Seminar Theme

A central aspect of the Center is our annual seminar that meets weekly each year on Wednesday mornings from 10AM-12PM. This seminar is a chance to bring student and faculty fellows together with distinguished and visiting scholars around the annual theme. Below are descriptions of current and past seminar themes.


Anti-Capitalist Environmentalism

The existential problems of the planet are complex. Given capitalism’s obsessive growth primed by, for instance, land-grabbing, extractivism, social & economic hierarchies, and war, capitalist environmentalism leans heavily on tweaking armageddon to maintain its hold on futurity for the planet. Just like its central roles in migration, militarism, imperialism, and colonialism, capitalism deigns to shape the substance of environmental struggle.   Even to produce “green” products, capitalism increasingly commodifies or speculates on basic elements of survival—air, water, land — as if these processes are somehow outside the road to extinction. Certainly such processes have already paved the road to a global pandemic and readied the way for the next such event.

The CPCP seminar for 2024-2025 aims to address anti-capitalist environmentalism as an urgent antidote in the present conjuncture. While the planet seems saturated by capitalism’s many material and social toxicities, including the green variants, anti-capitalist environmentalism — although frequently not thus-named — also exists around the planet. We will focus substantial scholarly and imaginative energies on learning about these possibilities: what do these look like? Who is involved? In other words we wish to understand how, at various temporal and spatial scales, careful thought and organizational energy indicate modes to dodge or disable the relentless dynamics of capitalism saving capitalism from capitalism.


The State. Abolitionist? Fascist? Communist? Bourgeois?

In imagining and forging the future there is much talk of the state, but often with little detail.  What should public goods consist of, and how might they be organized? Can the need for coercion (eg to pay taxes for public goods) be realized without the carceral and its underlying apparatuses of organized violence? What forms of sovereignty and its delegation (above or below) are possible and desirable?  We are particularly interested in lessons from people struggling for resource sovereignty in the global south — across the entire scope of dispossession: land, water, housing, freedom to move or stay put. We are also interested in creative approaches to reflecting on the state — including fiction, film, visual and aural arts.


Revolutionary Arts

Wary of making politics an aesthetic in disguise, radical theory and practice have nevertheless embraced all kinds of artistic provocations and traditions in every form and genre. At the same time, the possibility for fundamental change demands a range of interpretive encounters that might elicit meanings for people whom Julius Scott, writing about a different time, described as “disenchanted people casting about for new options.” Such casting about combines both mobility and fixedness, and the multiple scales of experience generally breaching, but sometimes consolidating, existing institutional forms that register the ground or sea of social life. Intellectual and sensual sensibilities combine — whether on the common wind of Julius Scott’s magisterial treatise or in the reluctant nationalisms of for example Cabral’s Guinea Bissau. The production of space – which is, in the end, the purpose of revolution – requires individual and community self-expressions not only to mediate revolutionary desire, but also to help think through how change is experienced and what it might mean. It is of course ongoing  – as the provisional countertopographies of Katz’s global analysis makes apparent. From long-distance migrants who exploit laws designed to protect arts in order to remain, if liminally in place — as Sheikh and Marboeuf show, to the mirrored articulations of basic-needs provisions by bodies politic and spiritual during covid-19, that extends beyond nation (Navajo) state (Kerala) and faith (Sikh) boundaries, we might glimpse revolutionary arts in action even when unacknowledged. How can a glimpse become a reliable view? In their manifesto for an independent revolutionary art, Breton and Trotsky offer a classic dialectic and/or aesthetic chiasmus, “The independence of art — for the revolution.  The revolution — for the complete liberation of art!” If the slogan remains relevant it is because it points to a dynamic struggle in the ways social transformation is made and engaged, and how people revise their understanding of both limits and possibilities. How is this articulated across militant and interdisciplinary inquiry? What are the uprisings from below that help us understand how and to what extent art rejuvenates the idea of revolution. The seminar intends to galvanize discussions of revolutionary arts, both historically and in the important ways the crises of the present ask questions of them. The Center invites applicants to examine problems of revolutionary arts from a wide variety of interdisciplinary approaches. Are new methodologies and social and artistic expression in themselves revolutionary? What are the lessons of popular and collective art for radical activism?  Is the topic of art and revolution a question for forms of agency? If we are used to thinking of imagination as a social practice how might revolutionary arts mediate processes of social transformation?


Agrarian Questions, Urban Connections, and Planetary Possibilities: fire, water, earth and air

Over the last year, the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center has been exploring historical and current elements of the “Agrarian Question” in different territories of the planet. The material conditions of agrarian life are deeply connected to the political, social, economic, environmental and cultural challenges of contemporary existence at a planetary scale. Agrarian spaces are central to geopolitical disputes over land and other natural resources, and rural social movements play a key role in defending biodiversity and food production. Moreover, agrarian spaces are linked to urban places through the flows of people, goods, money, information, and waste. In this context, some questions discussed were, for example, how have regimes of capital, particularly those associated with agribusiness, industrial, financial and trading corporations fractured rural communities transnationally, and how have they been they are able to resist? How have rural social movements internationally sought an exit point from hegemonic modes of agricultural oppression and primitive accumulation? How have rural social movements connected and organized with urban social movements? The 2021-2022 seminar will build on its discussions of these and other questions using four linked online panels and themes around fire, water, earth, and air.

The rubric of water summons the environmental and social impacts of rising sea levels, corporate -fishing, water pollution, and associated relations between commodity circulation and sea lanes or oceanic cable networks. The privatization of water and water grabbing by agribusiness, mining, dams and other predatory corporations are major threats to distribution and access of water as a human right, accentuating that water is a primary arena of socio-economic contestation.

Similarly, using earth at a global scale, we imagine examining earth as soil, as a biodiverse base of socialization, of food production versus mono-cropping of commodities, or earth in terms of the geo-economics and labor relations of mining (rare earth metals, for instance), or the problem of soil erosion and water pollution through the use of chemical inputs based on fossil fuels, genetically modified seeds, and large irrigation systems in agribusiness plantations, which are a main cause of environmental destruction and climate change.

The theme of fire is a provocation on questions of deforestation, the increasing impact of wildfires and the destruction of biodiversity, which is also linked to increasing risks of global pandemics and of climate change. Air will be discussed in several vital registers, including both obvious interrelations of pollution and industrial agriculture, such as in the expansion of mono-cropping plantations for agrofuels, but also via the commodification and financialization of land and other natural resources.

These themes may differentiate topics yet the overall aim is to consider critical questions of co-constitution and interdependency. For instance, a discussion on displacement of rural communities is related to an examination of housing, food and labor exploitation in urban areas. What might begin as a local discussion of labor and land is enmeshed in broader concerns over radical politics of planetary survival and justice. Thus, fire, water, air, and earth, are not just mnemonic devices but constitute a heuristic for social change.


The Agrarian Question Today

When Karl Kautsky published  The Agrarian Question in 1899 he focused radical attention on the fate of peasants and agricultural workers in general in the face of expanding and industrializing capitalism.  Obviously, many of the material conditions of agrarian life, locally and globally, have changed demonstrably, as have the methodological parameters used to formulate the problematic. Yet, in the context of what appears to be inexorable urbanization, it is just as clear that agrarian questions are deeply enmeshed in the political, social, economic, and cultural challenges of contemporary existence.  How have newer regimes of capital, particularly those associated with agri-business and food conglomerates, both formed and fractured agricultural communities?  What kinds of contradictions underlie “land grabs” and related questions of resource sovereignty? Within combined and uneven development, how have the global south and the colonized north sought to exit agricultural dispossession and primitive accumulation?  How do direct producers cobble together livelihoods ? How is the agrarian gendered and racialized in the present?  How have agrarian workers organized and resisted the claims of global and neoliberal capitalism on their labor, land, and productive capacities as a whole?  How should the “agrarian question” be framed in light of the specter of environmental collapse and the technological “efficiencies” of maximal production and genetic modification?  Does the massive proletarianization of the peasantry (for instance, in China under the rubric of modernization) represent a further extension of capitalist desire or does it augur new and transformative modes of common agricultural production and redistribution?  To what extent do rural imaginations constitute a resource of hope in the present?  How are positive alternatives to agrarian exploitation being expressed? And finally, how have do mega cities of the global south articulate many of these contradictions while producing new social subjects?


Mobilizations and Migrations

However the international order is characterized, it is clear that various forms of internationalism are in distress.  These are at work both in producing violent conflagration and in generating moving populations across the globe (migrant labor, refugees, asylum seekers, exiles, emigres, etc.).  How, then, can internationalism be thought and articulated anew?  How can it productively and creatively address various modes of encounter and representation?  How can it build on radical genealogies of international solidarity in ways that interlink vital discussions of borders and walls with the systemic relations of racial capitalism and its spatial fixes in the current conjuncture?  How do migrations mediate mobilizations as political possibility?  Do revolutionary/decolonial reconfigurations of people in/against territories represent the new horizon of internationalism?  How does culture, for instance, mediate the complex parameters of space, place, and the movements between both to fathom contemporary crises and to enable a positive knowledge of their solution?


Insurgent Solidarities

–histories, formations, futures—

 Given the political challenges of the present, the necessity for a deeper understanding of radical solidarity appears more pressing than ever. Yet while solidarity has been pivotal to social change since at least the Haitian Revolution, how it is articulated has never been less than problematic. Is it a process of political change? Is it its goal? How does solidarity define what it is against without excluding forms of political difference that might enhance it? What can be learned from solidarity in the past, especially when contingent solidarity in the present regards such a history with justifiable incredulity? There can be no doubt that notions of solidarity continue to impact creatively how one understands political opposition and change, how one interrogates constituency and allies, goals and timelines. The differences of solidarity and a respect for the specificity of particular struggles clearly invigorates how solidarity is now engaged, but solidarity can also be more than negotiated coalitions and fragmented alliances. The CPCP seminar 2018-2019 encourages applications on the theme of “insurgent solidarities.” What makes solidarity insurgent? Is it its composition or the kind of change it struggles to affect? What are its political and cultural scales and modes, and what are their significance today? In what ways is solidarity not just an object of knowledge, but actively produces it?

Visit this page for information about previous seminar themes.