Theory's Curriculum - Joseph Bedford - From the Particular to the Universal
April 22, 2019
Theory's Curriculum

From the Particular to the Universal

The Earth from 6 billion kilometers away. NASA Voyager 1, Pale Blue Dot, 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Whether one is born in Hyderabad, Tangiers, Volgograd, or Bogota, the most critical problems of life are increasingly universal in nature. This universality continues to offer a way to approach architectural theory in the context of our global age. Everyone on this pale blue dot now lives in a society formed by the same monetary system, linked by the same fluctuations of excess and recess, the same addiction to economic growth, fossil fuel consumption, and the global arms-race of industrial-technological advancement.1 Everyone seeks to be healed by modern scientific standards of medical practice. Everyone’s sense of self and society, work and leisure, is being radically transformed by the same advances in computing and artificial intelligence. The devastating alteration of the planet’s life-support system and the species-wide implications of genetic, biological, and geological engineering are phenomena that only global comprehension, agreement, and regulation can address. Yet the form of regulations necessary to address them are structurally impaired by the political failures of the now-universal form of the nation-state, the transnational geography of corporate power, and the pacification of popular sovereignty by a fragmenting media-space.

This critical situation can be theoretically engaged with through a discourse on the crisis of modernity, even as we provincialize the Western origins of both modernity itself and its critical discourse. Modernization, simply put, is not identical with Westernization. There may be an infinite number of varieties in the cultural consequences of modernity, but modernity itself remains singular.2 While modernity is substantively difficult to define, it remains a useful temporal division insofar as it instantiates the thought of crisis, and with it critical consciousness. Modernity is synonymous with crisis and becomes a cognitive injunction to judge the world as a whole.3 In this demand to judge the whole, the concepts of modernity and crisis remain essential to theory. As we work to de-parochialize our perspective, we should not abandon these intellectual tools, diluting the concept of modernity with the claim that it is only relative to one cultural perspective. Modernity may have its origins and original diagnosis in the West, but is not essentially, ethnically, or culturally Western. In agreement with the authors of “Theory in the expanded field,” the geographical partiality of current theoretical academic production is a situation that “one can (and should) deplore and criticize.”4 Diversifying the representation of cultural experiences is as important to intellectual work as it is to political deliberation, yet equally important is the continuity of globalizing the horizon of theory, of reaching from the particular to the universal in order to maintain theory’s critical edge upon our temporal present. This syllabus assumes that for the field of architecture to properly theorize, it must aim at a universal horizon, and namely that of the crisis of modernity prompted by our global age.

Following McKenzie Wark, we can say that intellectual labor and knowledge production today emerges from a collaborative ecology of intellectual practices.5 We can see these practices, while dispersed, multiplied, and necessarily diversified, to be the extension of the historical phenomenon of “French Theory” which swept from continental Europe to America and then went “worldwide” between the 1970s and the present. As François Cusset has argued, theory, by its very nature, was always a “transdisciplinary discourse,” and one that has a “global legacy.”6

Architectural theory should remain as open as theory itself. It should neither limit itself to the rehearsal of what past architects have said about their discipline, nor should it be limited to concepts, themes, issues, genres, and protagonists already canonized. Those in the field of architecture able to rethink the norms of their practice by way of a fresh comprehension of their present world have always done so by looking outwards to better understand their situation. Architecture theory should also de-parochialize itself, not worrying too much about whether the thinking it hosts is sufficiently particular to its discipline. As soon as an architect succeeds in internalizing larger universal horizons and thinks architecture and its practice differently, that thought will become part of what we call architectural theory.

If theory is to maintain a vibrant role within the curriculum of architectural schools independent from—and in productive tension with—history, it must remain oriented towards this effort to comprehend and judge the whole. Architectural theory needs a new phase of turning outwards. This syllabus offers one example of what such a turning outwards towards a wider collaborative ecology of contemporary thought might look like today. It purposefully does not include any texts from within the field of architecture in order to prod architects to continue to explore other fields. As the collaborative ecology of intellectual practices concerned with the crisis of modernity continues to expand, it invites others to reach towards the universal from a diversity of particular standpoints.

Session 1: We are in a Crisis. We Must Take Stand!

For theory to be engaged with the crisis of the present it must itself adopt something of the tropes of crisis and become critical. We begin by unpacking what criticality means and its relationship to crisis. Koselleck offers a philosophical and etymological enquiry into the idea of critique and its relationship to crisis that argues that to be critical means to conceptualize a division in historical time in which one has to take a stand over bad and good outcomes. Wendling offers a broad treatment of the concept of crisis that addresses the shift in intensity between mild symptoms of crisis and crisis as subjectively experienced that catalyzes more radical change—the difference between a head cold and a heart attack.

Required Readings
‧ Reinhart Koselleck, “Crisis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 2 (April 1, 2006): 357–400.
‧ Amy E. Wendling, “Crisis Writ Large” in The Ruling Ideas: Bougeois Political Concepts (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 103–119.

Suggested Readings
‧ Janet Roitman, Anti-Crisis (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2013), 3–8.
‧ Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975).

Session 2: We Are All One Now!

We have become a single unified global culture, such that any theorizing of our present world must be a theory of its global condition. Harari addresses the convergence of human history across the long developmental arc of the human species, arguing that against the emphasis placed on the diversity of cultural differences around the world, from the long view of many millennia, human history is one of convergence. Sloterdijk discusses the idea of the increasing “explicitation” of planetary consciousness concerning the imbrication and dependency of all upon all; an explicitation that demands a transformation of the imagination and with it an ethical conversion.

Required Readings
‧ Noah Yuval Harari, “The Arrow of History,” in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Penguin, 2015), 181–193.
‧ Peter Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene: A Stage in the Process on the Margins of the Earth’s History” in What Happened in the Twentieth Century?: Towards a Critique of Extremist Reason (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 14-15

Suggested Readings
‧ Kojin Karatani, “The Present and the Future” in The Structure of World History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 265–309.
‧ Peter Singer, One World Now: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Session 3: Theory Today is a Collaborative Ecology!

The state of theorizing in our current historical condition requires exploring the circumstance by which theory has been, and is being produced, given different conditions of media, education, and practices of intellectual labor across the last half century. Cusset offers a history of how theory, as that transdisciplinary discourse known metonymically as “French Theory,” depended upon and yet transformed higher educational institutions in the last half century. Wark argues that under current conditions of intellectual labor, theorizing continues to be a transdisciplinary collaboration, yet is now one that operates in more diffuse ways that mirror the economic and historical conditions by which thinking is financially supported.

Required Readings
‧ François Cusset, “Theory (Madness of): From structure to rhizome, Transdisciplinarity in French thought,” Radical Philosophy 167 (May–June 2011): 24–30.
‧ McKenzie Wark, “Introduction,” in General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Verso, 2017), 1–15.

Suggested Readings
‧ Fuck Theory, “Shock Waves: A Syllabus for the End Times,” Artforum, December 13, 2016, .
‧ Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, “Theses on Theory and History,” Theory Revolt (May 2018), .

Session 4: Theory is now Global!

If architectural theory is to address the critical condition of our present reality, it must expand its field of interest to a global horizon in which any area of its concern is now defined. Deamer discusses the argument that the global transformation of labor practices in architecture constitutes one such necessary horizon by which architectural theory needs to be expanded. Crysler, Cairns, and Heynen address the notion that the globalization of contemporary academia is another such necessary horizon by which to rethink architectural theory.

Required Readings
‧ Peggy Deamer, “Globalization and the Fate of Theory,” in Global Perspectives on Critical Architecture: Praxis Reloaded, ed. Gevork Hartoonian (London: Routledge, 2016), 28–41
‧ Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns, and Hilde Heynen, “Architectural Theory in the Expanded Field,” in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (London: Sage, 2012), 1–21.

Suggested Readings
‧ Francois Cusset, “Worldwide Theory: A Global Legacy,” in French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 287–308.
‧ Jean-Michel Rabaté, “How Global Should Theory Be?” in Crimes of the Future: Theory and its Global Reproduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 1–33.

Session 5: We Are Destroying Our Planet!

Climate is reconfiguring other discourses and becoming the central universal question of our time. Klein dispels the prior and longstanding antagonism between the green movement and the anti-capitalist movement, showing instead how climate has become the de facto central and thus uniting issue of the progressive left. Stengers addresses the idea of nature as Gaia, as a forgotten form of transcendence that exists in the sheer indifference to the planet and the cries and suffering of the human world. It is a transcendence which, Stengers argues, exists at the heart of human lives, which is now intruding into history and which demands an unprecedented sense of urgency if barbarism is to be avoided.

Required Readings
‧ Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
‧ Isabelle Stengers, “The Intrusion of Gaia” in In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Open Humanities Press, 2015), 43–51.

Suggested Readings
‧ George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning (London: Penguin, 2007).
‧ Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

Session 6: Our Economic System Exploits Us All!

We live in the late stage of an economic system which has for nearly five hundred years been syphoning economic wealth from one social class to another through the abstract mechanisms of market exchange and industrial production. Feher focuses on the historical capture of the state in order to deepen the penetration of market mechanisms into every aspect of society, as well as the historical financialization of corporations in the emergence of a shareholder capitalism that subjects all culture and human subjectivity to the logic of ratings. Brown shows how neoliberalism, which imposes market rationality on every aspect of culture—everything from credit ratings to investments, stock valuation, and human capital—ultimately threatens to corrode democratic institutions from within.

Required Readings
‧ Michel Feher, Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age (New York: Zone Books, 2018).
‧ Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).

Suggested Readings
‧ Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).
‧ David Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Session 7: Our Political System is Failing!

New theories and histories of how liberal democracies have failed are now coming into focus. These theories and histories show precisely how institutions of deliberation aimed at facilitating collective action have been usurped. Mouffe presents a diagnosis of the failures of centrist politics and political discourses of managerial governance and modernization. She argues that the rise of nationalistic politics is the result of the exclusion of political representation by exploited groups from the spaces of democratic deliberation. Cusset offers a synthetic history of the last half century of transformations in political systems that charts the alliance between neoconservative ideology, neoliberal economic policies, and disaster opportunism.

Required Readings
‧ Chantal Mouffe, “Politics and the Political,” in On the Political (New York: Routledge, 2005), 8–35.
‧ François Cusset, “A Counterrevolution in Three Parts,” in How the World Swung to the Right: Fifty Years of Counterrevolutions (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018), 15–65.

Suggested Readings
‧ Jodi Dean, “Politics without Politics,” Parallax 15, no.3 (2009): 20–36.
‧ Jacques Ranciere, On the Shores of Politics (London: Verso, 2007).

Session 8: The Information Revolution is part of the problem, not the solution!

Information technology is rapidly transforming all aspects of life, work, leisure, communication and social organization. It is the latest phase of technological expropriation, penetrating deeper into the very heart of human subjectivity. Chun historicizes the emergence of computer software, arguing that it is an ideological response to the chaos of postmodern and neoliberal confusion. Software becomes ideological in offering the subject an analogical sense of control in their seeming ability to manipulate the world through its interface. Dean offers a conceptualization of the commons appropriate to the seemingly infinite field of digital communication. While digital media is not a finite resource as was expropriated land, it can be thought of as “the common,” a universal horizon of human language facility and the biological nature of human cognitive attention. For Dean, information technology participates in expropriating the very capacity of human beings to think, speak, and cognize.

‧ Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Daemonic Interfaces, Empowering Obfuscations,” in Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011), 59–97.
‧ Jodi Dean, “Commons and the Common,” in The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012), 119–157.

Suggested Readings
‧ Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “The Soul at Work,” in The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 74–106.
‧ Alexander R Galloway, “Software and Ideology,” in The Interface Effect (Cambridge, Polity, 2012), 54–78.

Session 9: We Are Caught in an Epidemic of Loneliness!

Loneliness and social alienation is the way that our current technical and economic environment is subjectively experienced by swathes of societies around the globe. Monbiot documents loneliness as the epidemic of modern societies through a thorough reading of new scientific literature in psychology and sociology. He connects this epidemic to longstanding ideologies about human beings as individual economic agents driven by calculation and self-interest in order to debunk such ideology and prove the fundamentally altruistic nature of human beings. Sloterdijk shows how the ego-centered modern individual has been co-constructed through the development of their technical, spatial, and urban environments. It analyzes how domestic technologies such as radios, mirrors, and studio apartments, produce and reproduce the experience of isolation and loneliness.

Required Readings
‧ George Monbiot, “Alienation” in Out of the Wreckage (New York: Verso, 2018), 54–71.
‧ Peter Sloterdijk, “Cell Building, Egospheres, Self-Containers: The Explication of Co-Isolated Existence via the Apartment,” in Spheres III: Foams (South Pasedena: Semiotext(e), 2016), 529–563.

Suggested Readings
‧ Amy Wendling, “Karl Marx’s Concept of Alienation” in Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 13–61.
‧ Rahel Jaeggi, Alienation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

Session 10: Demand Dignity and Recognition!

The demand for dignity is a longstanding ethical ideal that has become enmeshed in the logic of individualism within contemporary capitalism. Fukuyama analyzes the history of the recent shift in political discourse from political battles over resources, opportunities and policies, to cultural battles over perceived indignities of individuals and groups. He argues that the current demands for recognition of identity groups was born out of the self-esteem and therapy cultures of the previous decades. Nagle maps the newly resurgent online culture wars of the last decade between the political left and right, showing their shared concern for identity and analyzes the way that tactics and sensibilities from the left around ideas of persecution and transgression have been adopted by the right.

Required Readings
‧ Francis Fukuyama, “From Identity to Identities” in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 105–125.
‧ Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr To Trump and the Alt-Right (Winchester: Zero Books, 2017).

Suggested Readings
‧ Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2017), 1–15.
‧ Slavoj Zizek, “Tolerance as an Ideological Category,” Critical Inquiry 34 (Summer 2008): 660–682.

Session 11: We are all human beings!

Just as conceptions of human identity are contested in our contemporary condition, so too are conceptions of the human. Rosi Braidotti analyzes the blurring of the distinction of the human with its others as a result of virtual or augmented reality, genetic modification, advanced prosthetics, robotics, and reproductive technologies, arguing that this blurring presents an opportunity to understand the non-naturalistic, flexible, and multiple nature of human selves. Agamben, analyzes the inherent cultural openness and freedom of being human from an ontological reflection on the human being itself. In contrast to Braidotti, for Agamben, the distinctions of being human from other forms of natural life, far from being solely an expression of arrogance and domination, can serve to challenge the ways human beings are reduced to unfree conditions of bare life by forms of technologies and bio-political governance.

Required Readings
‧ Rosi Braidotti, “Post-human: Life beyond the Self,” in The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 13–55.
‧ Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 1–93.

Suggested Readings
‧ Peter Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Zoo: a response to the Letter on Humanism,” in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (February 2009): 12–28.
‧ Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991), 149–183.

Session 12: Art is part of the problem, not the solution!

We invest historical hopes in the power of creative representations to transform the social political and economic conditions under which we live, yet such representations, while carrying an emancipatory promise, have also been commodified within the logic of the ongoing culture industry. Boltanski and Chiapello argue that artistic critique has become absorbed by capitalism and that if artistic critique is to have a future it must rethink its ideas of liberation and mobility as an incontestable value because these have unwittingly become part of new forms of exploitation. They argue for the slowing down, deferring, delaying, and spacing the pace of connections and restricting the extension of the commodity sphere. Ranciere theorizes the differences between the critical role of art, which resists absorption by social interest and moral values, and its pedagogical and humanist role, which embraces the educating, social, and therapeutic function of representations. These critical and representational functions might be thought as counter forms to the commodification of art.

Required Readings
‧ Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, “A Revival of Artistic Critique?” in The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso 2007), 466–472.
‧ Jacques Ranciere, “The Paradoxes of Political Art,” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), 134–152.

Suggested Readings
‧ Angela McRobbie, “'Everyone is Creative': artists as new economy pioneers?,” Open Democracy, August 29, 2001, .
‧ Pascal Gielen, “The Art Scene: An Ideal an Ideal Production Unit Production Unit for Economic Exploitation?” in Open 17: A Precarious Existence (2009): 5–16.

Session 13: Reclaim Work and Leisure!

The increasing precarity of work and the absence of life outside of work have become a site of contemporary contestation. For Wendling, capitalist modernity defines what is counted as labor and makes labor into the central attribute of subjective identity; two definitions that produce social stigma around activities not counted as labor. Nina Power argues the world of work has now been feminized, where past tropes of women’s work—its precarity, its uncounted nature, and of the demand to be exactly what you do or as you appear on the surface (on your CV) with no depths in reserve—have now been generalized to all. Such a generalization, for Power, repositions feminism not simply as the analysis of women, but as an analysis of the entire cultural economic system.

Required Readings
‧ Amy E. Wendling, “Labour” in The Ruling Ideas: Bougeois Political Concepts (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 1–13.
‧ Nina Power, “The Feminization of Labour” and “You’re like an advert for yourself,” in One Dimensional Women (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009), 17–27.

Suggested Readings
‧ Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2016).
‧ Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2017).

Session 14: Build a New Communism!

Where ideas of community, communal bonds, and communism have been denigrated as a result of the events of the twentieth century, leaving behind an uncontested ideology of individualism and negative freedom, these concepts are now being rearticulated by theorists concerned to rethink how human beings are with one another ontologically, socially, and politically. Nancy develops Heidegger’s ontological conception of “being-with,” reimagining a community of beings common to one another in their very singular and transcendental alterity. Dean rearticulates the concept of “the people.” Moving beyond the populist idea of the people as a substantive (unchanging, ethnic, and all-inclusive) body, and beyond the nineteenth century idea of the proletariat linked to a particular industrial form of work, “the people,” Dean argues, can be imagined as simply “the rest of us,” a “we” defined by its contrast to the rich, that can raise the necessary consciousness required for political organizing.

Required Readings
‧ Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
‧ Jodi Dean, “Sovereignty of the People” in The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012), 69–119.

Suggested Readings
‧ Slavoj Zizek and Costas Douzinas, eds., The Idea of Communism (New York: Verso, 2010).
‧ Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).


Theory's Curriculum, a project by e-flux Architecture and Joseph Bedford, is produced with the support of the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative; Virginia Tech Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and School of Architecture + Design; School of Architecture, Syracuse University; John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto; Department of Architecture, Wentworth Institute of Technology; and Department of Architecture, Iowa State University College of Design.

Joseph Bedford is Assistant Professor of History and Theory at Virginia Tech. He holds a PhD from Princeton University, degrees from Cambridge University and the Cooper Union, and is the founding editor of Attention: The Audio Journal for Architecture and The Architecture Exchange, a platform for theoretical exchange in architecture.

Theory's Curriculum
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Notes - From the Particular to the Universal

The sentiment of taking perspective on our situation from the imagined distance of billions of kilometers away is drawn from Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Ballantine Books, 1994).

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Björn Wittrock, “Modernity: One, None, or Many? European Origins and Modernity as a Global Condition” Daedalus 129, No. 1, (Winter, 2000), 31–60.

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In Reinhart Koselleck’s etymological definition, the word crisis and critical, both derive from the Greek term Krino meaning “to ‘separate’ (part, divorce), to ‘choose,’ to ‘judge,’ to ‘decide’.” See Reinhart Koselleck, “Crisis” in Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 2 (April 1, 2006), 358.

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See Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns, and Hilde Heynen, “Theory in the expanded field,” The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (London: Sage, 2012), 1–21.

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McKenzie Wark, “Introduction,” General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Verso, 2017), 1–15.

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François Cusset, “Theory (Madness of): From structure to rhizome, transdisciplinarity in French thought,” Radical Philosophy 167 (May–June, 2011), 24–30. See also Francois Cusset, “Worldwide Theory: A Global Legacy,” in French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 287–308.

Go to Text

The sentiment of taking perspective on our situation from the imagined distance of billions of kilometers away is drawn from Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Ballantine Books, 1994).

Björn Wittrock, “Modernity: One, None, or Many? European Origins and Modernity as a Global Condition” Daedalus 129, No. 1, (Winter, 2000), 31–60.

In Reinhart Koselleck’s etymological definition, the word crisis and critical, both derive from the Greek term Krino meaning “to ‘separate’ (part, divorce), to ‘choose,’ to ‘judge,’ to ‘decide’.” See Reinhart Koselleck, “Crisis” in Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 2 (April 1, 2006), 358.

See Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns, and Hilde Heynen, “Theory in the expanded field,” The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (London: Sage, 2012), 1–21.

McKenzie Wark, “Introduction,” General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Verso, 2017), 1–15.

François Cusset, “Theory (Madness of): From structure to rhizome, transdisciplinarity in French thought,” Radical Philosophy 167 (May–June, 2011), 24–30. See also Francois Cusset, “Worldwide Theory: A Global Legacy,” in French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 287–308.

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