UCI’s Trump Card

David Conley/New University

To all those prospective students following tour guides around Ring Road, wondering what UCI is known for, Friday was the best time to keep your eyes peeled. UCI boasts an internationally recognized eminence in the field of critical theory. Faculty who have taught in the department include world-class literary theorists such as Etienne Balibar, a specialist in Marxist ideology, Jacques Derrida, a pioneer of the deconstruction critical theory and Jean-François Lyotard, a philosopher and expert in postmodernism.

Building on the university’s rich background in literary criticism, the Critical Theory Emphasis hosted the annual Undergraduate Conference in Critical Theory on Friday, May 27, where a panel of undergraduate students presented their theoretical research and findings in HIB 135. The conference, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., featured a rich diversity of topics, including explorations of the philosophy of education, postmodern feminism, cultural hegemony, myth narratives and capitalist society, among others. The 2011 conference was organized by Koehn Fellow in Critical Theory Nasser Mufti, a second-year comparative literature graduate student.

“Historically, UCI has been associated with theory since the early ’80s, when Derrida, Lyotard and other famous theorists began to teach here. UCI still attracts grad students who want to work in the field,” said Dr. Rei Terada, professor of comparative literature and director of the Critical Theory Emphasis program.

Each year, Critical Theory Emphasis (CTE), an interdisciplinary concentration within the School of Humanities, holds the conference to promote theoretical dialogue and exchange. Drawing on UCI’s heritage as a focal center for the study of critical theory, CTE provides a sophisticated graduate curriculum and welcomes doctorate students from any academic discipline at UCI. The program has attracted graduate students from a wide range of academic disciplines, such as anthropology, information and computer science, visual studies and criminology, law and society.

According to undergraduate participant Pichaya Kositsawat, a comparative literature and political science double major, the conference can benefit students from any academic discipline.

“I think it’ll give students a chance to engage in new ways of thinking and to be exposed to the various niches in academia,” Kositsawat said. “Critical theory stretches the mind and imagination, and that’s really what college should be about — learning to start anew and reassess your foundations.”

Kositsawat presented her body of critique, entitled “The University in Crisis: Locating an Educational Philosophy,” early in the conference. Her project studies the UC founding documents to question the degree by which the university system is directed by an academic philosophy and responds to evaluations of the supposed degeneration of the liberal arts in education.

“Theory has been foundational to my academic career at UC Irvine,” Kositsawat said. “It challenges accepted paradigms, destabilizes normative order, and inspires me to think and imagine differently. That aside, I’m in love with the comparative literature department and Critical Theory Institute at UC Irvine, so I participate in any and every event that they put on.”

Jerome Dent, an African-American studies, comparative literature and global cultures triple major pursuing a minor in Spanish, discussed “Savage Apotheosis: The African Novel and the Impossibility of White Humanity.”  Jamie Noh, a comparative literature major, gave a talk entitled “Interdependence of Communality and Struggle.” Other panelists included Morgan Arouz Slade, John Murillo III, Jillian Tempesta, James Bliss, Ryan Davis, Sasha Sabherwal, Anastasia Baginski, Grace Wong, Sean Alexander McWillie, Helena Alvarado, Beckie Redford and Earl Foust.

“This conference more than any other event shows how theory is a live force, embodied in critical young people and driven by their interest in antiracist critique, postcolonial critique, their need to analyze the crisis in capitalism, their explorations of gender and so on,” Terada said. “All of that is philosophical.”