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Plenaries

Maria Aristodemou

Castration and Its Discontents: Who’s Afraid of Catastrophe in the Real?

My aim in this paper is to rehabilitate the concept of castration. While in Freud we are more likely than not to encounter the subject’s horror of castration (with suitably gory Greek myths to illustrate its grim catastrophe), in Lacan the mechanism of castration is something the human subject has to put up with or else, shut up. The paper will bring the concept of castration to address contemporary concepts (with contemporary examples) such as the concept of critique, the left and, if there is time, democracy. The suggestion will be that the refusal to accept, and pay the price for, castration leads to what I term, after a term popularized by Žižek, decaffeinated critique, decaffeinated left, even decaffeinated democracy. In contrast to decaffeinated products, the paper will illustrate castration in the real through an appeal to a modern day myth by José Saramago.

Maria Aristodemou is Reader in Law, Literature and Psychoanalysis at Birkbeck College, University of London. She ran the first course on Law & Literature in a UK Law School in 1994, inaugurating a new era of inter-disciplinary studies between Law and the Humanities, a field which has been growing and establishing itself in the academy ever since. Her monograph Law & Literature: Journeys from Her to Eternity (2000) ushered an original perspective that insisted on the centrality of critical theory to the study of law. In contrast to the Law & Literature movement in the US, which often contented itself with humanistic understandings of law in literature, Aristodemou developed a distinct approach that analysed literature as law. From there Aristodemou has been exploring what underlines the subject’s desire for and against the law, an enquiry that led to her second monograph Law, Psychoanalysis, Society: Taking the Unconscious Seriously (2014). Aristodemou continues the work of excavating the unconscious fantasies that underline the subjects’ and the system’s binds to legal and political structures by focusing on cultural texts as forms of disguised and disavowed belief. She has used this work to address discourses like Public International Law (‘A Constant Craving for Fresh Brains and A Taste for Decaffeinated Neighbors’, EJIL, 2014) and terms like democracy (‘Democracy or Your Life!’ LCH, 2011), human rights (‘A Squeamishness About Existing’ in Ward (ed), Human Rights and Literature, 2014), guilt and ethics ('The Pervert’s Guide to the Law’ in Sutter (ed), Zizek and Law, 2015) and freedom (‘Freedom in the Free World: The Extimate Becomes the Law’, IJLP, 2016).

Gastón Gordillo

The Metropolis: The Infrastructure of Empire

In this presentation, I propose a theory of the Metropolis as the planetary, rhizomatic, and imperial form that the globalization of the urban terrain has adopted in the early twenty-first century. I explore this question through an ethnographic and theoretical examination of one of the most important and destructive supply chains created by globalization —those involving soybeans to feed pigs for urban consumers— and of the imperial forms of domination their infrastructures facilitate. The idea of “the Metropolis” as the globalized urban networks created by capital has been gaining traction among radical theorists such as the Invisible Committee, Toscano, and Hardt and Negri, who nonetheless do not get to interrogate this concept in depth. My conceptualization of the Metropolis engages this body of work in critical dialogue with Hardt and Negri’s theory of Empire, Henri Lefebvre’s ideas about the urban form, and a territorial reading of the literatures on infrastructures, urbanization, globalization, and supply chains. And I examine the Metropolis not from its densely urbanized cores—such as New York or Shanghai— but from its edges, in particular the forests of the Gran Chaco region in northern Argentina destroyed by export-oriented agribusiness. I show that attentiveness to the affective materiality of the infrastructures mobilized by supply chains, and of the terrains they transform, brings to light that the climate catastrophe looming over the planet is generated not just by capitalism but also by its incarnation in the Metropolis.

Gastón Gordillo is Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. A Guggenheim Scholar, his most recent book is Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (2014, Duke, Honorable Mention, Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing). He is also the author of Landscapes of Devils: Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco (2004, winner of the Sharon Stephens Book Prize, American Ethnological Society) and En el Gran Chaco: Antropologías e historias (2006), among other books. He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled The Forests Destroyed by Bulldozers: Introduction to a Theory of Terrain. Based on fieldwork on the deforestation created by the “soy boom” in northern Argentina, the book interrogates the bodily materiality of the processes through which forests and local forms of peasant livelihood are destroyed by export-oriented agribusiness, and by the planetary supply chains that promulgate it. One of the aims of this monograph is to reveal ethnographically the importance of the concept of terrain to understand the affective materiality of space and of the destructive, imperial nature of capitalist globalization. He blogs occasionally at Space and Politics.

Robbie Shilliam

“Ah We Have Not Forgotten Ethiopia”: Anti-Colonial Sentiments for Spain in a Fascist Era

Anti-fascist internationalism in the 1930s, exemplified for instance in the Spanish brigades, is usually considered to be the modern genesis of European cosmopolitanism as a workable political project. But instead of a political tradition of anti-fascist internationalism, largely sui generis to Europe, I want to retrieve the tradition of anti-colonial anti-fascism, in which “Europe” is posited as not just part of the problem but as unable to express or solve the problem of fascism sui generis without addressing its colonial project and the conjoined struggles that this problem and project give rise to. For this purpose I excavate contemporaneous considerations of the relationship between the violent Italian colonization of Ethiopia and the violent civil war in Spain. And, specifically, I examine one of the most important anti-colonial anti-fascist archive of the time – Sylvia Pankhurst’s newspaper, New Times and Ethiopia News (NTEN). I conclude by asking what lessons might this tradition impart for contemporary Europe, beset now, as it was in the 1930s, by austerity and racialized resentment?

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. He is author of The Black Pacific: Anti-colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2015), and co-editor with Quynh Pham of Meanings of Bandung: Postcolonial Orders and Decolonial Visions (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016).

Jessica Whyte

Just War or Permanent Catastrophe?

While still a candidate for the U.S. Presidency, Donald Trump signaled his intent to move away from the ‘burden’ of moral universalism in favor of a starker language of good versus evil, proclaiming “the problem is the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so that soldiers are afraid to fight”. As US President, Trump inherited not only the ongoing drone wars of the Obama Administration, but also its moralizing language. In a televised address in March of 2017, Trump justified his authorization of military strikes against Syria’s Shayrat Airfield by expressing his hope that “as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” Whatever the hopes of the U.S. President, the embrace of the just war by subsequent U.S. administrations has produced not perpetual peace but seemingly endless war—a single catastrophe, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, that piles wreckage upon wreckage, strewing debris from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria. In this paper, I return to the Geneva Conventions, and specifically to the “Diplomatic Conference on the Laws of War” (1974-77), to recover a history that departs starkly from recent US appropriations of the language of justice to rationalize the use of force. I show that, with an earlier catastrophic war underway in Vietnam, delegates from recently de-colonized states and the Soviet Bloc used the language of the “just war” to distinguish wars of national liberation from wars of “imperialist aggression”. In stark contrast, the US delegation attacked the language of the just war as a medieval licence to cruelty—a brutal attempt to “return to the eleventh century” in the words of the US military lawyer Major David Graham. I challenge the view, articulated both by the US delegation at the time and by recent historical scholarship since, that these anti-colonial uses of the language of the just war were conscious mobilizations of a medieval just war tradition. In doing so, I aim to illuminate the stakes and legacy of another mobilization of the just war, animated by the principles of anti-imperialism and self-determination, and waged not by the U.S. state but by national liberation movements.

Jessica Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, Australia and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow. Her work integrates European philosophy, human rights theory and twentieth century international history in order to illuminate transformations in the politics of life since WWII. Her work has been published in a range of fora including Law and Critique; Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development; Theory and Event; and Contemporary Political Theory. Her first monograph, Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, was published by SUNY in 2013. Her forthcoming book, Governing Homo Economicus: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism will be published by Verso in 2018. She is currently working on a three-year Australian Research Council-funded project, “Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War,” which aims to provide a novel philosophical account of the invention of the discourse of ‘collateral damage’.