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The Workshop

Session 2013

JWTC workshop session 2010The Life of Forms

23 June - 2 July 2013 

You are invited to apply for a place in the 2013 Session of The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism. The 2013 Session will take place in Johannesburg (South Africa) from June 22 to July 2, 2013. Its theme is The Life of Forms. The JWTC was founded in 2008 as an independent platform for experimenting with theory in the global South. Since 2012, it has been relocated within the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER).

Its goal is to open up questions that are fundamental to contemporary aesthetic, philosophical, political, literary, ethnographic and ethical inquiry - questions that potentially point to new paths for critical theory at the interface of local, regional and global circuits.

Our audience is a new generation of local and international scholars who locate their work beyond the model of area studies; are willing to challenge naturalized interpretive conventions, and are eager to bring about a renewed dialogue among the disciplines with a view to a transformed critical theory landscape.

The Programme

The 2013 programme will span ten intensive days of lectures, seminars, public events, exhibitions and performances. It will also include explorations of Afropolitan Johannesburg.

The Life of Forms Project Space

Parallel to the workshops, there will be a program of exhibitions, stagings and interventions held at the Goethe on Main project space in the Maboneng district, which is located in the JHB CBD.

The Life of Forms Project Space aims to develop the relationship between theory and arts based practice. Speakers in the workshop will be invited to extend their theoretical work in the project space. Here, the concept of form will be critically developed through visual, audial, performed and spatial dimensions. The project space becomes a platform for theoretical/aesthetic model building, a laboratory for practice-based theory or a stage for concepts to be performed.

The space will function as a fluid, modular or easily reconfigured set of devices that will allow an evolving confluence of images, texts and staging's that draw on the workshop's themes, energy and intellectual debates.

The 2013 Session will feature Arjun Appadurai (New York University), Teresa Caldeira (University of California at Berkeley), David Theo Goldberg (University of California at Irvine), William Kentridge (tbc), Jane Guyer (John Hopkins University), Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths College), Ato Quayson (University of Toronto), Achille Mbembe (University of the Witwatersrand), Bernd Scherer (House of World Cultures, Berlin), Hylton White (University of the Witwatersrand), Ackbar Abbas (University of California at Irvine), Joshua Comaroff, Filip de Boeck (tbc), Ong Ker Shing, Sue Van Zyl,  and many others.

Past speakers include Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, Adi Ophir, Ariella Azoulay, Arjun Appadurai, David Goldberg, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Ann Stoler, Michael Hardt, Srinivas Aravumadan, Ranji Khanna, Peter Geschiere, Thomas Blom Hansen, and many others.

Who can apply?
We encourage to apply both faculty, postdocs and senior post-graduate students in the humanities, social sciences and critical studies of law, media, technology, design, architecture, urban studies and visual and performing arts.

We also encourage applications beyond the academy in cases where applicants have a strong interest and capacity for social theory.

The deadline for applications is 1 April 2013. Admissions to The Workshop will be announced on 8 April 2013

Tuition fees have been broken down in sliding categories in order to insure a financial scheme that accommodates global resource inequities.

The Convenors of the 2013 Session are: Julia Hornberger (Center for Migration Studies), Kelly Gillespie (Department of Anthropology), Zen Marie (School of Arts), Achille Mbembe (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) and Leigh-Ann Naidoo (School of Education).

A few broad concerns will animate the 2013 Session

While recognizing that the category of form is essential to its operations, critical theory has been plagued by contradictory understandings of form and formalism. At times, it has hastily identified form with literature and the aesthetic. At other times, it has associated form with abstraction and textualism so as to better dismiss it. Generally the category of form has been taken for granted.

What is at stake in maintaining or blurring the distinction between form and content or form and matter has been insufficiently explored. In the process, critical theory's power to engage with some of the major transformations of our times has been weakened, and the way has been paved for a rehabilitation of a formalist kind of criticism that is divorced from histories and genealogies of power and can hardly grapple with the psychic life of aesthetic forms.

Meanwhile, it is nowadays recognized that the plasticity, mutability and interchangeability of forms is the style - if not the substance - of our era. So is the extent to which contemporary forms - a family of phenomena including media, surfaces and technologies, genres, institutions and other widely recognized containers - have become forces, waves of energy and modes of organization of the real in and of themselves.

Indeed more than perhaps at any other period of the late modern age, forms permeate contemporary life worlds and practices, generating effects of various kinds and, in the process, redistributing the sensible. Expressed in physical, social, legal, aesthetic, economic, imaginary, virtual or immaterial terms, they have an effective presence in our culture and make the same claim to reality and immediacy as more tangible artefacts. Transformational masks, they keep folding in matter and content on one another.

As Arjun Appadurai argues, they are "filled or inhabited by specific voices, contents, messages and materials". They circulate, undergo historical mutations, congeal into bodies and publics and work to manufacture particular psychic, emotional, social and political selves. They act as catalysts for new experiences and perceptions in sites of human activity as diverse as politics, religion and the law, money and finance, literature, painting, photography, film, television and music, urbanism, architecture and design, computer programming and digital life, genetics, neurobiology and neuroscience, knowledge and other modes of cognition. Even when they have become obsolete or have been turned into figures of anachronism, emptied of their original content, they still retain an uncanny power to speak, and they can still be drafted in the service of various kinds of human projects.

Propelled in large part by the ongoing global amalgamation of cultures under the sign of the market, forms no longer constitute the "ideal fixed structure", the rigid handicap, the limitations or the boundaries Simmel not so long ago thought they were. Like life itself, they have become a restless flux - structures and events, processes and assemblages at the same time. They have turned into the movement of life itself. Like life itself, they are "streaming". They have achieved an objective materiality and acquired a social life of their own.

Does this mean that we have reached a stage when life can no longer overflow every form, reach out beyond form or destroy what it has formed? What has happened to Simmel's statement according to which "life is always more life than there is room for in the form allotted by and grown out of it"? To what extent do contemporary forms mirror the neuronal organization of the brain (decentralized, flexible, pliable, highly adaptable)? If form has become its matter, where does this leave the social, the political, the aesthetic, or the subject? What prospects and possibilities does it open for democracy, freedom, the human and the non-human in our times?

The 2013 JWTC Session will revisit these questions and those pertaining to the relation between humans and the forms they create. A special attention will be given to: (1) the ways in which historically as well as in the present, forms translate life and life translates forms; (2) the modalities of the entanglement of forms of life and the life of forms and the conditions under which life and forms constrain one another and open one another to new possibilities; (3) the types of humans, of beings, of spaces, and of desires that specific forms vicariously create.

We will also study forms, or collectives of forms, as actors in their own right and not simply as vehicles for human signs and representations. We will examine, in particular, the ways in which forms bring humans and non-humans (or signifying agencies) together in particular configurations; the relation of forms - especially latent forms - to time, to art and to the imagination; to the twin logic of immediacy and futurity or transparency and opacity; to entropy and destruction.

Finally we will revisit the problematic of form and the work it accomplishes in literary studies, psychoanalysis, genetics, neurobiology, neuroscience and cultural and political criticism. If form is an operation intrinsic to reading and writing, to what extent are histories of reading also histories of power and its ambiguities?

The following areas of inquiry will be privileged:

  • Architecture and city forms
  • Form and content in literature, politics and the arts
  • Fashion and design, dance and music
  • Forms of time and forms of life
  • Technologies of the digital age
  • Formal and informal economies and forms of money
  • Futures of the commodity-form 
  • Objects of the aesthetic 
  • Political and institutional forms
  • Formlessness, the fake and the authentic