compounding this political promiscuity, genealogies of swarm robotics and of swarming as an organizational schema never fail to mention ants and bees, but consistently omit segregation, despite the fact that economist Thomas Schelling’s 1971 segregation models were central to the development of computational agent-based modeling, the lynchpin of artificial swarm intelligence. Rather than chart a technical trajectory from segregation models to drone swarms, this paper plumbs Schelling’s 1971 article and its revision in his 1978 book Micromotives and Macrobeaviors to excavate the dynamics of exclusion and privation at the heart of historical and contemporary theorizations of holism. Schelling’s understanding of segregation as the unforeseeable offshoot of an organic self-organizing swarm inadvertently divulges system thinking’s epistemic indebtedness to U.S. anti-Black racism, and this naturalization of white supremacy scaffolds the current enthusiasm for swarming within the Department of Defense, which works to recast empire as ecology and render the U.S. killing of “extremists’” evolutionarily ordained.

2021 bios: Harper Shalloe is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. Their research examines contemporary wellness culture’s romance with complexity theory and its production of an ethics of self-optimization. Their work has appeared in Transgender Studies Quarterly and the forthcoming anthology Refocus: The Films of Doris Wishman.

The word "machine," coming from the Greek mēkhos, means “contrivance.” We can understand a machine as a contrivance or imagining incarnate—a vision of the world in one real abstraction. Like “machine,” the word “system” also comes from Greek origins—sustēma literally means “with set up.” The supplementary relation of “system” to machine is double: “system” both expresses a notion of totality that comes with the aforementioned “set up,” but also that there are no machines without the reference to a particular system that would function as its supplement.

The passage into “machinic” thought signals that the time for imagination, contrivance, or even ideology, has come to a close. As such, the reference to machines and systems in general, the closing of imagination or thought latent in the passage into machinic thought is justified with reference to systems, and imperatives that are “systemic” in nature. This reference to “system,” however, is itself nothing but the acceptance of the political horizon of particular machines.

Thus, the ubiquity of the concept of a system in political discourse should bring us to ask, rather than “who does the system work for?”, “who does the notion that we live in a system work for?” It is the hypothesis of this writer that “systems theory” may represent the last horizon of secularism with respect to the idea of totality as neutral and non-antagonistic (akin to what Marxists call “formal freedom” with respect to not-yet-politicized and thus still existent economy): totality without a/the subject.

2021 bios: Edward Dioguardi studies Philosophy at The New School for Social Research with a concentration in Psychoanalytic Studies. He also holds a B.A. in International Relations, Political Economy, and Middle Eastern Studies from American University. His current projects revolve around the study conception of eros and philia in the philosophy of history.