• Vancouver Institute for Social Research
  • Vancouver Institute for Social Research
  • Vancouver Institute for Social Research
  • Vancouver Institute for Social Research

Vancouver Institute for Social Research

4 February
18 April 2013

Curated by: Jonathan Middleton

Vancouver Institute for Social Research

Curated by: Jonathan Middleton

Vancouver Institute for Social Research


The Vancouver Institute for Social Research ( VISR ) is an independent, para-academic, theory-based free school initiating in 2013. Its intent is to move beyond the borders of the traditional university and to open up a more accessible platform in the city for the engaged discussion of critical theory.


The Institute will be launching a 9-week pilot project in February 2013 and ending on April 1st. Once a week on Monday evenings from 7-9 pm at the Or Gallery (555 Hamilton Street), we will be inviting nine different professors to present on topics of their choice over this period. The seminar will be free to the public and all professors will be offering their services on a voluntary basis.


As we inaugurate this initial phase, we would like to take this opportunity to open up the conversation with prospective professors and students to create a sustained para-academic platform in the city.


Organized by the East Vancouver Young Hegelians – Chapter 13 (Infinite Judgement Society – Owl of Minerva faction)


The readings will be on our WordPress site.

The schedule for this initial pilot project will be as follows:


Feb. 4th – Glen Coulthard – Rage against Empire: Resentment, Reconciliation and Indigenous Decolonization in Canada


On June 11, 2008, the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen J. Harper, issued an official apology on behalf of the Canadian state to Indigenous survivors of the Indian residential school system (IRSS). Characterized as the inauguration of a “new chapter” in the history of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations in the country, the residential school apology was a highly anticipated and emotionally loaded event. Across the country, Native and non-Native people alike gathered in living rooms, band offices, churches, and community halls to witness and pay homage to this so-called “historic” occasion. Although there was a great deal of Native scepticism toward the apology in the days leading up to it, in its immediate aftermath it appeared that many, if not most, observers felt that Harper’s apology was a genuine and necessary “first step” on the long road to forgiveness and reconciliation.


The benefit of the doubt originally afforded the Prime Minister regarding the authenticity of his apology has since waned. Public distrust began to escalate following a well-scrutinized address by Harper at a gathering of the G20 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 25, 2009. It was there that Harper made the somewhat astonishing (but typically arrogant and self-congratulatory) claim that Canadians had “no history of colonialism.” Harper continued: “[W]e have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.” This seminar will explore some of the issues raised by these two seemingly contradictory events and how they speak to the current entanglement of settler-colonialism with the politics of reconciliation that began to gain traction in Canada during the 1990s.


Glen Coulthard, “Subjects of Empire: Indigenous Peoples and the ‘Politics of Recognition’ in Canada” Contemporary Political Theory 6:4 (2007).
Thomas Brudholm, “Revisiting resentments: Jean Amery and the dark side of forgiveness and reconciliation,” Journal of Human Rights 5:1 (2006).


Biography: Glen Coulthard teaches political theory and Indigenous politics in the First Nations Studies Program and the Department of Political Science at UBC. He is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

February 11 – Hilda Fernandez – Introduction to Jacques Lacan


Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was an innovative French psychoanalyst who opposed the dogmatic practice of psychoanalysis in his time and stated the imperious need to return to the essence of Freud’s teaching, centred in language. By reclaiming the “return to Freud”, he re-established the ethics of the analytical act and orchestrated an epistemic movement in the psychoanalytical field that created a new school within this field.


Influenced by thinkers of diverse fields, such as Spinoza, Hegel, Heidegger, Saussure, Levy-Strauss and Cantor, Lacan’s teaching spread over 50 years and his transmission was mainly oral throughout his numerous seminars. After more than 6 decades, Lacan has significantly influenced not only the therapeutic practice of psychoanalysis but many other disciplines such as literature, art criticism, political science, geography, film studies and feminist studies, to name a few.


Lacan’s style is often considered difficult, hermetic and “baroque”. In this workshop we will introduce the student to Lacan’s oeuvre, situating the context and the influences of his work, as well as mapping each concept in relation to the rest of his work. We will introduce the student to the following themes:
1. The three registers – Real, Imaginary and Symbolic – in the subjective experience.
2. “The unconscious is structured as a language”: This aphorism related to the dyad of signifier/signified and the creation of historical meaning.
3. Desire, Drives and Jouissance
4. Sexual difference
5. On Clinical structures: Neurosis (Hysteria, Obsession, Phobia), Perversion and Psychosis.
6. Ethics of the Clinical Act: Transference, symptom, time,


Suggested Readings:
My Teaching (1967-1968)
Radiophonie (1970) http://web.missouri.edu/~stonej/Radiophonie.pdf


“A” and “a” in Clinical Structures.
Transl. by Stuart Schneiderman in Acts of the Paris-New York Psychoanalytic Workshop, 1987, pp. 14-29, The Symptom 6, Spring 2005. http://www.lacan.com/symptom6_articles/miller.html
The Symptom: Knowledge, Meaning and the Real. transl. by Daniel Collins in The Symptom 7 (Spring 2006) http://www.lacan.com/symptom7_articles/miller.html

Feb. 18th – Clint Burnham – Does the Internet have an Unconscious?


In this seminar I propose to use the tools and concepts of psychoanalysis to address contemporary internet cultures, focusing on the concept of the unconscious. I will begin with Freud’s writings on the unconscious in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and his various technical and metapsychological papers (including “The Unconscious” [1915], “Observations on Love in Transference” [1915], “Fetishism” [1927], and “Negation” [1925]). For Freud, the unconscious is both the repository of repressed traumas and desires and the source of symptoms, of uncontrolled actions.


But when Freud is revised by Lacan, in his seminars and the texts collected in Écrits (1966), the unconscious is now, on the one hand, “structured like a language” (or subject to the binary logic of signifier and signified, and read by Lacan very much in a way that emphasizes the role of puns, translation, and metaphor and metonymy), but also “ex-timate,” outside the subject, located in the big Other of the Law and the Nom de père (the name of the father but also the no of the father – and, les non-dupes errent , or the non-duped make mistakes). Lacan’s unconscious is not interior, not primordial, but exterior, and social.


Continuing with this very particular trajectory of psychoanalysis (the Lacanian tradition, let us say), Slavoj Žižek’s unconscious is now a formulation that has to do with the “obscene underside” of the Law, of the social: or the notion that social norms (the big Other) depend upon their transgression – illustrated in an example Žižek returns to again and again (in Metastases of Enjoyment [1994], The Parallax View [2006], etc.) from the film A Few Good Men, where U.S. Marines kill one of their own under an unofficially sanctioned “code red.” But it is also worth examining thinkers who have theorized the notion of the unconscious in a manner outside of (but sympathetic to) Freudian psychoanalysis. Thus Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “optical unconscious,” developed in his “Little History of Photography” (1931) holds that photography shows the unconscious of physical actions (a horse’s or human’s gait, as in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs); the feminist art historian Rosalind Krauss, in her 1993 book The Optical Unconscious, argues in dialogue with Benjamin that, rather, the concept of the unconscious in a more Freudian sense can be used to construct a counter-history of modern art.


Finally, the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, in his influential 1981 study The Political Unconscious, argued that a given social field will have its own repressed (utopian) wishes, which are then realized in cultural objects like novels or films, which enact an “imaginary resolution of a real contradiction.” My reading of these theorists, then, will enable an encounter with contemporary digital and internet cultures and subcultures via psychoanalysis.


In what way, for example, do the machines with which we increasingly access the internet, our smartphones, that lie nestled next to our genitals in our pants pockets, contain our sexual desires and wishes? How is email, or even better, spam, to be understood as the Lacanian “letter that always arrives at its destination”? How are trolls and pornographic internet subcultures (4Chan) the “obscene underside” of the proper world of e-commerce and governmentality? Is the internet unconscious an optical one – full of images that reveal more than we wish, through Google Earth and webcams – or, more frighteningly, a political unconscious that, with its Taliban beheading videos but also crowdsourced social media revolutions (Twitter and Tahrir Square), requires a psychoanalytic account to fully understand its paradoxical dimensions of libido and trauma.


This, finally, will be my argument: that it is only by being able to work through the Freudian tradition that we can understand our current fixations with online culture: not an addiction but a repeating, not a hard drive but a death drive, not a virtual reality but a fantasy that is more Real than reality.


Suggested Readings:
Lacan, “Position of the Unconscious,” Écrits, 703-721
Benjamin, “Little History of Photography”


Optional Supplementary Readings:
Freud, “The Unconscious,” SE XIV: 159-215
Jameson, “On Interpretation: Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act,” The Political Unconscious, 1-88.
Rosalind Krauss, Chapter Four, The Optical Unconscious, 148-195
Slavoj Zizek, “Re-visioning ‘Lacanian’ Social Criticism: The Law and its Obscene Double,” Interrogating the Real, 262-282.

Feb. 25th – Jeff Derksen – On and Off the Waterfront


Urban waterfronts are a complex collision of life, commerce, industry and nature and they have – over the last forty years — become a site where residual industrial economies give way to a lifestyle-driven economy of the “creative city”. As an area that seems continually to be in flux, being made and remade as economic and cultural imperatives generate new demands, waterfronts have become even more densely historically layered ciphers for the contradictions and tensions have dropped down onto cities from decades of global urbanization. As a result, as Deb Cowen and Susannah Bunce argue, “Urban ports and waterfront areas are simultaneously local spaces and heavily contested sites where the multi-scalar politics of urban development, national security, continental defence and the global ‘war on terror’ are territorialized through built form.”


In Vancouver, the urban waterfront not escaped this rescaling and repoliticization. In fact, despite, its modest claims of being a “world-class city, Vancouver has in fact been world class in terms of the remaking of its waterfront – both in terms of the size of these remakings and in terms of the financial risks and benefits. For VISR we will look at cultural representations of Vancouver’s waterfront in relation to concept and the language of the post-political city. Such a post-political city builds an imagination of a city that is outside of politics because it naturalizes urban revitalization and because it uses a language of “lifestyle” rather than politics to justify urban transformations. In this imagination, the waterfront is the edge where nature, culture, and lifestyle meet. Can we identify the language of the post-political city, and the manner in which it has used public art on the waterfront both as an ornament to the spectacle of development and as a means to celebrate certain aspects of the city’s history?


Suggested Reading:
Erik Swyngedouw, Designing the Post-Political City and the Insurgent Politics
Deb Cowen and Susannah Bunce, “Competitive Cities and Secure Nations, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30.2(June 2006): 428.

March 4th – Dina Al-Kassim
“Of Elephants and Kings: A Seminar on Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. I”


With the translation of Michel Foucault’s 1975 seminar Society Must Be Defended in 2003, a new wave of interest in biopolitics, already underway since the appearance in English translation (1998) of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, swept through several fields and established a discrete vocabulary for post 911 actualities and in particular for voices critical of the seeming normalization of refugee status, indefinite detention, torture and other sovereign exceptions that blur the distinction between rogue state and rule of law. While political philosophy has attended to intensifications and alterations in the contemporary framing and embodiment of state sovereignty, going so far as to suggest that the “state of exception” has become the rule, recent work in postcolonial studies, critical races studies, feminist philosophy, queer studies, third world cultural studies and literature offers nuanced and complex analyses of life in the margins, analyses that demonstrate the inextricability of state sovereignty and subjectivity. Openly resisting Agamben’s political despair, such writing contends that considerations of sovereignty that foreclose or ignore the many forms of subjection (sexual, racial, gendered, religious, class based, to name a few) cannot answer to the demands of description nor can they yield new resources for thought or action. Something of a polemic results, each side claiming its Foucault.


Enter Derrida’s detailed examination of sovereignty and a tradition that continually imagines self-possession, knowledge and power through a bestiary of mythical, gifted, foolish, crafty and dangerous animals. Proliferating distinctions that aim to define man from beast, Derrida’s meandering discourse provides us the means to question the enclosure of Agamben’s approach to the political animal and its biopolitics, which pictures the human caught in a vast holding pen or state of exception become global in ever more ruthless forms of diminished life. Focusing on the final three sessions of this work (pp. 250-349) we will follow Derrida’s engagement with Agamben’s appropriation of Foucault and augment that discussion through reference to two short texts: Agamben’s “What is an Apparatus?” and Foucault’s “The Confessions of the Flesh”.


Dina Al-Kassim is the author of On Pain of Speech: Fantasies of the First Order and the Literary Rant, Al-Kassim is a critical theorist working on contemporary political subjectivation, sexuality and aesthetics in the EU, USA, Middle East and Africa. On Pain of Speech examines ranting as a waste product of modern subjectivity. A Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Associate and Associate Faculty at IGRSSJ, Professor Al-Kassim teaches in the English Department at UBC. Publications appear in Grey Room, International Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Public Culture, Cultural Dynamics, and the volume Islamicate Sexualities.


Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign
ch 10-13
Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus?
Michel Foucault, Confessions of the Flesh

March 11th – Matt Hern


In Praise of Sport


I am proposing that you should care about sports.


I submit that progressive, radical, ‘thinking’ people have long held condescending attitudes towards sports and have thus abandoned the sporting world as a legitimate place of contestation and struggle. This retreat has left the sports world easy prey for hyper-consumptive, violent, militaristic, sexist and homophobic politics and handed over the immense power of sports to some of the worst elements of our culture.


Noam Chomsky (echoing the Frankfurt school and many others) once said that if people paid as much attention to politics as they do to sports we would have a much better country. This is a fairly common sentiment I think, but he never would have said that about music, dance, theatre, painting or poetry. That contradiction is what I want to explore: I want us to consider sports as seriously as we take other ‘high’ art forms, and make it a place for legitimate contestation and politics. Sure capitalism has grotesquely distorted the sporting world, but what hasn’t it maimed?


I’ll argue that there is something very deep that even ungodly amounts of garish marketing, ultra-nationalist tendencies, hyper-corporatism, and dislikable athletes with their tricked-out Hummers can’t extinguish: we love sports for lots of really good and defendable reasons. One of those reasons is the bodies-on-bodies materiality of sports (or, in Nancian terms, touching) that marks out thresholds of difference: not fixing identities, but confirming them and their spacing. A spacing that is possible to play with, work with inside of a flexible, malleable notion of difference and a community that is bodily hospitable. It is a possibility which is so often misapprehended, but carries with it the promise of neighbourhood.


Taking these and a couple of other threads I want to make a specific argument for the relevance, power and possibilities of the sporting world, and why it is, can and should be a force for good in our culture.


Jean-Luc Nancy: The Inoperative Community

March 18th – Steven Taubeneck – Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties


The Educational Sublime: Conflicts between Faculties


The President of The University of British Columbia. Dr. Stephen Toope, has a website called “Place and Promise,” where he discusses his vision for the university. The page includes a picture of someone standing on a rock overlooking the water and mountains in the distance, and evokes the “vistas” available to anyone at the school. Since it is a kind of recruitment document, the blatant recuperation of the sublime for educational purposes seems understandable. But what I want to expose in my paper is the historical and structural duplicity of this “educational sublime,” beginning with the articulation of the “dynamic sublime” in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. This use of the sublime conceals the conflicted, shifting foundations that have marked the university since Kant’s day as well.


My account of the fractured university will begin with Kant’s own “Conflict of the Faculties,” from 1798. In that work Kant responds to the reprimand of his king, who criticized him for his book Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. On the one hand, he seeks to justify the king’s use of censorship. But on the other hand, he claims the need for a freedom form force within the university, especially regarding philosophy. Whereas theology, law and medicine are basically instruments of the government, and hence restricted by force, philosophy on his account would occur outside the governmental jurisdiction. Kant seeks to escape the governmental arm of the university in his rethinking of philosophy.


The second text in my account will be Martin Heidegger’s infamous “Rector’s Speech,” from 1933, entitled “The Self-Assertion of the German University.” On Heidegger’s account, philosophy will lead the university into a new domain. No longer seeking a kind of freedom in realm of reason, philosophy takes over the leadership of the student body by directing them towards the destiny of the people. In its context the speech marks a sinister event. Heidegger had become the Rector of the University of Freiburg under the National Socialists. Although he was to step down only eight months later, the kind of “responsibility” he proclaims for the university brings it closer to an arm of the totalitarian, government. When philosophy guides the university, according to Heidegger, it will lead in the direction of the state.


My third text will be the essay by Jacques Derrida from 1980, called “Mochlos, or The Conflict of the Faculties,” which explicitly returns to both Kant and Heidegger to mark the centenary of the graduate school at Columbia University, after Derrida had received an honorary degree there. Derrida wants to expose the “paradoxical structure” of the inside and outside of the university, as well as the divisions between the disciplines. Through his questioning of the university and its limits, he raises the question of the very legitimacy of law in the first place. For Derrida, the law of the law is a fundamentally paradoxical relation built into the foundations of the university. In other words, the “educational sublime” as envisioned by President Toope has developed through several different and basically contradictory forms over the last two centuries. My paper will show the historical and structural fault lines built into such a notion.


Immanuel Kant The Conflict of the Faculties

March 25th – Thomas Kemple – History of Sexuality pt. 1, section 5:


The ‘Bio-Social’ Roots of Neoliberalism


Abstract of the Seminar: What today we call ‘neo-liberalism’ refers very loosely to a set of ideas which became popular in North America and the Europe in the 1980s about the how the rights of the individual are guaranteed by the free market against the coercive power of the state . For the most part, then, neoliberal ideas have been more influential in politics and economics than in sociology, history, or philosophy. In this seminar, we’ll consider two important sources of ‘neoliberalism’ which have been studied by French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault: 1) 19th century social Darwinism of the 1860s and 70s with its ‘biological’ understanding of social life as a struggle for survival of the species which was partly inspired by classic liberal ideals of autonomy and free trade; and the social economics of the Freiburg and Chicago schools of economics in the 1920s and 30s which promoted moderate state intervention as a necessary condition for minimum social welfare. Our seminar will start by considering the challenging Part V of his History of Sexuality, Volume I, ‘The Right to Death and Power Over Life,’ since that’s where he first sketches the idea that liberal power is exercised less by protecting the interests of the state and society then by enhancing the vitality of individuals and populations.


Some background: My own research interests are in how ‘neoliberalism’ can be traced to the classical liberalism which informed the birth of sociology in the 19th century, which coincided with the emergence of evolutionary biology and scientific psychology. Drawing on the insights of philosophy, literature, history, and the arts, this new ‘science of social life’ also considered physics, mathematics, biology, and psychology as possible methodological models and theoretical allies. As sociology freed itself from from competing or complementary disciplines, and established its institutional legitimacy in universities and professional associations, it could then develop its own methods of research and objects of study. From the late 1870s to the late 1920s, the classical’ sociologists in Europe and North America proposed that ‘life’ itself has now become the central problem of human existence, superseding ‘society’ in the 18th century and ‘the individual’ in the 19th. They argued that the acceleration of the capitalist money economy offers opportunities for the management and control over human and non-human life while evoking ethical appeals to personal duty and collective responsibility. In recent years, social scientists and political philosophers writing under the influence of Michel Foucault’s later writings and lectures have been concerned with how these ideas inform recent concerns about how the genetic codification of life poses fundamental moral problems which exceed any techno-scientific, bio-medical, or bureaucratic solution. Membership in bio-social communities on the basis of race and sex, illness and age, they argue, is not determined solely by state regulation, but by biologically defined rights and entitlements, statuses and obligations in a variety of communal and institutional settings. A new style of ‘somatic ethics’ which exceeds the boundaries of professional expertise aims to translate the clinical goals of cure and care into the everyday disciplinary objectives of normalization and enhancement. Besides raising political quandaries over the biological basis of citizenship, this medical and moral ‘problematization of social life’ down to its molecular level also presents new opportunities for the economic investment of ‘biocapital’ and for therapeutic regulation through ‘biopower.’ Thus, later attempts by socio-biologists to reduce social life to its biological substratum, and by bio-sociologists to explore the social and cultural underpinnings of the bio-sciences, might seem to revive earlier debates which previous generations believed they had settled.


Reading: Foucault – The History of Sexuality Book 1, Section 5

April 1st – Randy Lee Cutler


Crystal Worlds – Between a Virtual and a Hard Place


Crystals have both a literal dimension and a metaphorical presence representing both a thing – crystalline solids- and a way of thinking about multiple facets and transformation. Through the figure of the crystal, this talk brings together theoretical, scientific and art historical approaches highlighting a shared fascination with these resilient and always emergent formations.


‘The Crystal World’ refers to the 1966 work of fiction by J.G. Ballard and Cyprien Gaillard’s 2013 exhibition at PS 1 in Brooklyn. Both works navigate unfamiliar geographical sites and explore the relationship between desire, nature and erosion. In varied ways, the atmospherically lush and mysterious environments evoke crystalline images where time is compressed producing a profound effect of opacity and indiscernability. Gilles Deleuze takes up the figure of transparency and reflection in his work Cinema II: The Time Image particularly chapter four, “The Crystals of Time” where he considers Post WWII cinema in light of the time-image, fragmentation and internal limits. Through a reflection on various films he offers us images of a world full of doublings, mirrors and dynamic extension. Drawing out the simultaneously actual and virtual potential of the moving image, the concepts that he proposes evoke models for looking at unconventional and otherworldly expressions of space and time, literature and visual art, organic and inorganic systems. The crystal circuit or the compression of unfolding time brings to the fore recollection, memory (real and virtual) where “Ever vaster circuits will be able to develop, corresponding to deeper layers of reality and higher and higher levels of memory or thought.” Like crystals themselves, the metaphors that they call up inhabit border worlds between genres, lifeforms and rhetorical strategies not to mention the slow geology of molecular time and space.


Randy Lee Cutler is a Vancouver based writer, artist and educator. Through the intersections of gender, art, science, and technology she investigates the emergence of new cultural forms and expression. Originally from Montreal, she lives in Vancouver where she is an associate professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.


Suggested Readings:
Gilles Deleuze, “The Crystals of Time” in Cinema II: The Time Image
Mark A. Cheetham, The Crystal Interface in Contemporary Art: Metaphors of the Organic and Inorganic in Leonardo (Vol. 43, No. 3, 2010)


Optional Supplementary Reading:
J.G. Ballard, The Crystal World

Contact – visrvancouver@gmail.com

Venue is wheelchair accessible.