Guest Post: A Recap of Situation Critical!

Today’s post is by John Garcia, a Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the American Antiquarian Society.

interrobang“Historians treat theory the way rattlesnakes approach small mammals. They either strike to kill or swallow whole. The latter often amounts to death by citation.”[1] David Waldstreicher’s statement on the problematic status of critical theory in Early American Studies appeared in a 2005 WMQ forum reconsidering the public sphere as a category for analysis. Must historians always view theoretical work through an antagonistic empiricism, or, just as unreflectively, swallow theory whole? Perhaps the tide is turning towards new theoretical engagements, as historians and literary scholars recognize that theories are themselves continually subject to refinement in relation to historical research. A recent conference at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, entitled Situation Critical!: Critique, Theory, and Early American Studies, offered a plethora of keynote lectures and panel presentations surveying older critical models and offering new approaches with which future work in Early American Studies might engage.

Organized by Max Cavitch (University of Pennsylvania) and Brian Connolly (University of South Florida), the conversation began the evening of Thurs., March 31. Cavitch’s introductory remarks, delivered via prerecorded video, related the goals of critique to the exclamation point— ! —in the conference title. Situation Critical!, Cavitch argued, pivots around the differing imperatives of critique, which vary in their postures from resignation, alarm, and protest to speculation (theory’s “as if” position often identified with Immanuel Kant’s third critique and post-Kantian aesthetics), joy, and wonder. Cavitch reminded everyone that the “!” originated in the Greek character “io”—an exclamation of surprise and triumph. However, critique practiced in the wake of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud is also defined by a relentless questioning. The “!” contorts into a “?” that insists on unveiling and demystifying phenomena in search of latent or submerged meanings. When further radicalized, theory can subsume the one who critiques into its own operations. Here the turning movement of the “?” comes full circle to become the figure of ouroboros, the snake devouring its own tail. From Michel Foucault to Judith Butler and Bruno Latour, theoretical critique and its philosophical antecedents asks about the forces that constitute a modern subject who enquires into the conditions of her own making and unmaking. Critique therefore always risks pulling the rug out from beneath our own precarious identities as scholars.

I’ve tarried with Cavitch’s fascinating remarks to alert The Junto’s readers that this was obviously not your usual MCEAS conference! That said, Situation Critical! was characterized by the McNeil Center’s distinct brand of intellectual generosity and spirited discussion. Daniel Richter reminded everyone that the conference was not the first such event to take place at MCEAS in a reference to 1994’s Possible Pasts: Critical Encounters in Early America (co-sponsored by the Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies).[2]

Situation Critical!’s keynote lectures both set the terms of debate and reminded participants of unresolved issues connecting critique to Early America and to historical research more broadly. Michael Meranze demonstrated what we don’t yet know about Foucault by interrogating the latter’s lasting interest in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Meranze convincingly argued that the Oedipus tragedy, along with the Ion by Euripides, offered Foucault a venue for redefining the meaning of power/knowledge across his career, from 1973’s “Truth and Juridical Forms” to the lectures on parrhesia given at the Collège de France. Joan Scott’s keynote on “Psychoanalysis and the Indeterminacy of History” gave a masterful overview of Freud’s interest in history. In a lecture that also reflected on her own development as a historian, Scott argued that her influential work in gender history exemplifies how psychoanalysis enables us to grasp the uncertainties at the heart of history, particularly in relation to the normative structures (such as gender identities) that seek to make sense of the variability in human behavior. In the most ambitious paper of the conference, Herman Bennett returned us to the scenes of colonial encounter and the rituals of power that are indissociable from the history of Atlantic slavery. Bennett called for greater multi-lingual and comparative work in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century colonialism, in part for its potential to reconfigure the work of theorists like Foucault, Hannah Arendt, and Giorgio Agamben, all of whom tend to favor European historical precedents (such as the Nazi concentration camps) in their influential accounts of biopower and biopolitics. “Slavery and the slave archive,” Bennett asserted in a remark that made its way onto the conference’s Twitter feed (#sitcrit), “remain remarkably under examined. Period. Full stop.” Its rituals of power and dehumanization, Bennett argued throughout, belong to a genealogy that connects the past to the degradation of black bodies characterized by the 2014 police murder of Michael Brown and the unfortunate circumstances that left his body publicly exposed in the street.

The pre-1700 focus in Bennett’s lecture stood in marked contrast from the majority of the pre-circulated papers, which leaned heavily towards the nineteenth century and to discussions of literary texts. At several points during the conference, participants bemoaned this “not-quite-so-early” aspect of the conference program. Co-organizer Brian Connolly suggested that we might consider what particular features of nineteenth-century America seem to demand or require theoretical models taken up in the twenty-first century. By and large, most of the papers strayed away from “canonical” theorists (Marx, Freud, Foucault, Derrida et al.) in favor of recent work by Bruno Latour or Jacques Rancière.[3] Latour’s polemical essay from 2004 (“Why Has Critique Ran Out of Steam?”) was perhaps most cited, since there Latour challenged critical theory to move beyond the paradigm of symptomatic reading, often associated with Frederic Jameson, that identified critique with the unmasking of hidden forces.[4] Participants such as Elizabeth Maddock Dillon noted that Latour’s essay doesn’t really consider the full range of critique apart from this symptomatic mode. Foucault’s “What is Critique?” for instance, differs remarkably from the straw man version that Latour’s essay has drawn attention to.

Obviously, a three-day conference on critical theory involved presentations and discussions far too complex to summarize beyond sketching the general terrain. A panel on “Perversion’s Aspirations” examined the suppression of deviant behavior—variously related to eighteenth-century Onanism, transgender marriage, and privacy—that challenge larger paradigms related to gender, the public sphere, and secularization. “What Comes of Empiricism?” featured discussions of alternative conceptions to antebellum black thought, the political assumptions of the antislavery movement, and the possible links between romantic idealism and the imagination’s capacity to denaturalize citizenship. In “Material Matters,” scholars debated the theoretical turn to materiality, particularly with regards to the history of the book and print culture. “Good Time, Bad Times,” a panel that drew smiles from its allusion to a song by Led Zeppelin, featured papers on temporality and other period reconsiderations, with panelists examining the influence of early modern jurisprudence on Moby-Dick, soldiers and temporality during the U.S.-Mexican War, and Washington Irving as a writer who anticipated the rise of illustrated literature.

Special mention should be made of Michael Warner’s well-attended keynote on “Critique in the Anthropocene.” Warner, along with Michael Meranze, participated in 1994’s Possible Pasts. But in a surprising turn from his recent work in queer theory and the evangelical public sphere, Warner elaborated on a larger paradigm: how today’s environmental crisis offers the opportunity to connect scholarship in science studies to critical theory. Familiar dates in early American studies and modern U.S. history—1610, 1781, 1945—become in Warner’s analysis the occasion to think about an “Anthropocene” shaped by the (a) shift in greenhouse gas emissions caused by New World colonization, (b) James Watts’ invention of the steam engine, and (c) the onset of the nuclear age. Warner’s lecture moved through such considerations before seizing on “the grid” as a pervasive network defining modern life. To be a “gridded subject” today entails dependence upon municipal power lines, utilities, and Internet providers—all of which deliver services that, almost by definition, come from sources beyond our understanding or capacity to know.

To this observer, Warner’s discussion of life on the grid exemplified a version of critique that threaded together the best aspects of Situation Critical! This included attention to the materialist circumstances of power relations (literal power lines, wires, and pipes) and the ambition to connect present circumstances to pivotal flashpoints in Early America, broadly construed. Critique, as Hegel and Kant warned their readers, can lead to “wonder” and “terror” (Kant), or to a “Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk” (Hegel). Previous generations of scholarship identified critique with a hermeneutics of suspicion. Warner, with the rest of the conference, seems to posit something more affirmative and open to continuous revision. One of the oldest meanings of “situation” denotes the place of a city or community in relation to its surroundings. For three wonderful days, scholars attending Situation Critical! surrounded themselves with a krinein (critique’s Greek etymological origin) that will no doubt have lasting effects in their respective fields and subdisciplines.


[1] David Waldstreicher, “Two Cheers for the ‘Public Sphere’ … and One for Historians’ Skepticism,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 62, no. 1 (Jan. 2005): 107-112.

[2] The 1994 conference resulted in a well-received collection of essays. Robert Blair St. George (ed.), Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

[3] Note: on social media many of the conference participants noted that Foucault was the unspoken foundational figure that most often animated their investigations, even when not invoked explicitly.

[4] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Ran Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no.2 (Winter 2004): 225-248.

2 responses

  1. Great write up, John! And nice opening from Waldstreicher, a provocation that my historian colleagues have, for the most part, avoided…..

  2. Pingback: Situation Critical! – Drunk in the Anthropocene


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