Crisis: Knowledge, History, Law | Workshop University of Kent 29 January 2016

by | 21 Nov 2015

Thematic Brief for the one-day Workshop of the Social Critiques of Law Research Group (SoCriL)

29th January 2016 from 9am, Darwin Conference Suite 3, University of Kent. Further details and registration info at the end of the text below.

Image by T. Zartaloudis

Image by T. Zartaloudis

Thematic Outline

We are told that we are “immersed” in crisis: European sovereign debt crisis, the subprime crisis in the United States, ISIS, Syria, the crisis in Afghanistan, the crisis in Darfur, the crisis in the Congo, in Cairo, in the Middle East, ecologic crisis, Ebola, climate change (cf. Roitman), the modern city is crisis, the University in crisis and so forth. A bad infinity of crises amounting, in one view, to a ‘global crisis’ that forms a ‘surface effect’ in the reversal of the relation between humans and the world (cf. Serres). To not just enter a moment of crisis, but to be in crisis raises then at first significant entry-level questions (i.e. who decides, if anyone, whether there is ‘a crisis’? What are the outcomes of being in a permanent state of ‘crisis’? etc.)

Yet at the same time it questions the peculiar nature of crisis as such: its paradoxical elevated status through conditioning normalcy while suspending it; and at the same time its endless encroachment over social processes and beings which, as time goes by, become tomorrow’s normalcy.

There are many exemplary moves ‘in crisis’. For instance, capitalism is introduced as a phenomenon through the ‘medium’ of crisis. It is worth noting that Marx and Engels are most careful to establish proximity between crisis and the bourgeoisie:

The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented (Marx / Engels 1967: 226).

To refer to some other examples: Freud’s ego constitutes itself, on the other hand, through the working out of crises, while Nietzsche’s account of the predicament of both ‘God and man’ in their encounter with nihilism, is a predicament of crisis. For Husserl’s conception of a ‘krisis of the European sciences’ and of the form of human life as such, positivist sciences were seen as reducing the transcendental ego to a natural object. Classic references to the ‘crisis of Europe’ by Rousseau and Saint-Simon as the result of revolution, whether in an affirmative or negative sense, are also well known. Modernity, it has even been repeatedly said, conceives itself, in each of its forms, as a crisis.

In current discourse, too, in the midst of competing crisis-rhythms, crisis appears to be understood as either an error within an otherwise efficient institutional structure (for instance in Kindleberger, Aliber, Roubini, Mihm, among others); or as the critical condition of an ‘alienation’ whereby institutions are parasitic aberrations from the truth of this or that value or principle (for instance in Harvey, Marazzi, Berardi). Others turn on the effect of crisis in its paradoxical production. In Lazzarato, for example, who claims that crises are related to the (re)production of subjectivities, first of all, at an existential level as such.  And in Agamben whereby the decision on the exception of “bare life” is a juridico-political decision on a life placed in permanent crisis (in the sense of judgement, as well as in its reduction to the supposedly lowest common denominator). And isn’t a legal trial’s only goal nothing other than the krisis (judgment, the res iudicata) (Satta)? As Satta writes with regard to this paradigm of krisis:

For this moment of arrest is precisely judgment: an act, therefore, contrary to the economy of life, which is all movement, all will, and all action, an antihuman, inhuman act, an act that is truly –if one considers it properly, in its essence- without goal. Humans have intuited the divine nature of this act without goal and they have handed their whole existence over to its power. More than that they have constructed their whole existence on this unique act.

If crisis is the ‘post-ontological’ rule of government par excellence, then it appears that the transposition has taken place from crisis to indecision, from a momentary situation to a ‘post-historical’ permanence (modernus, the now seen as mechanized and unidirectional), so that government by management (administration, oikonomia), signposts not just a ‘legitimation crisis’, but positive feedback loops (cf. Morin) that (re)produce the crisis. In this manner every decision, as a matter of supposed fact (where fact and right become indistinguishable), leads to a new ‘critical distinction’ and it is purported that only in this way can any alternative be observed or adhered to, hence, leading by necessity to a ever new crisis. An inadvertent effect is exposed to be that the supposed solution (or ever new ‘critical distinction’) to a crisis becomes therefore indistinguishable from the very production of crises in the first place.  It returns one to question, again, the effect of crises and their production anew, primarily in/by discourses that sit on either side of the borderline distinctions of what could be called an ever-infantile crisis.

Agamben has recently offered a revision of this paradigm of crisis (c.f. Pilate and Jesus). It is worth noting, in this regard, that the term is derived from the Greek Krisis from krinein “to separate, decide, judge, a distinctive force”; from PIE root *krei– “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (also worth noting the Greek krinesthai “to explain”). In medical vocabulary, as it is known, the term ‘crisis’ is the decisive moment at which a patient’s illness would either turn for the worse or begin to ease towards a recovery (Hippocrates and Galen). Still in 1754, under the entry ‘Crise’ by Théophile De Bordeu in Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, ‘crisis’ appears only as a ‘medical’ word, which draws on the juridical meaning of ‘judgment’. But in Agamben’s case (with some proximity as well to Deleuze) the point is to not think of a counter-crisis or a counter-judgment but instead to do away with judgment in this particular sense.

In Aristotle’s political sense in turn it is noted that: “The virtue of justice is a characteristic of a state; for justice is the arrangement of the association that takes the form of a state, and the virtue of justice is a judgment [krisis] about what is just”. A conception of crisis that, perhaps, can be still traced in the later ‘political’ sense of an irreversible, definitive, change that was transposed analogically in view of the Enlightenment and the so-called Age of Revolutions. Thus, crisis appears moldable according to its applications and to other concepts which in turn may be linked with it; and its, perhaps, original meaning becomes, according to some, even the ‘art of government’ (managerial oikonomia; cf. Agamben) par excellence.

It is worth noting also that there does not seem to exist a verb that would relate to the noun ‘crisis’ in a way in which one might have expected (underscoring what is perhaps the most decisive feature of a crisis – that it comes about; that it stages an encounter with the scarcity and the finiteness of reserves or possibilities, “without anyone in particular being ‘responsible’ for this outcome”). This is why the noun itself today arguably takes the stance of a performative, epitomizing its own indefinite condition (a ‘non-locus’ as Roitman puts it) and reapplication. This, needless to say, is in sharp contrast to what can be said about the earlier medical term, a merely descriptive term, which appears to relate a somehow silent, natural, taken-for-granted, approach to finitude.

It seems then that, among else, crisis as a form of life and government draws first a distinction between knowledge and experience. Koselleck’s, for instance, viewing of crisis as “the signature of the modern era” can be read to suggest that the historical concept of ‘crisis’ (and critique) is an “indicator of a new awareness”, from which one reconceptualises modern time as such; and where time becomes the permanence of the provisional (or contemporary). How can new forms of knowledge be engendered then becomes, perhaps, a key question. How can the bipolarity of normality and crisis be suspended? In ‘critical’ terms ‘critique’ itself appears equally bipolar between a perpetuation and a political denunciation of a situation. In this manner, a supposedly permanent post-historicism loops within an equally permanent transgression loop in what has proven to be a sustainable and ultimately successful functional depoliticized relation between crisis and experience amidst nihilist vertigo. This, ultimately, brings to mind, further, a crisis as a dream-image and a wish-image (Benjamin) whereby mythical thought turns crisis as both natural history and utopia. A ‘Kingdom of Crisis’, perhaps, as the telos of the historical dynamic, to paraphrase Benjamin’s Theologisch-politisches Fragment: a mythical incarnation of crisis as fate.


This workshop invites you, among else, to reopen this conundrum and to think what it may mean to liberate the future from its ‘deformations in the present by an act of cognition’ as Benjamin writes in his early text Das Leben der Studenten (1977: 75; Gesammelte Schriften, Band II-1). And yet to, further, ask: ‘Has an act of cognition ever saved anyone?’ Have we ever cognized finitude against our saviours? Indeed, this is only one provisional way of putting the question and the participants will elaborate their own along different and perhaps intersecting pathways.

Thanos Zartaloudis (Kent Law School & AA, School of Architecture)

Indicative Reading

Agamben, G. (2015) Pilate and Jesus. Trans. Adam Kotsko, Stanford: SUP.
Agamben, G. (2011) The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Béjin, A. and E. Morin (eds.) (1976) “La notion de crise,” Centre d’études transdisciplinaires, Communication 25.
Dodd, J. (2004) Crisis and Reflection: An Essay on Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Edwards, J. (2006)  “Critique and Crisis Today: Koselleck, Enlightenment and the Concept of Politics,” Contemporary Political Theory 5: 428-446.
Husserl, E. (1970) [1954] The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (transl. D. Carr). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Janet Roitman |
Koselleck, R. 1988 [1959] Critique and Crisis. Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge MA: Berg Publishers.

Koselleck, R.  2002 The Practice of Conceptual History. Timing History, Spacing Concepts.  Stanford University Press.
Koselleck, R. 2004 [1979] Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time. New York: Columbia University Press.
Koselleck, R. and M. Richter. (2006) “Crisis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 67(2): 357-400.
Lazarrato, M. “Governmentality in the current crisis”
Lazzarato, M. (2012) The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles.

Marx & Engels. (1967) The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics, London.
Masur, G. (1973) “Crisis in History,” in P. Wiener, ed., Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York: Scribners1: 589-.
Mbembe, A. and J. Roitman. (1995) “Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis,” Public Culture 7: 323-352.
Roubini, N., and S. Mihm, (2010), Crisis economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Satta, S. (1994/2014) Il mistero del processo, Adelphi Edizioni.
Starn, R. (1971) “Historians and ‘Crisis’,” Past and Present, 52: 3-22.

Workshop Details and Registration

29 January 2016 from 9am, Darwin Conference Suite 3, University of Kent

Free, Registration requested via the following link:

Organizer: Thanos Zartaloudis (Kent Law School & AA School of Architecture)

Assistants: Michalis Zivanaris (PhD Candidate, Kent Law School) & Gian Giacomo Fusco (PhD Candidate, Kent Law School)

Funded by: Social Critiques of Law Research Group (Directors: Emilie Cloatre & Donatella Alessandrini) & Kent Law School, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Janet Roitman (The New School for Social Research, New York)
  • Emanuele Coccia (Centre d’Histoire et Théorie des Arts (CEHTA – EHESS), Paris, and The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Columbia University)
  • Marika Rose (University of Durham, Department of Theology and Religion)
  • Anton Schütz (Birkbeck College, School of Law)
  • Esther Leslie (Birkbeck College, Department of English and Humanities)
  • Stathis Gourgouris (Columbia University, Classics, English; Institute for Comparative Literature and Society)
  • Ilias Papagianopoulos (University of Piraeus, International and European Studies)
  • Marina Lathouri (Architectural Association, London, School of Architecture & University of Cambridge, School of Architecture)
  • Bo Isenberg (Lund University, Faculty of Sociology)

This workshop has invited papers by participants on a variety of approaches to the notion and experience of crisis. The aim of the workshop is to interrogate the notion of crisis across and against disciplinary approaches, with one eye set, inevitably, on the ‘contemporary’ situation, but with ever more attention to the intersections between crisis, knowledge, history and law in a wider sense.


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