Skip to content

Theory Camp #1: What May I Hope

For the next five weeks, I’m stationed in Ithaca, New York, for the School of Criticism and Theory’s (SCT) 2012 session. In short: SCT is a private, formerly mobile (originating in Irvine, now 15 years happily settled at Cornell University), increasingly interdisciplinary critical theory institute, at which participants (a mix of graduate students and faculty) take a twice-weekly seminar from one of four core professors (each of whom gives a camp-wide talk with subsequent colloquia), while also attending guest faculty lectures, possible office hours, and any spontaneously-organized reading/viewing groups. In her orientation address, current director Amanda Anderson likens the experience to a six-week conference: rigorous and tightly scheduled, but also uniquely “product-free,” insofar as the institute offers no credit and thus demands no writing. Though prospective participants often worry about balancing their ongoing commitments with the intensive “disruption” of six weeks in Ithaca, Amanda highlights the intellectual/spatial/social scenery-change’s capacity to animate rather than arrest one’s work.

I’m no stranger to the potential energy of short-term communion. In college at Michigan State, I had the immense privilege to study Irish literature and film in Dublin and Galway, and for two de(com)pressive weeks after graduation, I got to read and write full-time in Saratoga Springs. Even having spent the last three years more or less exclusively in Pittsburgh, there is some thread of twin beds and name tags that courses through my adultish life, recalling productive ruptures past. Now a week into theory camp, I’m a little bit in undergrad drag, underlining passages in a carpeted subterranean studio with an as-yet deserted hot dog truck parked out front. As a makeshift Cornellian, I get to read in places like this:

A.D. White reading room, AKA Hogwarts.

Also nice to occasionally exchange outlet-deprived coffee shops for venues such as this:

Perfectly normal.

Of this year’s 88 (I believe) participants, 21 are my comrades in Pitt film alum Amy Villarejo’s seminar, “Queer Technics,” the syllabus – or “imaginary itinerary,” her words – for which starts through the notion of hope, and looks to juxtapose temporality, embodiment, phenomenology, and sound, all queered through its modes of questioning and curated touchpoints. Though our first meeting was undergirded by some capital-T Theory (Derrida’s “Archive Fever,” Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” and Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”), the notion of romanticized past-tense visions of the future and the question of death drive (and specifically, of queer mortality) kept reminding me of the popular – in particular, this t-shirt, the tonal moves of which I’ve long found oddly poignant:

"where is my cure for this disease"

Companion, dinner, automobile, house: what does it mean for these to constellate an “everyday life”? In his strange and polemical Into the Universe of Technical Images, Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser writes that “To become interested in one’s own liver function, or in one’s morning toast, is to miss a chance to produce pictures.” Writing in 1984, he’s working through a theory of future “telematic” society to which mortality is central – not as a threat to the body to be resisted via medicine, but as a force that “drains interest” from bodies and redirects it toward “pure information,” collectivity, mortality, and sympathy – such that the telematic question is decidedly not “where is my cure,” but, what? Who else suffers as I suffer; or, what are we going to do? I leave the book confused about how bodies, at once finite and “voluminous,” are on one hand cast off in favor of the cerebral, as if body and brain are so easily extricable – or, on the other hand, whittled down to “points” (Flusser fixates on the point, the cell, the particle, and also fingerprints), and I’ll be interested to see how this ambivalence toward the bod(il)y shakes out in the phenomenologically-informed texts on deck: Merleau-Ponty’s The World of Perception, and Vivian Sobchack’s essay “The Scene of the Screen.” Until then.