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The Perils of the Present, Theory, and the University

Carolyn Lesjak

Pages 515 - 531



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Vincent Leitch identifies the close connection between theory and the university when he suggests that claims of theory’s demise are also signs of anxiety about what is to come: the so-called passing of theory equally reflects wider fears about the role of critical thinking within an increasingly corporatized university. Drawing on Theodor W. Adorno’s notion of the “ripeness of decay,” this essay argues for the value of facing the domino effect of “deaths”—of theory, of the humanities and the university, of ideology and Marxism, of society and culture—head on, as ripe for thinking about the university of the future, which, as this string of deaths attests, necessarily entails thinking "beyond" the university. Two recent critiques of the university are particularly instructive for this project: Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s work on the undercommons, and the attempts underway in Canada, in response to the calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to Indigenize the university. Putting these critiques and their emphasis on race and Indigeneity in conversation with the dialectical insights of Adorno’s Marxism and Horkheimer’s view of critical theory, the essay contends that a Marxism replete with a renewed commitment to critique is in order, given the unavoidable need to theorize the very conditions of possibility for critical thinking in the face of the assaults on the humanities and the university. Rather than a backward-looking, nostalgic view, in which the loss of the humanities is bemoaned, such an approach begins with the premise that we have yet to see humanistic study realized, precisely because it has historically obfuscated its own conditions of possibility—namely, settler colonialism, slavery, and the ongoing legacies of dispossession and economic and racial injustice.

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