Key aims and expertise
The Centre for Critical Theory offers a friendly environment in which researchers, cultural practitioners, activists and others interested in the exercise of critical thinking can work together to develop research, organise intellectual encounters, exchange ideas, and facilitate the generation of collaborative approaches to theory production.
The Centre places an emphasis on the rigours of traditional scholarly research and on the importance of situating ideas, concepts, and theoretical frameworks within the intellectual and material framework – the histories and geographies - of culture. At the same time, the Centre seeks to facilitate the engagement of critical thinking with practices, histories, and traditions that fall outside of the sometimes narrow remit of scholarly expertise.
The Centre’s work privileges critical approaches to thinking that move beyond academic interdisciplinarity. Its work in key areas of research interest - Sensory Studies, Ecologies and Aesthetics, Institutional Analysis, the Critical and the Clinical - exemplify an understanding of theory that emphasises the importance of its transversal links with the present.
In addition to current areas of research interest, members of the Centre for Critical Theory and associated researchers have broader interests and expertise in the following areas (in no particular order):
- Ecology in its broadest sense, encompassing social, subjective, unconscious, affective, and sensory processes
- New materialist, object-oriented and more-than-human theory, with specific reference to questions of non-human agency and the ‘stuffliness’ of human life
- Continental philosophy, particularly the post-Kantian critical tradition
- Material culture
- Cultural history
- Sensory studies and the affective turn
- Psychoanalysis and related research, especially Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis, Guattari, institutional psychotherapy and ‘schizoanalysis’, critical interest in hypnosis, ethnopsychiatry
- Postcolonialism, including anti-colonial resistance and critiques of globalization as a form of neo-colonialism
- Science, Technology and culture, with particular reference to software, experimental metaphysics (Latour, Stengers) and media theoretical approaches to technology
- Media Studies, journalism and the public sphere, and discourse analysis
Neither Use Nor Ornament: A Cultural Biography of Clutter and Procrastination Tracey Potts
Our work in the area of sensory studies aims to advance sensory approaches to research with an especial focus on methodologies, practices, and histories. Sensory research starts from the premise that social, cultural and political events and situations register experientially: they communicate themselves as much through diffuse sensations as they do via codes, messages and rational processes. The sounds, colours, tastes, smells and feel of things thus play a vital role in shaping the way we interact with and attune ourselves to cultural and social environments.
Following a series of talks, symposia and a two-day conference in 2013 (‘Sensing Change’), the Nottingham Sensory Studies Network was formed to provide a focused space for sensory researchers to meet and share ideas and methods.
Nottingham Sensory Studies Network website
A broad area for current investigation in the Centre concerns the relationship between ecologies and aesthetics, both understood in the broadest possible sense. A concern with ecologies was central to the summer school recently organized by the Centre in conjunction with Nottingham Contemporary, which explored thinking in the ecological register across the mental, the social, and the natural. How aesthetics – in the broad sense of sensory experience – can be worked with as a component in generating critical responses to environments whose toxicity is felt as much in the subjective domains of affect, ideation or feeling, as in nature in the ordinary sense of the word, is central to research being done in this area.
Institutional Analysis and Anti-Psychiatry
The much maligned and largely misunderstood fields of institutional analysis (in France) and anti-psychiatry (in the UK) are central to ongoing research that addresses the histories and legacies of a rich set of critical practices that challenged both psychiatric and psychoanalytic dogmas about mental health. Starting from a focus on the work of Félix Guattari and figures associated with institutional psychotherapy (Jean Oury and François Tosquelles in particular), the project aims to explore the contemporary theoretical and practical value of work the impact of which was as significant beyond the immediate sphere of the clinical as it was maligned and misread.
The Critical and the Clinical
Focusing on the intersections between critical and clinical practices, with a view to interrogating neoliberal conceptions of health, happiness and the 'productive' subject, this strand of our current research activity draws on the Frankfurt School combination of Marxist and Freudian social and political theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis (both as a theory and as a clinical practice), and the later work of Michel Foucault (biopolitics, neoliberalism, the 'care of the self'), in order to engage with current conceptions of health as 'flourishing' and 'mental capital'. It also draws efforts in the field of the medical and health humanities to assert the validity of subjective experience in the face of objectifying biomedical discourse and 'evidence-based medicine'. The aim of this strand of our current research is to situate supposedly natural or objective phenomena in the arena of health (anxiety, depression, eating disorders, autism) in their social, cultural and political contexts, foregrounding their complex connections with the neoliberal consensus and the related politics of austerity.
Theory and Modernity
Working closely with the Modernity and Modernism research cluster in the Department of German Studies, and in conjunction with colleagues in other Modern Language departments in the School for Cultures, Languages, and Area Studies, the Centre has a research strand devoted to exploring the history of ideas and intellectual history relating to the question of modernity. With a medium-term goal of mapping out some of the crucial issues - substantive, methodological, ethical - in critical theoretical and related approaches to modernity, this research strand will be organising regular workshops for staff, students and invited scholars to address the question of what theory is becoming.
End of Summer School: The Three Ecologies (September 14-16th 2015)
Taking Félix Guattari’s text ‘The Three Ecologies’ as its starting point, this three day ‘school’ at the Nottingham Contemporary explored theories and struggles at the juncture of mental health, social justice and the ‘natural’ world. A mixture of seminar sessions, activity-based workshops and talks addressed what ‘ecological thinking’ can bring to issues such as the neo-liberalisation of health, the pros and cons of contemporary institutions, ‘toxic’ environmental politics and the outsourcing of pollution, but also to radical, critical pedagogy and to an understanding of auto-didacticism in social movements.
Realism on the Basis of a Loss of Reality: Some Notes on Representation and Abstraction, David Cunningham (19th March 2015)
David Cunningham, from the University of Westminster, delivered a paper exploring the recent renewal of critical and theoretical interest in the relationship between ‘realism’ and ‘modernism’. He engaged with the emergence of supposedly ‘new’ realisms in various aesthetic practices - contemporary cinema, photography, the novel – and with recent theoretical arguments about realism in the work of thinkers like Jacques Rancière and Frederic Jameson. Over the course of his talk, David outlined a novel concept of ‘abstraction’ as a means of theorising the modernism-realism relation in more complex ways than can be found in current debates.
Provocations of Gaia: In Conversation with Isabelle Stengers (February 23rd 2015)
The renowned philosopher of science, Isabelle Stengers, gave a public lecture at the Nottingham Contemporary gallery that addressed the limits of human-centred forms of knowledge and the corresponding importance of forms of thought able to take magic and animism seriously for anti-capitalist environmental politics. She was joined in conversation by Sarah Whatmore, Professor of Environment and Public Policy at University of Oxford.
Professor Stenger’s talk
Neoliberalism, Criticism and Crisis (3): Aesthetics of Crisis Brian Holmes (23rd January 2015)
How will our societies confront the new set of political and ecological challenges brought on by the tremendous acceleration of the globalized economy? What will future revolutions be made of? For decades those questions were taboo. But when the financial sector suddenly froze in 2008, they began to take on an intense existential reality that this seminar, held at Nottingham Contemporary, aimed to explore. The ‘aesthetics of crisis’ names a vast, fractured, interlinked process of collective invention. Not only art is affected, but also people’s understandings of the value of their own lives. This event, with the participation of writer, cultural critic and activist Brian Holmes, addressed the subjective responses of human beings to this restructuring of capital.