Conversations in Times of Crisis Rosi Braidotti finds Critical Theory at a Crossroads

The place of critical theory now should be to find new words, a new way of using language to describe and make sense of a new reality – to make “ordinary language do extraordinary things”.

How do we address the very real pile-up of crises that shape our current times and threaten to overwhelm through their sheer quantity? How do we make sense of and engage with the ubiquitousness of the term ‘crisis’ itself? How can we resist encroaching neoliberalism and what place does critical theory and the academy play in this resistance?

These are focal questions posed by the new book, Critical Theory at a Crossroads: Conversations on Resistance in Times of Crisis, and an accompanying talk on Monday 24th September at the University of Amsterdam’s academic-cultural centre, Spui25. The venue hosted a panel made up of Rosi Braidotti, an interviewee in the book and a prominent posthumanist-feminist thinker; Joost de Bloois, who interviewed Braidotti; Stijn De Cauwer, the book’s editor; and Jeff Diamanti.

In response to stimulating questioning led by Diamanti – and later by the audience – Braidotti and the panel explored these threads, covering issues of left-wing melancholia and the place of the academy in the increasing monetisation of society, the place of critical theory in its current forms, and what a posthumanist praxis might look like.

So why a book on ‘crisis’, and why now? Remaining engaged in the present, for Braidotti, is not necessarily a reactive response to thematic, media headline concerns – as a polemic question by Diamanti probed – nor to glorify it. It is rather to pay heed to the present as “a thousand plateaus of actualisation”: a constant flow of what we no longer are and what we are becoming. According to Braidotti, to try to understand our current reality is to take a snapshot within this flow, and with a “foot in the world”, trying to hold this moment to discursive accountability.

Collected responses to a ‘Critical Crossroads’ in the new book from Columbia University Press

Throughout the discussion, the place of critical theory and critique, particularly in relation to resistance, was contested – especially between Braidotti and De Cauwer. Taking the audience through a quickfire history of philosophy, Braidotti introduced the backbone of her thinking and work on the posthuman: Spinoza and an Ethics of Joy. Joy, for Spinoza and for Braidotti’s methodology, is not optimistic. She vehemently countered the contemporary need to psychologise everything, arguing instead for a joyfulness as the “shaking off of the sense of our own helpfulness”: an opening up of the possibility of collective action, and as transformative thinking. For her, the dark destructivity of critique and critical theory as it stands has had its day. Too often, she argued, critique performs an epistemic violence which goes under the radar. The place of critical theory now should be to find new words, a new way of using language to describe and make sense of a new reality – to make “ordinary language do extraordinary things.”

In this, the university should lead the way, becoming collective, resisting monetisation, and setting itself up as a distributed hub of knowledge. Talk revolved here around the ongoing student protests, which De Bloois has been writing about, and the decentralising of knowledge. For Braidotti, the university should work with the increasingly porous boundaries between disciplines and the ‘outside’ of the academy, rather than shutting itself off. She highlighted that feminist thinkers have always been at the forefront of this movement, making a mockery of the “sanctimonious presence” of the huge ego of critique and the traditional institution, challenging connotations that frivolity and joy mean naivety – an argument that is demonstrated no better than in her entertaining, at times hilarious, interview style. A style not to be mistaken as accidental.

The conversation drew to a close on the question of survival. For Braidotti, survival is resisting through affirmative overcoming: resisting the ‘necropolitics’ and increasing pathologisation of society and overcoming the pressures of neoliberalism on the university – to survive by adapting our methods and language and growing in solidarity rather than negativity.

All in all, this was an engaging, thought-provoking and above all joyful discussion, whose thousand plateaus of thoughts showed that serious thought need not be negative, or dull.

Images taken from the cover of Critical Theory at a Crossroads: Conversations on Resistance in Times of Crisis, available now.