Topics in Critical Thought, 2019

Running from June to October 2019, this short course was designed to offer an introduction to critical thought in general and provide a series of engaging talks, discussions and activities related to topics of contemporary concern to critical theorists. Members of the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent delivered all of the sessions. All seminars, except the last one, lasted two hours long and took place on a Monday evening.


Week 1: Monday 3 June
Publics and Counterpublics
Iain McKenzie.

This session is on Michael Warner’s classic work Publics and Counterpublics (2002).

In the first of these two sessions on publics and counterpublics we will start by reading extracts from Michael Warner’s classic essay, ‘Publics and Counterpublics’ (an abridged version of the title essay that opens his book of the same name). After some scene setting remarks about where this text sits within discussions of the public sphere, we will then collectively examine how he understands both of these terms and the relation between them. Although not a major theme of Warner’s text, it is hoped that the discussion will consider the importance of both public and counterpublics to contemporary art practice.

You can read the text here (recommended pages: pp.49-57 and p.76-end).

Week 2: Monday 10 June
Counterpublics and Neoliberalism
Chris Henry

This session will explore Robert Asen, ‘Neoliberalism, the public sphere and a public good’ (2017).

This session will focus on a recent text by Robert Asen, ‘Neoliberalism, the public sphere, and a public good’. Asen is famous for the careful ways in which he has elaborated ‘the counter in counterpublics’. We will consider how he understands the (often contested) concept of neoliberalism and the role of counterpublics in resisting what this dominant ideology imposes upon us. We will invite consideration of how such forms of resistance may be expressed in artistic practice and organisational invention.

You can read the text here.

Week 3: Tuesday 18 June
Artists and Institutional Critique
Connal Parsley

This session will explore artists in their critical relations to institutions.

The first session on institutional critique will start with a short piece by Andrea Fraser, to introduce us to the term and what it might mean. Fraser insists that institutional critique is not about taking an external critical position against institutions; that art making always exists within art institutions and discourses. We will explore the implications of understanding institutional critique as an attempt to take responsibility for “everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship … driven by our own interests in the field”, in two ways. First, by turning to an essay by the late Okwui Enwezor and the question of (post-)colonialism and the “contemporary”, and the figure of “permanent transition”. Enwezor considers how curatorial practice can be self-critical, working institutionally with both canonical thinking and new strands of artistic thought and practice. Second, through a recent exhibition at LA’s MOCA by Cameron Rowland, D37 (see pamphlet for pre-reading). Rowland’s piece will serve as an example of one way—perhaps different from what Fraser intended?—in which artistic practice is currently trying to reckon with the conditions of the institutions that enable it.

Week 4: Monday 1 July
From Institutional Critique to Changing the Refrain
Anna Cutler

This session will take last week’s exploration further to explore change after critique.

The second session will take up from where the first ends. It considers if it’s possible to move beyond institutional critique through the lens of learning. We will discuss how, in practice, an institution might manage to be “self-critical, working institutionally with both canonical thinking and new strands of artistic thought and practice.”

Participants are invited to bring their own practical experiences of institutional thinking, poking and making into the conversation.

Please find Anna’s paper ‘Who will Sing the Song?’ at:

Week 5: Monday 23 September
Introducing New Materialisms
Iain MacKenzie

This session on new materialisms looks at Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’.

Do we need a new form of materialism to explain and understand the world, today? What’s wrong with the old materialisms and, for that matter, with different forms of idealism? In this session we will explore these and other related questions with a particular focus on how new materialisms have informed and may continue to inform artistic practice.

Please find the reading here.

Week 6: Monday 30 September
New Materialisms and Gender
Maria Drakopoulou

This session on new materialisms and gender looks at S. Alamo and S. Hekman’s ‘Material Feminisms’ and Karen Barad’s lecture ‘Remembering the future – reconfiguring the past – temporality, materiality and justice to come’.

The impact of recent developments in the physical and biological sciences is transforming feminist thought. Paying attention to matter and mattering (matter’s on-going process of self-generation), has re-orientated analysis towards movement, vitality, morphogenesis, and becoming of the material world, whilst it has generated novel concepts of analysis such as Karen Barad’s ‘agential realist perspective’, ‘quantum entanglement’, ‘posthuman performativity’, and ‘diffraction’. In the context of this new ‘material turn’, can feminism continue to rely on the intellectual insights of social theory and on cultural and representational analysis? How are we, feminists of today, to think of the dyads nature/culture, mind/body, and sex/gender, which hitherto have dominated feminist thinking? How are we to understand power, corporeality, identity and subjectivity?  And why Karen Barad’s book Meeting the Universe Halfway, has been proposed as a fundamental reading for any art student?

Please find the reading here and watch the lecture here.

Week 7: Monday 7 October
Cognitive Capitalism and Immaterial Labour
Connal Parsley

This session on cognitive capitalism and immaterial labour looks at the ‘Should I Work for Free’ flowchart by Jessica Hische, the blog post ‘Cognitive Capitalism: What Is It, If Anything?’ by Alex Sayf Cummings and Kai van Eickels’ “What Your Spontaneity is Worth to Us: Improvisation between art and economics”.

Does it ever seem to you that nothing in contemporary life lies beyond the tendency to commodification and competition? Anything you can think of, no matter how seemingly insignificant or intangible, today seems to make someone a profit. From data generated by browsing youtube, to “innate” cultural knowledge, to
what’s trending in pre-teen peer groups, today it is not only physical “work” that generates financial value. Some strands of thought suggest that this is not an accident, but is the very basis of how the economy (and society) work today. “Cognitive capitalism” and “immaterial labour” are terms that have been popularised in recent decades in the process of thinking in detail about this kind of
economy. In this session, we will look at these terms paying specific attention to creative production. How should “art work” be considered in light of these ideas?

Please find the readings herehere and here.

Week 8: Monday 14 October
Roundtable on Intersectionality
Maria Drakopoulou, Iain MacKenzieConnal Parsely

This final session on intersectionality looks at Kimberle Crenshaw’s ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’.

Please find the reading here.