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Research projects in CRMEP

Sex Division in Natural History – Leverhulme Trust, 2018–2021

Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship: Professor Stella Sandford

This project is an investigation of the place and the status of the category of 'sex' (in distinction from that of 'gender') in the systems and schemes of classification in natural history from the late-sixteenth century onwards. It aims to understand and explain how and why 'sex' could be both fundamental to these systems and schemes and yet apparently invisible to critical attention; and to investigate whether and how the presumptions concerning the category of sex in classical natural history are relevant to our understanding of the category of sex with which humans categorise themselves today. One of its hypotheses is that the history of the 'sexual theory' in botany is not the discovery of what is now treated as an obvious fact, but rather a history of significant conceptual change, or the major site of the development of a generic concept of sex.

The research proposes, further, that there is an important link between the fact that the first consistent use of the idea of the sexual aspect of fructification in a system of the classification of plants was by the botanist and natural historian Linnaeus who also first dared, in the Western Christian context, to include human beings in the total system of nature. In other words, the hypothesis is that the central but untheorized, generic category of sex plays an important role in facilitating this shift in classificatory scope. As this 'naturalization of the human being' is one of the historical conditions for the emergence of the racial categorization of peoples, the relation between the generic concept of sex and the concept of 'race' driving racial thinking will also be investigated, via an analysis of the use of a trans-linguistic constellation of terms: genus, genre and Geschlecht.

Blanqui and Political Will – AHRC, 2015–2017

Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was perhaps the single most important figure in nineteenth-century French revolutionary politics, and he played a role in all of the great upheavals that punctuated his life (1830, 1848 and 1870-71). He was certainly the most forceful and controversial of those who sought to renew and then to transform the radical Jacobin tradition that drew its inspiration from Rousseau's conception of 'a free society of equals', a society sustained by collective participation in a general will to posit, debate and accomplish goals consistent with the common good. At odds with followers of Proudhon on the one hand and of Marx on the other, while Blanqui commanded unrivalled authority in French revolutionary circles during parts of his own lifetime he was quickly forgotten after his death, and there has been little searching engagement with his work or legacy since the middle of the twentieth century. 

This 18-month AHRC-funded project was designed to deliver a new, archive-based assessment of Blanqui's political thought. It aimed both to address a symptomatic gap in the recent history of political ideas and to buttress a wider intervention in ongoing debates about the status of the political subject or actor, understood as a conscious, deliberate agent capable of decisive action. More than any of his contemporaries, Blanqui insisted on the relative primacy of the actors' own initiative and determination, and on their variable capacity to overcome the many obstacles that might block the realisation of their collective purpose. Reassessment of Blanqui's legacy thus offers an especially valuable opportunity to reconsider this broadly 'psycho-political' dimension of political action, a dimension dismissed or neglected by many of today's most influential critical theorists and European philosophers. 

As well as stimulate reflection on this general theoretical question, the project produced a  substantial website, The Blanqui Archive with reproductions of all Blanqui's published works and a complete set of scans of his manuscripts held by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, along with a chronology, a bibliography and a wide selection of texts on and around Blanqui. The project also enabled the preparation of a wide-ranging English-language anthology of Blanqui's writings, a conference on Blanqui and a further conference on political will more generally, a compilation of essays on Blanqui's legacy, and a monograph on his political philosophy (Peter Hallward, Blanqui and Political Will, Verso, Spring 2018).

Project overview

To what extent is political action best understood in terms of the actors' own deliberation, purpose and resolve, rather than by the purportedly 'deeper' logics of eg. economic development, historical tendency, providential design, technological innovation, cultural differentiation, or unconscious drive? And in what ways have the most influential tendencies in recent European philosophy and critical theory discouraged or indeed blocked consideration of these 'psycho-political' factors, and thereby limited our understanding of agency and subjectivity?

The great French revolutionary activist and writer Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) made perhaps the most forceful contribution of the nineteenth century, in both practice and theory, to a voluntarist conception of politics. During that century, as Walter Benjamin rightly recognised, 'no one else had a revolutionary authority comparable to Blanqui's.' Benjamin was also right to point out, however, that after Blanqui's death in 1881 it took only a few decades for those hostile to his legacy, from both right and left, 'to erase his name almost entirely.' Subsequent decades have done little to qualify Benjamin's assessment, and today Blanqui has a fair claim to the title of most under-studied and under-acknowledged figure of the whole political sequence that runs from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Paris Commune of 1871. The great majority of his writings have survived only as a mass of disorganised manuscript fragments, held at the BNF in Paris, which remain effectively inaccessible to the public. Although Blanqui has always attracted a steady stream of biographers, only one substantial and searching discussion of Blanqui's social and political thought has yet been published, Maurice Dommanget's Idées politiques et sociales de Blanqui, which dates from 1957; the most useful English-language study of Blanqui remains Alan Spitzer's slim overview, also published in 1957. This project aims to help rescue Blanqui's legacy from oblivion.

Most scholarly discussion of Blanqui in recent decades, such as it is, has tended to embrace as more or less self-evident the critical line adopted by Marx and Engels early in their rather one-sided debates with Blanquist members of the London exile community, in the late 1840s and 50s. To this day, the dominant interpretation remains that Blanqui offered a merely putchist and conspiratorial approach to political action, that he lacked any genuine understanding of historical context or socio-economic processes, and that he was indifferent to the real work of popular mobilisation and political organisation. This line quickly became a matter of broad consensus for almost every leading figure of the Second International, and it has been a standard refrain on all sides of the political spectrum ever since.

Rather like Sade and Darwin, then, Blanqui is today known rather less as an author to be read than as a label to be applied - and the label 'Blanquist' has long served merely as a term of abuse, aimed at the most authoritarian or most ill-advised forms of political adventurism. The apparent problem with Blanqui, in short, is that he was a crude voluntarist who believed that abrupt intervention by a small group of activists might change the course of history. Since Blanqui's death, similar accusations have been directed against Gramsci, Lukács, Fanon, Che Guevara and several other political figures who do indeed share a certain (though generally disavowed) family resemblance with Blanqui.

The premise of the present project is that this dismissal of Blanqui (and of his voluntarist descendants) is emblematic of wider tendencies at work in recent and contemporary European understandings of history, political action and political philosophy more generally. These tendencies converge in familiar but fundamental and ongoing debates regarding the status of the subject or actor, and in particular regarding the sort of capacities and freedom that might be claimed by political actors. Blanqui is perhaps the most suggestive and significant figure of the whole modern revolutionary tradition to have insisted on the primacy of the actors' own initiative and purpose, and on their relative capacity to overcome the obstacles that might block the realisation of their collective will. In the wake of the daunting obstacles that have emerged to obstruct recent popular mobilisations in various parts of the world, a critical assessment of Blanqui's work and legacy is now more timely than ever.

Compared with some of his most prominent contemporaries, Blanqui had little opportunity to work out a fully developed 'philosophy' as such, and his theoretical position itself requires careful reconstruction. As far as his general opinions and preferences go, this poses little difficulty. From the late 1820s through to his death, Blanqui embraced without reserve the principle, enshrined in the 35th article of the Jacobin constitution of 1793, that 'When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.' Most of Blanqui's political tenets follow from this principle as a matter of course.

What is more difficult to pin down, and what calls for careful critical assessment, is the relation between Blanqui's neo-Enlightenment materialist epistemology, on the one hand, and his voluntarist, neo-Jacobin conception of political action on the other. The latter involves a whole series of politico-psychological factors, including purpose, intention, consciousness, deliberation, volition, and forms of collective discipline that evoke the logic (though rarely the letter) of Rousseau's Social Contract. Whether he's discussing the strategic configuration of a street barricade, or 'communism as the future of society', or a Paris-led campaign for popular education, Blanqui always assumes that if it is to prevail and endure, the movement from imposed necessity to an assumed freedom must itself be freely and consciously undertaken. In keeping with the broad Enlightenment and Jacobin traditions, what is politically decisive is the power of a 'pensée-volonté' -- the education, emancipation and mobilisation of a capacity for critical thought directly linked to the collective exercise of a common will ('une intelligence unie à une volonté'). Again like Rousseau before him (and Nietzsche after him), however, Blanqui rejects any spiritualist or religious appeal to an abstract, metaphysical notion of a disembodied libre arbitre, a punitive 'fantasy' that serves only to assign misplaced moral blame to the victims of social disadvantage.

If la volonté du peuple is not to be confused with an abstract and indeterminate libre arbitre, however, still less is it to be conflated with any sort of all-determining biological inevitability, cultural destiny or historical 'fate.' The only legitimate forms of social organisation are those we choose of our own 'full and free will', and the only legitimate form of government is one that 'expresses the enlightened will of the nation's vast majority.' At every stage of his work, Blanqui privileges freedom over necessity and transformative ideas over unchangeable 'facts' and material constraints. 'It is ideas alone that make people what they are', he insists: 'the instrument that frees us is not our arm but our brain, and the brain lives only through education' and the cultivated practice of critical thinking. By extension, and as if to invert the priorities of Marxian historical materialism, Blanqui believes that 'philosophy rules the world' and that 'the life of a people is not in works of its hands but in what it thinks.'

Nothing is further from Blanqui's conception of society that a positivist affirmation of the status quo, one that effectively approves the 'fatality of social suffering' as if it were imposed either by a kind of providential necessity or by a 'rule-bound and ineluctable evolution, modelled on the evolution of nature.' Although Blanqui's late and most widely read text Eternity by the Stars has often been interpreted (not least by Walter Benjamin) as an act of submission to just such natural-historical necessity, it too is best understood in terms that re-assert freedom over fatality. As Blanqui points out in a note written in 1868, and then used almost word for word in the manuscript of Eternity, 'the word law only makes sense in nature. Whoever says Law means an invariable, immanent and fatal rule - a principle that is immediately incompatible with intelligence and will.' Any attempt to treat the domains of thought and action in terms of scientistic norms or natural laws violates its object, for 'justice is the sole criterion in the application of human things.'

Blanqui conference

An international conference on Blanqui and his Legacy was held at Kingston University on 27 May 2016.

Speakers included: Mitchell Abidor, Ian Birchall, Douglas Greene, Peter Hallward, Eric Hazan, Philippe Le Goff, Dominique Le Nuz, Marisa Linton.

The programme and audio recordings of the proceedings are posted on The Blanqui Archive.

Blanqui archive

The Blanqui Archive website includes full-text copies of all of Blanqui's published and posthumously published works, and scans of the full set of his manuscripts held by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, along with a chronology, a bibliography, a selection of texts on Blanqui and a compilation of photographs, images and other pertinent documents.

Blanqui anthology

An anthology of Blanqui's main writings, prepared by Philippe Le Goff, Peter Hallward and Mitchell Abidor, was published by Verso in the spring of 2018.

Table of contents:

Section
Title, date
I - 1830-34: The July Revolution and its aftermath
Première proclamation (27 July 1830)
Déclaration du Comité provisoire des Écoles (22 January 1831)
Défense d'Auguste Blanqui au procès des Quinze (12 January 1832)
Rapport à la Société des Amis du peuple (2 February 1832)
Notre drapeau, c'est l'égalité (2 February 1834)
Pourquoi il n'y a plus d'émeutes (2 February 1834)
La richesse sociale doit appartenir à ceux qui l'ont créée (2 February 1834)
II - 1835-48: Secret societies
Propagande démocratique (1835)
Notes de Blanqui pour sa défense au procès des Poudres (October 1836)
Formulaire de réception à la Société des Saisons (1837)
III - 1848: Year of revolution Discours du Prado (25 February 1848)
Pour le drapeau rouge (26 February 1848)
Deuxième pétition pour l'ajournement des élections (14 March 1848)
Aux clubs démocratiques de Paris/Profession de principe de la Société Républicaine Centrale (22 March 1848)
Adresse au gouvernement provisoire (20 April 1848) Les massacres de Rouen. La Société républicaine centrale au gouvernement provisoire (2 May 1848)
L'union des vrais démocrates (November 1848)
Réponse à la demande d'un to ast pour le banquet des travailleurs (November 1848)
A la Montagne de 93. Aux Socialistes purs, ses véritables héritiers ! (28 November 1848)
IV - 1849-1852: Learning from defeat Avis au peuple (25 February 1851)
Sur la révolution
A propos des clameurs contre l'Avis au peuple (April 1851)
Lettre de Maillard (1 April 1852)
Lettre à Maillard (6 June 1852)
Lettre à Terry (1852)
V - 1866-69: Writings from exile Lettre à Tridon (1866)
Fatale, fatalisme, fatalité... (1868)
Instructions pour une prise d'armes (1868)
VI - 1870-1872 Un dernier mot (1870)
L'Eternité par les astres (1872)
VII - Philosophical and political fragments (compilation of brief manuscript extracts) Thought, ideas, morality
Commitment, volition and free will
Science and materialism
Spiritualism and religion
Education and freedom of the press
Paris
Social conflict
Capital and labour
Revolution and popular power
The French Revolution and the Terror of 1789
Political violence
The army
Socialism and equality
The Revolutionary Party

The invention of consciousness: A French interpretation of John Locke

This five-month AHRC-funded project will produce a critical English-language edition of Étienne Balibar's 1998 Identité et différence: L'invention de la conscience (Seuil, Paris): a study of Book II, Chapter XXVII ('Of Identity and Diversity') of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1694) - the chapter containing Locke's celebrated theory of personal identity. The AHRC Fellowship has been awarded to Dr Stella Sandford to complete the editing of the English edition and to write an accompanying critical essay. As well as offering a précis of Balibar's ground-breaking interpretation of Locke in Identité et différence, the accompanying essay will address three questions that are only implicit in Balibar's work itself. First, what is the significance of Balibar's interpretation of Locke for the largely Anglophone analytical discussion of the issue of personal identity in Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding? Second, what is the significance of this interpretation for the 'continental' history of the philosophy of 'the subject'? And third, following on from the previous question, what is the historico-political significance of Locke's theory of personal identity? The aim is to highlight the originality of Balibar's interpretation of Locke in the context of the Anglophone analytical literature on personal identity, and to prompt a reconsideration of the place of Locke's Essay for the self-understanding of the tradition of modern European philosophy.

The edition was published by Verso in 2013, with a translation of Balibar's essay by Warren Montag.

Transdisciplinarity and the humanities

Problems, methods, histories, concepts

Transdisciplinarity and the Humanities was a two-year research project (1 September 2011 - 31 August 2013) funded by the AHRC under its 'speculative' scheme. It consisted of a series of 4 two-day international workshops and an international conference, which led to series of publications, proposed as special sections or special issues of journals.

Project summary

In the late twentieth century, the humanities in the English-speaking world were transformed by the reception of types of French and German philosophy and critical theory that, in one way or another, work across the boundaries of existing disciplines. However, this reception took place in a range of specific disciplinary contexts (especially English literary studies), isolated from the consideration of the nature and innovative potential of the 'transdisciplinarity' of these works. This project is a theoretical investigation into the way certain concepts - for example, art, gender and the new - function across disciplinary borders in the humanities.

Explicit discourses about 'transdisciplinarity' have recently been developed in both Science and Technology Studies and Education Studies. However, these are primarily focused on technological approaches to problem solving (in everyday and policy contexts) and the social organisation of knowledges. In neither instance has the idea been connected up to developments in the humanities since the 1960s, or to issues of a fundamental theoretical character about the unity of the humanities as body of knowledge and practice (or the unity of 'the human' itself). Traditionally, philosophy has conceived of itself as providing the forms of universality that span other disciplines. However, for reasons of its analytical formation, English-language philosophy has shown little interest in the question of the status, character and modes of functioning of general concepts across disciplines in the humanities. This is, however, a characteristic of philosophical Romanticism. The study of Transdisciplinarity and the Humanities must thus address both the existing literature on transdisciplinarity in other areas and the question of the relationship of transdisciplinary concepts to philosophical concepts, historically and analytically - through a new approach to the legacy of philosophical Romanticism.

This project aims to address the basic questions: What is Transdisciplinarity and the Humanities? And to what extent and in what ways is the creativity of a concept linked to its transdisciplinary construction, application or potential? It has among its objectives:

  1. The production of case studies, and critical and comparative analyses, of the transdisciplinary structures and dynamics of one major, philosophically informed transdisciplinary text from each of the German and French critical traditions - books which have had a significant impact on recent English-language work. We propose to compare Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944; 1947) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's two-volume work comprising Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980).
  2. The production of case studies of two transdisciplinary 'problematics' (or fields of problems): anti-humanism and gender study.
  3. The exploration of a distinctively 'Romantic' transdisciplinarity, through a retrospective investigation of the transdisciplinary dynamics of early German Romanticism (1785-1800), including analyses of the function of the general categories of 'art' and 'the new'.

The theoretical breadth of this project and its diverse case studies mean that it should be of interest to a very broad constituency of academics and others in the arts concerned with what is currently thought of as 'interdisciplinary' studies in the humanities. It aims to reorient this field away from the more conservative notion of interdisciplinarity towards the open, more experimental field of transdisciplinary constructions. As such, it should also be of benefit to those in Science and Technology Studies and Education Studies who use the existing discourse of 'transdisciplinarity', by its criticisms of it and its extension beyond its current limits.

Statement for speculative research

This project is speculative in a number of ways. In the first place, it is in the nature of the concept of transdisciplinarity that the precise boundaries of any particular investigation of it are uncertain. Our focus is on some transdisciplinary concepts in the humanities. However, the notion of transdisciplinarity inevitably raises the question of the constitution of the humanities themselves by concepts from elsewhere - such as 'science' ('the human sciences'); just as it raises the question of the disciplinary status and relations of transdisciplinarity itself. Transdisciplinarity must itself be a transdisciplinary concept, which is why its study must be, in the first instance, critically comparative and historical. This project posits the concept of transdisciplinarity, speculatively, as a new approach to understanding what is distinctive about basic concepts in the Humanities. It will thereby necessarily problematize existing disciplinary constructions of these concepts. This problematizing dimension is its second speculative aspect. Third, our ultimate goal is a process of conceptual construction (constructing the concept of transdisciplinarity), using materials from the criticism of existing concepts of transdisciplinarity and the study of particular instances. Such a process of conceptual construction is inherently experimental and uncertain in outcome. Indeed, the experimental character of this process is itself one of the focal points of the project. In sum, then, this is a 'proof of concept' project. If successful, it should open a research horizon for more extensive and radically cross-disciplinary, institutionally collaborative, investigations.

Project texts

Background publications by the investigators

Background texts for papers at events in 2012

Date Title
25-26 January 2012 Transdisciplinarity Project, Workshop 1
From Science and Technology Studies to the Humanities: The State of the Field & The Concept of 'Problem'
22-23 March 2012 Transdisciplinarity Project, Workshop 2
Case Studies 1. Transdisciplinary Texts: Dialectic of Enlightenment and Capitalism and Schizophrenia
17-18 May 2012 Transdisciplinarity Project, Workshop 3
Case Studies 2. Transdisciplinary Problematics: Anti-humanism and Gender Study

Publications from Workshops 1 and 2

Publications from Workshop 3

Publications on Romantic Transdisciplinarity

Cahiers pour l'analyse

Concept and form: The cahiers pour l'analyse and contemporary French thought

AHRC logoFrom 2006-2009, members of the CRMEP worked on a three-year AHRC-funded research project on the French philosophical journal, the Cahiers pour l'Analyse. Edited by a small group of Louis Althusser's students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, the Cahiers pour l'Analyse appeared in ten volumes between 1966 to 1969 - arguably the most fertile and productive years in French philosophy during the whole of the twentieth century.

The main project output is a full electronic edition of the original French texts in both HTML and facsimile PDF versions, together with detailed commentaries on each article, recent interviews with members of the original editorial board, and substantial entries on the main concepts and authors at issue in the journal.

Other components of the research project included an international conference on the Cahiers and its legacy, held at Middlesex University on 21-22 May 2009, and preparation of two edited volumes on the Cahiers, entitled Concept and Form. These volumes are forthcoming from Verso in 2011: the first includes English translations of a selection of texts published in the Cahiers, the second is a collection of newly commissioned essays on the journal and translated extracts of interviews with members of the editorial board.

Case study: The state of things

Summary

A new conceptual framework for contemporary art

How can we understand contemporary art and its relationship with its broader cultural context? When lay audiences and tabloid newspapers refer to 'modern art', they are most often referring to art that is more accurately described as 'contemporary'. The term 'modern' is often seen as commensurate with the present, rather than a distinct historical period and Professor Peter Osborne's research attempts to understand the 'contemporary' in the same way - as a historical category. 

This understanding of the 'contemporary' was informed by Professor Osborne's research into the relationship between the history and philosophies of conceptual art. The advent of Conceptual Art in the 1960s saw the idea behind the art work take primacy over its aesthetic qualities and challenged traditional categories such as painting and sculpture. This affected the way we think about art to the extent that all subsequent art is viewed through a conceptual lens. In this respect, all contemporary art is conceptualised as post-conceptual.

"Contemporary art, critically understood, is a post-conceptual art."

Prof Peter Osborne, CRMEP Director

Professor Osborne's work on the philosophy of contemporary art work has had a significant impact on its conceptualisation in public discourses. This has been achieved through book sales, public lectures and catalogue essays. In addition, Professor Osborne has made significant contributions to educational and curatorial programmes at major international arts institutions, including the Tate Britain and the Venice Biennale. 

Through consultation and public lectures, Professor Osborne's research has influenced adult education programming at the Tate Britain, introducing a focus on the philosophical aspects of contemporary art, including its conceptual character and the importance of broader cultural contexts. 

A long standing relationship with the Norwegian Office for Contemporary Art (OCA) culminated in Professor Osborne co-curating and defining the theme of Norway's pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. The Venice Biennale is one of the most important international exhibitions in the art world and Norway's entry, The State of Things, was the first by a participating country to replace conventional national artistic representation with a programme of philosophically based talks.

Selected publications

  • Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso, London and New York, 2013, 282 pp.
  • Professor Osborne is an editor of the journal Radical Philosophy
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
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