Former Initiatives

Climate Change

PI: Dipesh Chakrabarty

The current planetary condition of global climate change elicits responses from individuals, groups, and governments ranging from denial, disconnect, and indifference to engagement and activism of varying kinds and degrees. Taken together, these responses help characterize our experiences of the now and our expectations about future possibilities. Putting debates about climate change in conversation with discussions of contemporary history, this module seeks to understand how an increasing sense of the environment’s vulnerability works to modify the stories scholars tell about the beginnings and trajectories of human civilizations.

As the idea gained ground that we face grave environmental risks stemming from the excessive accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a set of scientific propositions began to circulate in the public domain with profound, even transformative, implications for how we think about what the historian C. A. Bayly recently called “the birth of the modern world.” Indeed, what scientists say about climate change challenges the basic ideas of the human usually taken to sustain the disciplines of the humanistic social sciences, particularly history. These scientific judgments call into question the analytic strategies that postcolonial and post-imperial historians (e.g., scholars of subaltern studies, “poco,” and empire) have deployed in the last two decades in response to decolonization and globalization.

To be clear: this module is not intended to produce scientific discoveries or adjudicate the scientific claims made by experts. It presupposes only that climate change is a focus of genuine concern, and then uses the debates in the scientific literature to rethink prevailing notions of the human in the social sciences and humanities. In particular, it explores the differences between views of human history advanced in debates on climate justice and those expressed by climate scientists (such as James Hansen, David Archer, and Wallace Boeker) in their more popular writings. Among the questions we shall pose are the following: How has the discourse on climate change served to re-conceptualize humans as a geological force, and how has this idea qualified humanist histories of modernity and globalization? Is climate change to be explained as simply another instance of the selfishness of developed countries, or does it counsel a much longer term view of the human species? How do global histories of capital intersect with the species history of human beings? What are the implications of this intersection for new modes of historical understanding in the present, and how might understanding the interrelations between these various global processes inform local contexts of political action (such as political mobilizations around environmental change)? What can contemporary debates about both climate change and history tell us about human collectivity and cosmology, as well as the vexed, ever-ongoing search for a political universalism that includes the particular? 

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Designing Praxis

PIs: Taylor Lowe & Alejandra Azuero Quijano

All too often, an entrenched division is practiced in theoretical work: the distinction between theory and practice. And yet theory is actualized in praxis, and throughout the recent history of social theory design has offered a field for praxiological experimentation and investigation. Thus, for example, Michel Foucault situates the emergence of the biopolitical within a transition from “planning” to “programming;” while Bruno Latour claims “design has replaced the word revolution.” If design provides a discursive field where the interplay of social theory and design practice yield provocative questions, can we interrogate both designers and design-theory without reproducing the practice vs theory dichotomy?

Given that social theorists in disciplines like philosophy or anthropology are only rarely positioned in dialogue with practitioners of designed objects and spaces, while the nature of praxis is the intellectual and embodied unfolding in a process of co-design, we would like to ask: how can we rethink the relation between theory and practice by interrogating the politics of design? What can designers say to the claims of social theorists? How can social theorists speak to contemporary design concepts and practices?

Through a series of curated conversations, "DeSigning Praxis" will stage public dialogues between practitioners of designed objects/spaces and social theorists. Design discourse and projects will provide praxiological media and designers and academics will be their interlocutors. Each session will discuss a design phenomenon that a design practitioner and a social theorist address in their respective work.

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Generational Change

PIs: Lisa Wedeen & Hussein Agrama

Recent work in social theory has emphasized the importance of generation to our understanding of contemporary transformations, often insisting that a focus on class or institutions is outmoded, no longer up to the task of grasping the mechanisms for either reproducing or transforming the prevailing order. And yet, as the expansion of the free market runs up against the retreat or reorientation of the welfare state, the modernist ideal according to which each generation does better than its predecessor is challenged by conditions that imperil the unskilled young—and these days even some of the educated. Indeed, generation may simply be an especially fertile location onto which anxieties related to insecure or disheartening class locations are displaced.

This module investigates the relationships among generation as an organizing principle for political action, the ongoing effects of contemporary market reforms, the persistence of class as an analytic category and a source of political identification, new ethical and political forms of comportment, and the relevance of consumption to understandings of selfhood. We will also explore themes such as the purported “crisis of community” in places where earlier visions of collectivity are no longer possible or desirable; emergent forms of generational conflict and accommodation; ideologies of the “good life”; and the varied expressions of both discontent and aspiration that seem to be arising out of the workings of neoliberal capitalism.

The comparative and ethnographic nature of this module requires that attention also be given to citizens’ differing expectations about living standards in the global north and south; the role of the left in sustaining or undermining class as the key category through which identity claims get made; the politics of piety in everyday life; innovations and technology and the possibilities and limitations they pose for the political; and the ways in which regimes of management—both autocratic and democratic—are apprehended by young people in the context of consumer desire, economic opportunities, thwarted ambition, generational change, political turmoil, and, in some contexts, world shattering violence.


History, Social Theory and Capitalism

PIs: Moishe Postone & William H. Sewell, Jr.

The ongoing global economic crisis poses a serious challenge to our understanding of large-scale social processes and, hence, of our own historical circumstances. Global capitalist society appears to be entering a new phase, yet the social sciences seem ill equipped to elucidate the systemic dynamics of this transformation. Against this background, the 3CT module on History, Social Theory, and Capitalism seeks to interrogate the relation of social and economic inquiry to changes in the large-scale configurations of society, economy and polity. Viewed retrospectively, there appears to be a relationship between the success of particular social-scientific paradigms and their historical contexts. For example, Keynesian economics and the positivist, development-oriented social sciences appeared most successful between the 1930s and 1970s, that is, during the epoch that began with the crisis of laissez-faire capitalism and ended with the crisis of state-centered economic configurations. Welfare-state “developmentalist” paradigms were displaced during the 1970s by an updated neo-classical economics that went hand in hand with an emerging system of financialization, globalization, and deregulation. Concomitantly, the social sciences witnessed a turn away from the study of large structures and processes towards “postmodern anti-foundationalism” in some cases and the “micro-foundations” of social life in others. (And in some instances these two orientations were combined.) Dominant for the last three decades, these approaches now seem to have reached their limits—unable to grasp adequately our current moment of transformation. The shift away from the study of large-scale historical processes and structures is, we suggest, in part responsible for the inability of the social sciences to delineate the contours of what has become a systemic global economic crisis. Moreover, the history of the social sciences in the past century suggests that all of these paradigms must be understood reflexively, as modes of inquiry that are not independent of time and place. We hope that this multifaceted initiative will contribute importantly to a much-needed process of reflection and re-examination in the social sciences, and will help reinvigorate the University of Chicago’s tradition of generating innovative fundamental approaches to the study of our social universe.

This module has three intertwined goals:

  • to clarify the complex nature of the period that is now ending so that we can begin to grasp the contours of the period we are entering

  • to reassess and historically contextualize intellectual paradigms so that we can make explicit a rigorous historically reflexive paradigm for the study of modern social and economic life

  • and to understand the failure of many critical intellectual projects to adequately respond to the problems and challenges of the previous period

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New Liberalism + Empire

PI: Lisa Wedeen

In this project, we explored the intersection of neoliberalism with contemporary forms of empire. Placing issues of economy, race, gender, and counterinsurgency at the center of the inquiry, our approach is attuned to the ways in which policies of exclusion and calls for freedom have operated historically and continue to work in tandem. The project focus thus includes research on strategies of colonial management and the ideas of progress underpinning them; the specificities of settler colonialism and its retooling in the present; the economization of everyday life and its limits; and the mechanisms through which the United States, in particular, continues to extend its global reach.


Public, Life

PI: William Mazzarella

How can we begin to theorize the connections between the most intimate practices of self-making and the most impersonal currents of mass publicity? This project explores the relation between inner and outer worlds through figures of mimesis, contagion, mediation, and ethics. On the one hand, it will be focusing on radical and utopian practices of self-cultivation that are intended, through various kinds of intimate discipline, to effect transformations in collective life. On the other hand, we will be moving toward the same point from the opposite direction, exploring how attempts to manage and mobilize publicity, whether through the circulation of mass-mediated imagery or the harnessing of crowd energies, solicit transformations in subjective experience. From both perspectives, we propose, the issue is not one of cumulatively making better societies by making better people. Rather, Public, Life tracks the startling recurrence of the quasi-magical figures of mimetic influence, repetition, and transformation across intimate and anonymous domains of public life.