Introduction: The UCLA Project in Experimental Critical Theory

The UCLA Project in Experimental Critical Theory intends to galvanize, coordinate, and expand research and teaching in critical theory across departments and disciplines at UCLA. Despite the diversity of particular discourses and disciplinary practices that constitute the humanities, social sciences, and arts today, there is remarkable shared interest among scholars and students in what is generally called “theory.” Theory encompasses a wide range and long history of ideas and practices, and draws its inspiration from many sources, including classical philosophy and rhetoric, medieval theology, early modern humanism, and modern politics, anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and aesthetics. Theory experienced a renaissance in the 1960s with a series of renewed encounters by (largely French) thinkers such as Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Irigaray, Deleuze, and Derrida with the work of (largely German) modern thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Today theory continues to develop the concepts and questions that emerged from these encounters, but also has relocated itself in new genealogies and expanded into a multitude of new texts, ideas, and fields, including postcolonialism, critical legal studies, disability studies, and queer theory. Although theory once implied a rather specific history of ideas and texts, today theory is increasingly experimental, finding its resources in new places, such as contemporary physics and mathematics; African and Asian philosophy; systems and game theories. Although we have heard it announced from several quarters in recent years that “theory is dead,” these claims, to echo Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated; the real question is what will happen after the so-called “death of theory”: what new forms will theory take, how will it continue to transform itself and our understanding of the world we live in? In fact, theory has remained extraordinarily active, and has continued to generate influential new ideas and models. Lectures and conferences on theory at UCLA continue to attract large numbers of participants and observers. Critical theory lectures organized by the Department of Comparative Literature over the last two years have generated overflow crowds, drawing together faculty and students from many academic areas and interests and providing common ground for truly interdisciplinary discussion. Graduate seminars in theory are regularly over-enrolled with students from across the campus, as well as from other local universities. High level research and teaching in theory is conducted in all departments of the Humanities and Social Sciences, in the School of the Arts and Architecture, the School of Theater, Film and Television, and the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Yet there is very little organization or integration of research and teaching of theory at UCLA: there is no entity charged with coordinating the various theoretical activities (seminars, lectures, conferences, reading groups, etc.) that happen on campus every year, or – most importantly – to explore new possibilities for disciplinary transformation and interdisciplinary collaboration around theoretical questions. Although there are several universities in the US that have been considered exceptionally strong in this area, today no single institution is especially renowned for critical theory. We believe that UCLA has exceptional, perhaps unique, potential at this moment to become a major center for Theory in the US for the 21st century, to take the lead in developing the next generation of research and teaching in what we would like to call Experimental Critical Theory, to express our vision of innovative, rigorous, and transformative theoretical work. We are fortunate to have already a number of outstanding scholars at UCLA working in areas of critical theory such as aesthetics, film and visual culture, postcolonial studies, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, deconstruction, systems and game theory, political theory, continental and analytic philosophy, and others. To develop these resources and to realize this potential, however, we need a program that will 1) coordinate existing research and teaching, connecting faculty and students from across UCLA who are now working in relative isolation, often reduplicating efforts or simply remaining unaware of parallel work in other parts of the university; 2) develop new areas of research and teaching in critical theory, by creating both smaller, intensive reading groups and larger, more open projects (conferences, seminars, and courses); and 3) galvanize foundational concepts and stimulate new research and teaching in theory at UCLA by hiring two or more Distinguished Professors in Experimental Critical Theory, each to teach one quarter a year on an ongoing basis.