Quilting Points is an interdisciplinary reading group that conducts a year-long examination of an influential thinker’s work. Since Quilting Points’ inception in 2011, the group has discussed the writings of Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, Samuel Beckett, and Stuart Hall, all with the intention of gaining a sophisticated understanding of the theories that continue to inform contemporary thought.
For Quilting Points’ 2016/17 series, co-directors Rachel Johnson and Dominic O’Key focused on the ongoing relevance of Hannah Arendt’s political theory. Critical Life spoke to Rachel and Dominic to find out more.
CL: What is Quilting Points, and what are quilting points?
RJ/ DOK: We are a reading group and seminar series interested in critical and cultural theory, and the relationship between theory and art, history, politics and life. Our main goal is to promote theoretical inquiry across academic disciplines. To accomplish this, we do two things: first, we read and discuss foundational theoretical texts; second, we host researchers whose own work actively applies theory to the world. Arthur Rose established the group in 2011 and each year a new pair of postgraduate researchers take the helm, bringing their own interests and experiences to bear on the group’s annual focus.
Our name derives from the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and a metaphor he appropriated from upholstery. Quilting Points (points de capiton, button fastenings) are points of suture where there is a knotting or holding together. Lacan uses the term interchangeably with ‘master signifier’ to describe that point in the signifying chain where the signifier becomes attached to the signified, producing a momentarily fixed meaning. For Lacan, this has implications for the functioning of both individual subjects and society as a whole. Quilting points are necessary for human subjects to function; without these points de capiton, we would misread every sign, and would therefore appear dysfunctional and psychotic within human society. Consequently, quilting points are also necessary for society itself to function: they provide a coherent meaning for a given social order and the signs that circulate within that order. We have drawn on this latter case for the name of the reading group: quilting points are the keys that allow us to interpret culture and society more widely.
‘Quilting points’ refers to quite a simple idea behind the group: having a conversation about a text or an idea produces its own quilting points. Conversations enable points of entry into difficult concepts.
This informs our relationship to critical theory in three ways. First, we aim to engage with works which provide us with the tools to understand social, cultural and political questions, with works that help us consider the quilting points at play in such discourses. (This is one of the reasons why we chose Hannah Arendt, whose writing attempted to theorise two of the master signifiers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, namely totalitarianism and the refugee). Second, we aim to foreground the quilting points in a thinker’s own discourse, using such points as ways into their theories. These provide a means by which the thinker’s ideas might be discussed, critiqued and evaluated. (In fact, Lacan applied precisely this procedure to Freud a propos the Oedipus complex). Finally, ‘quilting points’ refers to quite a simple idea behind the group: having a conversation about a text or an idea produces its own quilting points. Conversations enable points of entry into difficult concepts.
CL: Why did you choose Hannah Arendt?
RJ/DOK: There are many reasons why we wanted to focus on Arendt. One reason is that Arendt’s influence is incredibly wide. It stretches across political theory, modern history, philosophy, Jewish studies, and cultural studies; Arendt’s corpus continues to shape the way we think about the Holocaust; and her concept of the “banality of evil” has become common parlance. Another reason we chose Arendt is that she is relatively under-studied as a theorist. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is the fact that she passed away just as continental theory was beginning to influence English-speaking scholarship. Thus despite Arendt’s centrality to the work of Foucault, Derrida, Agamben, and Kristeva, and despite Arendt’s own writing on key thinkers within theory such as Heidegger, Marx, and Fanon, there is an extent to which Arendt remains under-discussed within critical theory circles. We wanted to put this right.
We believed that Arendt’s concepts would be variously used and misused by cultural commentators in their attempts to grasp contemporary political crises. We were proved right.
Most crucially, though, we chose Arendt because we both suspected that her ideas would become prominent again in the months following our planning of the seminars, in June 2016. Why did we suspect this? Because of the long fallout of the global financial crash, the demise of third-way technocratic electoralism, the attendant emergence of different global populisms, and the intensification of the so-called refugee crisis. We believed that Arendt’s concepts would be variously used and misused by cultural commentators in their attempts to grasp contemporary political crises. We were proved right. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, for example, a spate of articles and thinkpieces surfaced – mostly from US and UK media platforms – which saw critics refract Trump’s rise through Arendt’s vision of totalitarianism. In January of 2017, The Atlantic reported that The Origins of Totalitarianism rose to #3 on Amazon’s top 100 books.
CL: What were your individual highlights from working with Arendt?
DOK: Here are some of the things I am struck by in Arendt’s work: her critique of human rights is a persuasive rejoinder to normative humanitarianism; her clear-sighted analysis of the partition of Palestine foresees many of the major political conflicts that we now see in Gaza and the West Bank; her writing on imperialism in The Origins of Totalitarianism is sharp, but nevertheless her writings on civil rights and anti-colonial resistance are inadequate; the body is almost completely absent throughout her work. My highlights also include our three visiting speakers, who each delivered fascinating research on different aspects of Arendt’s work: Simon Swift (Geneva) guided us through Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, concentrating especially on how Arendt’s style led her to receive accusations of tactlessness; Patrick Hayden (St Andrews) gave a masterclass on Arendt’s concept of plurality in The Human Condition and The Origins of Totalitarianism; and Lyndsey Stonebridge (UEA) put Arendt into conversation with Anna Freud in order to explore the stakes, both positive and negative, of withdrawing from the public sphere (inner emigration).
Arendt’s critique of human rights is a persuasive rejoinder to normative humanitarianism
RJ: I would have to agree that the sessions led by our visiting speakers were particularly valuable this year. All three speakers not only clarified Arendt’s concepts, but introduced new quilting points and thus new perspectives on her texts. For example, the insights Lyndsey Stonebridge gave into psychoanalysis and Arendt’s work (which aren’t often paired) suggested a fruitful line of inquiry for future research. The moments in which our reading fortuitously coincided with actual political events were also highlights. Our discussion of ‘Lying in Politics’ happened to fall during the British elections, and provided us with useful ways of considering the various kinds of truths and untruths that circulate in political discourse
CL: Who will Quilting Points be focusing on next year?
We are excited to announce that Quilting Points 2017/18 will focus on Sara Ahmed, and will be led by Hayley Toth and Emma Parker. This is the first time the group has chosen the work of a living theorist. We hope this will encourage even livelier debates and perhaps a visit from the feminist killjoy herself!
More information on Quilting Points can be found on their website.