What is critical theory? Can you give an elevator pitch for your center? I am frequently asked these sorts of questions, and, from a certain perspective, they seem perfectly reasonable. My fallback for the first question turns—inevitably for a scholar of languages and literature—to etymology: theory, from the Greek for “contemplation” or simply “looking,” and critical, meaning “discerning.” That’s far too general, of course, and my subsequent speech would require a long elevator ride indeed. It ranges from Kant’s critical projects in epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics to the founding of the Institute for Social Research in Weimar Germany, the impact of French post-structuralism on North American literary criticism, and UCI’s own, complex institutional history. But to be brief, paradoxical, or—to use one of our key and controversial terms—dialectical: UCI Critical Theory aims to tend a tradition of thinking and to do so with historical and institutional clarity, with analytical rigor, skepticism, and irreverence about that very tradition. This year’s stellar line up of public lectures as well as the course programming for the Graduate Critical Theory Emphasis likewise promise to balance contemplative distance with urgent discernment. Looking forward to the Q&A.
Director, UCI Critical Theory