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The biggest stories from a narrow field /
by Chris Lee

2013 was a banner year for critical theory, which saw its ranks swell by the dozens as more and more people search for better and worse ways to describe this distressing world we call reality. For those in the know, critical theory is a type of discourse used to avoid and produce tricky conversations, making awkward interactions even more awkward or intense. It should be used sparingly sometimes, like nutritional yeast, and other times, liberally, like nutritional yeast—but always with popcorn, and even then, modified by equivocating statements like deconstruction ‘or something’ and rhizomatic ‘or whatever,’ so as not to seem too sure of yourself or into it.

In no particular order, we look back on a year of changes noted by a very few. Fashion missteps? Rising trends? None of that is here, go away.


Slavoj Žižek is the name on everyone’s tongues, like a weird tinny aftertaste you just can’t shake. Through regular columns in The Guardian, the Slovenian cultural critic claimed, on one count, that the left needs its own Margaret Thatcher (???), and, on another, that sign language interpretation is a prop for neoliberal feel-goods (???). Along the way he also released a series of very sweet and humanizing letters to then imprisoned (and now freed) Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; his nimble dance between the Real and the Symbolic proving that he is still in the running to becoming America’s next top Lacanian model.

2013 also saw the release of Zizek’s follow-up in his Pervert’s Guide film series, where he simultaneously critiques and stages himself in cinema classics like Jaws and Taxi Driver. No word yet on the development of a Zizek action figure, though odds are it’ll include a well-worn copy of Écrits and a Matrix box set in fair condition.


Cambridge’s own octogenarian-linguist Noam Chomsky kicked off 2013 by waging philosophical Pokémon battle against Zizek, with Zizek using Lacanian Smokescreen and Chomsky using Empirical Leer. Chomsky, last seen debating Foucault in YouTube clips of questionable quality, continues to hate theory and tout measurable research methods while poststructuralists grin and sneer at his belief in essential natures. Not content to let Zizek be the only moviemaker this year, Chomsky released his own film with Gillette® commercial director Michel Gondry, featuring super twee and psychedelic animations and asking that age-old question: Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? Earlier in the year Chomsky also shared a stage with non-Cantabrigian Angela Davis for an event entitled Radical Futures, where he spoke, in this writer’s estimation, for a long, long time.


Prison abolitionist and political activist Angela Davis was the subject of her own feature-length film, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, which is almost impossible to find through the usual torrenting means, unless what you’re looking for is mislabeled copies of Pacific Rim. At Goethe University in Frankfurt, Davis gave perhaps the best tribute to Nelson Mandela, reminding us that, despite media attempts at remaking him in a more forgiving, non-violent image, Mandela advocated radical upheaval of the apartheid government. In this way he acted, Davis suggests, not as an agent of “simple forgiveness, [nor] forgetfulness, but revolutionary transformation of self and social relations.”

2013 also saw Davis recognized by the Alabama state senate, which somewhat mistakenly voted in favor of a resolution honoring her. With a number of legislators admitting to not having read the resolution before voting, Gov. Robert Bentley (R) ultimately declined to sign it, presumably for Davis’s political role as former vice presidential candidate for the Communist Party. Davis is presumed to give no fucks about the supposed snub.


Gender theorist Judith Butler, best known for her ill-advised cameos in your intro-to-feminism term paper, spoke in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University, responding to the Gezi demonstrations with… no response? Or in her words: “some people come here and tell you who you are and what you’re doing and what it means. I’m not going to do that.” Which was actually a strong stance against transnational tendencies to promote solidarity for solidarity’s sake, without adequate consideration of the historical ideologies of colonial intervention.

Butler closed out the year by continuing to advocate critical support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which recently passed a landmark vote in the American Studies Association. Scientific projections suggest that Butler’s gender theories will enjoy increased popularity in the coming year, especially amongst people who don’t actually understand how social constructs work and decide to loudly declare premature ends to the relevance of identity markers, thus making everyone uncomfortable and move to other sides of the room.


Lauren Berlant, professor of all things intimacy and affect, wrote Cruel Optimism in 2011, but it wasn’t until this year that a ‘punk song’ (as the Duke University Press website calls it) inspired by her book was released. Berlant’s latest work traces enduring desires for upward mobility, even as shifts in socioeconomic structures make the realization of these attachments more spectral than solid. Worriers cover some of this misplaced hope in their informal tribute to Berlant’s book, with lyrics reading, “What doesn’t kill you, just makes you a mess / but no one ever wants to tell you.” Dark.

Supplanting the Weakerthans’ references to Derrida and Das Racist’s fashionable Foucault citations, Worriers are now the reigning champs of bringing critical theory to the indie music scene—until, that is, Zizek decides to release his inevitable Pervert’s Guide to Punk Rock, in which he talks over and then covers some Fugazi songs.

R.I.P J.E.M.

Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, NYU Tisch School Professor and all-around force for good in the universe, passed this year at the age of 46. Best known to this writer for countering the ‘anti-social’ strain of queer theory, roughly defined as a model of relationality based on the ‘fuck off and die’ school of thought, Muñoz wrote these words in his Cruising Utopia: “We must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.”

Elsewhere, people who are not Muñoz are saying worse things about race, future, and queerness, and they should probably just stop.

~~have a very critical new year~~

Christopher J. Lee is a freeskool instructor in the Department of Whatever, where he's taught classes on apathy, astrology, and queer theory. He's an infrequent author of semi-serious poems, some of which appear in local zines.

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