Scholars working on the politics of identity have embraced a range of affective states—such as pride, shame, anger, and melancholy—as theoretically and politically productive emotions. Guilt, by contrast, is more typically attributed to others than assumed by the self. Whether in the venerable academic tradition of unmasking the errors of individual thinkers or the exclusions of entire fields, or in the more recent call-out and cancel culture of our moment, discerning the guilt of others is often a means of proclaiming the righteousness of one’s self. Such assertions presume a clear distinction between an innocent victim and a guilty perpetrator and hew closely to legal claims for reparation contingent on the calculation of harm for the former and the assignment of guilt to the latter.
This seminar investigates how our scholarly and political investments might be configured differently if we embraced guilt—in the sense of both culpability and contrition—not as a cynical dismissal of intellectual consistency or social justice but rather as an inevitable structural position of the subject and social movements. Throughout the semester, we will engage with philosophy, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, women of color, feminist, queer, and trans writings to explore how we might construct a different genealogy of guilt and reparation. How do we think an ethics of guilt and reparation in the wake of slavery, dispossession, occupation, genocide, and nuclear holocaust? Indeed, how does such an ethics allow us to reconsider the universalizing aspirations of the human and human rights from the perspectives of complicity, failure, and responsibility rather than those of moral authority, certainty, and blamelessness?