DECEMBER 1, 2019
IN THE SPRING of 2019 at Loyola University New Orleans, the English department once again offered a particularly difficult course on critical theory. It wasn’t “difficult” in the usual ways: not just because Marx’s formulation of base and superstructure is subtler than it seems at first, or because Freud’s “unconscious” is so frustrating because, well, it’s unconscious. It wasn’t because we’re in a so-called post-theory moment, or because the subject seemed abstruse. Rather, it was the very pertinence of the ensemble that makes up what is called “critical theory.” Together, our class came to an alternative, anxious definition for the term: “crisis thinking.”
The crisis, in this case, related to how it felt to be alive in 2019, in New Orleans — many of the students on the verge of graduating into a precarious (if not outright apocalyptic) future to come. Near the end of the semester, we took a detour and discussed Hua Hsu’s New Yorker article about “affect theory” and the work of Lauren Berlant. The article was also a review of Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s book The Hundreds, a collaborative text that demonstrates affect theory, in short sections of 100 words, or multiples of hundreds. It’s an experiment in constraint.
We met on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings — 50 minutes of intense engagement with a different text each day. There were 23 of us; we could just barely form a comfortable circle for discussion. We came from diverse backgrounds and had disparate interests; some of us were creative writers, others were film and media students, and still others were into literary studies. Typically, critical theory is one of the last classes that English majors take before they graduate — complicating, if not exactly clarifying, all that has come before. The class can be a frustrating experience, but can also spark time-release illuminations.
We finished our course by reading the first 20 or so pages of The Hundreds. We discussed the book in class and practiced writing some “hundreds” with Chelsey Johnson, who was in town to read from her novel Stray City — which coincidentally has a section that reads almost like The Hundreds. We’d been planning to have this class with Kara Thompson, who was in town to read from her new book, Blanket. But a delayed flight kept Thompson from joining us, and Johnson graciously stepped in. Affect theory thrives on serendipity, accidents, and surprises, so this worked out perfectly.
The Hundreds is a work of two voices, intertwined and unspecified in terms of who is speaking at any moment in the text. Part of the fun of the text involves trying to figure out who is speaking when: geographic details and stylistic textures give hints; but as in most vibrant instances of collaborative writing, lines swerve suddenly and singular voices become polyphonic. Earlier in the course we had read Deleuze and Guattari on “What is a minor literature?” and so had encountered a version of this kind of writing — but we weren’t as focused then on the compositional style.
The Hundreds brought the class together in ways that we didn’t anticipate. Partly it was the magic of having a novelist suddenly thinking and writing alongside us — the social space of our class was transformed into something more akin to an incredibly generous writing workshop. It was a necessary break in the flow of our course, where less time had been spent writing reflections on cyborg theory or panopticism than in active, frequently anxious discussions with dense material. The Hundreds is playful and loose, it roams and discovers, only to drift elsewhere, but it works: it grounds theory, makes it real.
We’d been reading The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, a sparingly edited anthology originally published in 2008. It’s an assemblage of canonical and more contemporary voices representing what’s known as “Theory.” But the book was showing its age. The co-editors’ cover gamut — “Everything is open to question. Nothing is sacred.” — came across less an invitation than a cop-out. Some of the course readings had already been challenged and rethought by scholarship not included in our anthology; but many of our most tense encounters came in moments when our lived experience slammed up against the high-stakes questions in our text.
Our class was arguably at its best when we shared stories and experiences from our lives in this tattered city. (Recovering! Rebounding! Seriously?) Our personal renderings of theory — trying to make sense of Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding through the tourism industry, say — attuned us to the utterly bewildering effects of the contemporary moment, where Poe’s Law governs all. Sometimes our readings themselves resembled elaborate pranks — like Derrida’s “Différance.” Others, risky provocations — like Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex.” And our attempts to Google what these texts “actually” meant rarely helped, instead sending us further down rabbit holes of unknowing and discomfort.
Is gender an inescapable performance? What is “the fact of blackness,” after Fanon? Is the self (merely) a (perhaps necessary) delusion? Lacan forced us to wonder. How might we speak “with a wild tongue,” like Anzaldúa? These questions stung us in more than abstract ways. “The body is a contact sheet with a nervous system,” write Berlant and Stewart in one passage. Our collection of minds in that classroom space — riddled with unknown hurt and barely graspable adulthood — created a battered palimpsest recording in real time: marked only to be scratched away, remarked only to be put back under erasure, scribbled signatures.
This is what being in a discussion-based humanities classroom in 2019 is — not just for the stumbling professor trying to create (or recreate, if it ever existed) a safe space for dialogue and inquiry, but for the students who felt by turns empowered and affronted by the attempt. We were left with an unresolved class and a questionable textbook, but The Hundreds somehow provided us some solace. What Berlant and Stewart brought to the surface were the questions looming over us: What is gained when sensitivity is prioritized in intellectual spaces? Who is silenced in the name of intellectual “rigor”?
In 2008, maybe a college campus was, for a small few, a place where intellectual provocations could take place without concern about who could speak for whom, and who was or wasn’t safe. But even our textbook showed that matters of inclusion and exclusion were playing out long before just 10 years ago. Any assumptions of safety achieved, or notions of acceptance that maybe worked for a while — these were now bunk. Throughout the semester we all had things to say, needed to say certain things, but how to say anything was vexed — a crash course on navigating our sensitivities, and others’.
Part of what The Hundreds as a study in form teaches most clearly is that finality is not its project; that’s not the goal. Instead, it’s about creating a collaborative, necessarily tense engagement between reader and text. Berlant and Stewart point to this most obviously in “On Collaboration.” Our class was exactly as they describe it: “[S]eparate people trying to stay in sync and to take in what isn’t, to work with the heat of a proximity that echoes, extends, or hesitates into forms of life.” The messy lives made in our hesitations and expostulations were wrought from collaborative care.
The Hundreds became a necessary counterpoint for critical theory. Or rather, The Hundreds advanced the field that we’d been ranging over, from Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in our textbook, to more recent pieces by Margret Grebowicz and Alenda Chang. The Hundreds helped us negotiate the rough parts, make surprising connections between unlikely kin, and better understand where (and why) our patience runs out — also how to keep reading, thinking, feeling. It’s a study in the tensions between provocation and hesitation, in how to pause amid panicked moments to take note of their curvatures, and where you’ve felt them before.
In “Writing Lessons,” Berlant and Stewart postulate the writing classroom as a space for this project to play out: “Writing is a labor of being […] the question is not how to choose what to stay with but how to feel your way in.” The college classroom of 2019 doesn’t deserve to be deemed a minefield, either by political pundits or by senior scholars. What might be gained in remaining attentive to troubled feelings, in reevaluating what emotional risks are worth the trouble? What must be gained is a better pedagogical space, meaning one that ends better than where it began.
At one point in “Writing Lessons,” Berlant and Stewart describe the awkwardness of certain group workshops when they start out with the simplest questions: “The room gets collective, comedic, sharply intellectual, building habits of thought. It’s a simple relief like pushing a restart button. It feels like a miracle, though.” This reminded us of our own classes: fumbling toward meaning, comprehension, doubtful and unsure of the ground beneath our feet — but wanting to proceed. Elsewhere, Berlant and Stewart describe writing as such: “You have to start somewhere, you light on something, you lean into a realism of slippages and swells.”
In our class, we had drifted away from writing almost altogether, or at least in the typical English-paper sense of the term. Instead, we presented: pinpoint presentations, designed to make theoretical themes or problems pop into view. We did this midway through, and we did it again for our final projects. We chose to lean into the things and people and moments we knew but needed to feel out further. And by the end, The Hundreds brought us back to writing. Berlant and Stewart closed the loop — or rather, they revealed the circle to be a Möbius strip all along.
If our reframing of critical theory as “crisis thinking” points to our sense of everyday panic, it more constructively means to take the “ordinary” more seriously. It’s in these slippages and swells that Berlant and Stewart demonstrate where crisis thinking operates best — and also what made its practice such an anxious task for our class, where the idea of the ordinary became more and more unfamiliar to us with every meeting. What value does the idea of “ordinary” hold in economic and social structures dependent on exploiting difference, anyway? To take the ordinary seriously, we had to learn to distrust it.
Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book, Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Environmental Humanities, will be published by Bloomsbury in December.