About COMMA

The research goal of COMMA, as a center for modernist,  postmodern, and contemporary Anglophone and American literature at UC Santa Barbara, is to recast the reading of that literature, and the cultures that produced it, by staging its encounter with a radical new wave of materialist critique. At COMMA, our literary field of vision extends from Woolf to Irvine Welsh, from Joyce to Chimamanda Adichie. We foster theoretical, historicist and formal investigations of this literary culture in the critical theory tradition.

This tradition has in the last two decades gained a widespread traction in literary criticism under the aegis of cultural studies and new historicism, the two modes of critical engagement are those for which our department is perhaps best known. We propose to position ourselves to build on this strength as the next stage of materialist theory reaches the US academy. Our research programs juxtapose modernist and post modern texts and cultural formations with the best of a new wave of post-ideological, post-identitarian and post-Foucauldian critical work. This new work has only begun to matter in humanities research, and we are very well prepared to foster its cutting edge. It comes from a tradition that stretches from The Grundrisse to the Arcades Project and Aesthetic Theory; now, in our view, it is focused on three areas in which we intend to foster new work. These areas are: biopolitics, materiality, and capital:

Bio-modernity: biopower, energy, affect, embodiment, gender, flows, movement, work.
Material modernity: space, architecture, urbanism, technics, commodification, object theory, consumption.
Capital Modernity: modernity and money, economics, credit, risk, wealth and poverty, percarity, excess, property, cash and culture.

In COMMA, we will stage encounters between cutting edge work in these areas and the literary productions, canonical and otherwise, of twentieth and twenty-first century Anglophone literary culture.


Bio-Commons: Affect, Affective labor, Affective Freedom, Counterflows

Can there be such a thing as a tactical counter-biopolitics? In our fourth year, we will begin by considering the role of the worker in the bio-political economy, especially given the re-envisioning of work in western economies as cognitive and affective labor. How has affective labor been represented by literary culture? Given that literary writing is itself one of the earliest and most pure forms of affective labor, we will read 20th century literature suspiciously as avatar of the new labor economy in the era of biopolitics.At the same time, we will examine 20th and 21st century literary culture in search of moments that run against the grain of the protocols of biopolitical work and leisure. Do models exist of a biopolitics from below? Can such visions and forms of popular activism be reconciled with the possibly necessary elitism of the research agendas of large drug companies, the enormous organizational systems necessary for insurance companies to function, the centralized forms of national social security? Do spaces for imagining a bio-commons exist, or could we imagine them? What directions has such creative thinking taken since the beginning of the twentieth century, and can we trace place new values of various works, based on their development of biopolitical awareness or versions of a counter-biopolitics? What shape will a bio-culture and biopolitics that questions the developing status-quo take in the future?


Bio-Capital Modernity: Fixed Objects, Fast Capital

At this horizon of investigation, planetary issues such as world food distribution (with attendant gluts, super-abundance, or scarcities and famines), energy generation and distribution, issues of climate, transnational health demographics, all enter the field of vision of the theorist-critic. Above all, how does the culture of consumption under capitalism impact the politics and the lived experience of the biopolitical regimes under which we live? We will study in particular the notion of ‘growth,’ the avowed goal of the consumer-based economy from which capitalism makes its profits. By what steps did capital appropriate the organicist metaphor of growth in order to rationalize its expansion? Rethinking growth, we will attempt a retheorization of consumption under the aegis of biocapital.


Biotech Modernity: Bios, Techne and the Scene of Precarious life

In the last decade, advances in the life sciences, and particularly in biotechnology, are beginning to be matched by advances in the ‘life humanities.’ In particular, a flow of translations by theorists in Italy—- Giorgio Agamben, Robert Esposito, Antonio Negri, Paulo Virno, Christian Marazzi—- have developed concepts taken from the late work of Michel Foucault on ‘the care of the body,’ the controversial Weimar theorist of sovereignty and exception Carl Schmitt, and others, in order to conceptualize a new technology of power in modernity, biopower, whereby the complete management of life of the human species has come to characterize the objective of regimes of politics—- and culture. At the same time from France comes a strand of theoretical inquiry, in the wake of Derrida, Simondon and Foucault, by Bernard Stiegler and others, which retheorizes the relation between bios and techne, between a sensing body and a prostheticizing technology.

Taken together, this work promises to radically recast the versions of materialist critique, not to mention the now enervated cultural studies, current on the American academic intellectual scene. In a post-Fordist global economic milieu of knowledge, capital and human flows, this work replaces human physical labor power, the guarantor of value in materialist formulations, with affective biopower, trumping the older materialist conception with an account of a much more thoroughly interpellated, not to say colonized, subject. At the same time, it replaces consciousness (in Lukac’s terms) as an engine of cultural praxis with a more organicist account (following Gilles Deleuze) of rhizomatic, multitudinous convergences of subjects into communities. In this seminar, we interrogate the possibility of a new ‘life humanities,’ and ask specifically how these two strands of biotic analysis matter to a cultural production that, throughout the twentieth century and since, has been cognizant of the frailty of human life, of an increasingly complex series of human-machine interfaces, and of the rise of affect, and of affective labor, as the everyday basis for value in human existence. How can concepts such as biopower and biocapital, ‘vita nuda’ and the multitude, ‘technologies of the spirit’ and epiphylogenesis, taking risks and taking care, immunity and community, inform aesthetic theory, critical analysis of cultural productions as well as of social life, and art production itself? Can we employ them and the theoretical frameworks which have produced them to reconceptualize aspects of modernist and post-modern art, from avant garde experiment to instillation art, as versions of a new bio-culture? Can we develop critiques of their aporias and their weaknesses, and from what positions might such critiques be launched? Can we engage these aspects of an emerging ‘life humanities’ in productive contra-distinction with new developments in the ‘life sciences?’ Between the oppressive hegemony of Agambenesque ‘bare life’ and the idealism of the Negrian multitude, can we chart a strategy of biotic or parasitic intervention on the cultural terrain when life itself is in question? More urgently, how can bio-critique and bio-culture speak truth to biotech? To work on answering these questions and others, we propose to assemble a series of investigators, headquartered in COMMA, coming from the English and literature depts., sociology, religion, history, and others, along with a number from the sciences as well. We propose to capitalize upon existing strengths in our dept. in ecology and media, in the work across campus in translation and on science and society, particularly on nanotech innovation, and on interest from various depts. such as religious studies, in the new wave of continental theory. At the same time, we propose to differentiate ourselves from work elsewhere on biopower by centering our inquiry on issues at the intersection of theory, life and technology studies and literary culture. That is, we want to develop theoretical frameworks in the light of specific cultural productions—especially literature, film and art. We want to explore the various strands of theory, bringing some of its practitioners to campus, forming bonds with groups doing such work in other universities, and fostering such work here. We want in particular to understand aesthetic responses to the issues being dealt with, to examine how such issues were being explored in literature and other cultural productions, from high literary accounts of listless anomie to dreams of technological utopias in science fiction, long before the terms were first used by theorists, and to understand how this emphasis on life itself as the object of political power might have us radically rethink current ideas on the cultural effects of modernist and postmodern experimentation.

At the center of the issue of bios as a social and cultural entity in modernity, we find the cell. The cell was at the heart of Foucault’s most famous account of statist biopolitical management, in Discipline and Punish; another cell is the fundamental unit of study for the bio-tech sciences and medical research in the 20th century, achieving a new importance with the new interest in nanotechnology. At the same time, much of the work inspired by the concept of the ‘rhizome’ in Deleuze and Guttari, itself developed in part from a reading of notions of ‘flux’ in the work of the modernist philosopher Henri Bergson, deals with the possibilities for communication networks, flows, viral movements between cells. Paralleling the work on biopower and the research in medical science, there has been an array of work by architectural theorists and urbansits on the topic of traffic and its flows in buildings and in cities, in regions, and on a global scale. In this phase of our inquiry, we will ask how the theory of the rhizome and the valorization of flow, virality, movement and change that has gone with it can be mapped onto a the more geographical studies that consider traffic in material terms—of bodies, peoples, and machines. In particular, the work of the British ‘new geographers,’ from David Harvey to Nigel Thrift, all inspired by the materialist studies of Henri Lefebvre, offers a fascinating real-life set of case-studies that might test the efficacy of the more fully theoretical hypotheses. Similarly, much modern and postmodern literature, especially dealing with diaspora, encampment (forced or vagrant), incarceration, migration, homelessness, traffic, and all kinds of human movement, and its featuring the spaces, from ports to checkpoints, that control or direct it, can be considered in the light of both the biotech discourse (which itself often uses the logics of incarceration, containment and freedom of movement) and the valorization of the viral-rhizomatic in theory post-Deleuze. The topos of flanerie, basic to every Benjaminian reading of modernist accounts of everyday life, suggests itself as marking the rhythm of this movement.