Aesthetics and Politics in 2020: A Workshop

Thursday, November 12, 2020 - Saturday, November 14, 2020  6:00pm Virtual Event

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On which grounds can we claim, in 2020 and with scholarly confidence, that a literary text has “progressive” or “right-wing” affinities? How does a live performance’s evidently intended critique of racist or homophobic dispositifs actually succeed (or fail)? What justifies the declaration that a film unfolds a revolutionary sensibility—or more pragmatically, contributes to working through unprecedented social crisis? Questions such as these could not be more topical today against the backdrop of new fascisms and heated public conflict in an age of heightened emergency and precarity, fear, anger, and hate. In the German context, resonant inquiries have flared up in recent debates around individual authors’ or texts’ uncanny proximities with rightwing movements but also in a resurgence of interests in (progressive, egalitarian, anti-fascist) activist political aesthetics. 

This workshop emerged from a graduate seminar connecting twentieth-century German critical thought about aesthetics and politics to twenty-first century debates around art and reading in affect, queer, and critical race studies. While inspired by the range of connections we were able to make, we also noticed that aesthetic theory offers surprisingly few fresh and specifically developed answers to our questions. The workshop therefore re-envisions these questions from two (intertwined) angles: 

a) Building on recent debates about “critical” and “postcritical” reading methodologies in the humanities, we want to look more closely at—and specify—the ways in which we read politically today. 

b) At the intersection of the modernist tradition of political aesthetics with contemporary new materialisms, affect studies, and more, we will aim to finetune the agency of artworks in their relationships with society: What does or can art actually do politically? 

Presenters have been given the charge to develop their answers by starting from adverbs (-> “reading [how]”) and verbs (-> “art [does]”) respectively.

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Hosted by the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University (faculty organizer: Claudia Breger), with co-sponsorship from The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and external support from the Federal Republic of Germany through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Please note: The Keynote Lecture and the Friday roundtable will be live (and in webinar format); Columbia-internal papers (both students and faculty) will be pre-recorded. The live sessions on the internal papers will be discussion-focused.

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