Probing the contradictions of contemporary politics

By Anjali Anand

For the citizen of the twenty-first century, politics may well spark more questions than answers, even as academics and activists in countries around the world from Turkey to India to the United States are struggling to articulate new modes of political consciousness and engagement. One center at the University of Chicago, however, has been probing the contradictions of contemporary politics for over a decade and continues to bring dynamism and fresh perspectives both to old questions that resonate with modern concerns and new questions that recast older debates.

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory (3CT) was founded in 2004 under the leadership of seven faculty from the Divisions of the Humanities and Social Sciences, with Jean Comaroff, David Laitin, and Bill Sewell serving as early directors. Envisioned as an interdisciplinary space for scholars invested in the discussion and investigation of contemporary social and political processes, 3CT has since grown into a collective of eleven full-time fellows pursuing diverse research projects and has brought together graduate and undergraduate students with faculty by sponsoring a range of events including lectures, conferences, and teach-ins.

Current Co-Director Lisa Wedeen, Mary R. Morton Professor of Political Science and the College, describes the kinds of commitments that unite the 3CT fellows. “We’re all very interested in unsettling existing assumptions. We are attempting to ask new questions and to think about the questions that have been asked and are being asked, and to think about whether they aren’t doing more obfuscating than clarifying of the things that need to be clear. A third thing is thinking not about narrow debates in the academy but about how concepts travel and are remade in the context of that movement. Yet another thing that brings 3CT together is thinking about the ‘roads not taken,’ in the sense of alternatives that weren’t taken up.”

In 2017-18, 3CT presented New Global Authoritarianisms, a series of panels to facilitate ongoing conversations on the fate of liberal democracy, attending to the role that new authoritarianisms are playing in reversing the global trend towards inclusive and democratic forms of government.

The sense of missed alternatives in terms of how political processes unfold in the contemporary moment is especially pressing in an environment that prizes both interdisciplinary conversations and a strong commitment to international engagement. Co-Director Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Professor of Anthropology, describes that “one of the things that is very distinctive about 3CT is that it is a cosmopolitan space in many senses, especially disciplinarily, in terms of people’s attachments. A lot of us have a foot in two countries, or two academic cultures, or two disciplines or sometimes more, and two communities of practice.”   

A commitment to working with scholars, intellectuals, artists, and activists from around the world means that 3CT fellows are often keenly aware of questions and possibilities that are not being considered in conventional debates in the American academy. As Sunder Rajan explains, “Questions are often posed so as to make certain lives or modes of being impossible to conceptualize. What theory can do and should do is intervene in that, to say: but how is the question being posed?” He points out that “in many other parts of the world being able to reformulate questions gets at the heart of public debates that are being had in the media, in policy worlds, and in activist worlds.”

Wedeen and Sunder Rajan see this attention, and indeed participation in, international networks of intellectual activity as key to understanding contemporary politics on a global scale as well as better understanding the blind spots in the American academy. Wedeen says that in her own work on Syria, for example, she has encountered exciting and challenging intellectual conversations in unconventional spaces like the arts.

“3CT is willing to look for those spaces of political, intellectual, aesthetic engagement, wherever they may be. Part of what 3CT also tries to do is forge those alliances not only across institutions of the university but also across media. The University of Chicago has been very welcoming of that.”

The wide-ranging networks of scholars working through 3CT means that the center has been able to hold events that are unique in the University of Chicago landscape and set the center apart from its peers in the humanities like the Franke Institute or the more policy-driven Institute of Politics. For example, on October 5, 2018, 3CT sponsored a film screening and discussion with Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed of his film Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait which grapples deeply with the destruction wrought in the Syrian civil war and the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against civilians. Mohammed, who lives in exile and has been condemned by the Syrian government, is one of a number of guest speakers that 3CT makes it possible to invite to campus.

Lauren Berlant, George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor, co-produced and co-hosted a conference in early June 2018 entitled “The Soup is On: Experiment in Critical Practice” which brought together a variety of scholars across disciplines from around the United States in an effort to reconceptualize modes of critical thinking.

Interdisciplinary engagement is what scholars like Wedeen and Sunder Rajan hope graduate students will take away from their participation in 3CT events. Wedeen notes that she hopes to model for students the type of passion for the life of the mind that has historically been a strength of the University of Chicago. Under the auspices of 3CT, graduate students have organized conferences and provided critical and sustained feedback for the numerous book salons and panel discussions that 3CT hosts.

Shannon Dawdy, Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College and Interim Co-Director of 3CT, has further expanded 3CT’s reach to include undergraduates. Her innovative Future Café series brings students together in open-ended conversation around pressing future-oriented topics, including transportation, cities, and intimacy, among others.

“Universities need to have innovative and entrepreneurial spaces within them. Departments, for good reason and by definition, cannot be entrepreneurial in every way because they have a function to perform, but centers can. For spaces to be truly innovative and entrepreneurial, they have to have the affordance to be supple in form and not just content.” Sunder Rajan contends that 3CT’s suppleness, which Wedeen describes as growing out of its centrifugal structure, is what makes it a vital space for scholars and students to meet.

Beyond its academic programming, 3CT also manages a book series entitled Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning which has produced twenty-one critically acclaimed titles and an interdisciplinary journal, Critical Historical Studies, both of which are published by the University of Chicago Press. 3CT’s bottom-up, entrepreneurial spirit prizes innovation, improvisation, and experimentation, to the benefit of both the book series and journal.

In October 2017, 3CT hosted a 2-day conference Conspiracy/Theory, to engage epistemological problems in contemporary politics and the value of social theory in an age generating new forms of propaganda, deception, and surveillance, as well as tactical rejections of science by both industries and governments

At a time when universities are increasingly moving to a model in which knowledge production is valued in terms of publication output or monetization, the work produced and supported by 3CT fellows challenges the very orientations that enable that shift in academic culture. In doing so, they pose questions not only about topics as wide ranging as the intersection of conspiracy theory and social theory and the return of right-wing populism but they also interrogate the role and function of the research university itself.

The American academic context, Sunder Rajan says, “doesn’t always account for how pedagogy travels, students travel, knowledge travels, expertise travels, and settles into very different contexts.” Wedeen seconds this by offering a heartfelt vision of what the purpose of academic research is and should be. “The virtue of 3CT’s work is that it may not be a tangible product or something that will be cited or quoted or influential at the moment, but maybe later might become so, and even if it doesn’t it’s a stepping stone to something else.”