I’m a political theorist at the University of Chicago. I’m also a cyclist, cook, bibliophile, and punster, among other things. But I’ll try to limit myself here to posts related to research, teaching, reading, writing, and thinking.
“Political theory” is a wonderfully unruly business, and although professional political theorists seem to suffer from outbreaks of prescriptivitis every dozen years or so (symptoms: irritating reductionism; fits of preaching; excessive use of the imperative voice), I couldn’t really care less about enforcing party lines or about disciplinary gatekeeping. But I can tell you how I think about what I do:
I think of political theory as a reflexive practice through which people examine, criticize, and transform the language and the concepts that they use to make sense of their relations to each other and to the world. (Political theorists are not required to speak in the voice of self-appointed philosopher-kings, or credentialed social-scientific experts.) My own interests as a political theorist, so far, have focused mainly on how people think and talk about the nature and the conditions of political action, especially in relation to such phenomena as identity, power, rule, and democracy; in the connections between action and the experiences of exposure, affectedness, and vulnerability; in the ways people understand how injustice and domination work and therefore how they might be resisted or overcome; in the mediation of political experience by everything from institutions to artworks to the physical configuration of cities; and in the shadow cast by lingering figures of hierarchical authority, such as the parent or the master, in the democratic imagination.
I write about these and other subjects in my own voice, but since language and concepts are inheritances, I also study their histories, and the historical settings in which political theory has taken place; and whatever I have to say usually arises partly out of an attempt to understand someone else, either a historical figure or a contemporary. As a reader, I approach works of political theory not, or not only, as containers for systematically interconnected sets of propositions, but also as revealing records of an author’s usually only partly successful attempt to accomplish something. This means that my engagements with the work of past and present political theorists are often diagnostic in character, and involve attention to the literary and rhetorical dimensions of theoretical texts.
My points of reference in thinking about these issues have included the variety of philosophical and theoretical traditions that trace their roots back to Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche; the political thought of Greek and Roman antiquity and its reception in modernity; and several areas of 20th-century and contemporary theory and philosophy that cut across the distinction between “continental” and “Anglo-American,” including feminist and queer theory, ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of language. In recent years I have become increasingly interested in the histories and legacies of 19th and 20th century radical and Left political thought and praxis, especially but not exclusively in the United States; in modes of criticism of and resistance to imperialism and racial domination; in varieties of anti-capitalist theory and practice; in the history of the intellectual self-understandings of political theorists inside and outside of the discipline of Political Science; and in colleges and universities as social and political institutions.