Northwestern collaborates with Global South in new critical theory initiative

Catherine Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

Using a $1.02 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Northwestern will collaborate with worldwide professionals to develop a curriculum on critical theory, a stream of philosophy that critiques the ways culture is formed and discussed.

German Prof. Peter Fenves, who is one of the collaborators in the project, said critical theory has normally been explored under a heavily Eurocentric focus in the past. The program plans to change that by working with professionals from the Global South, which includes Africa, Asia and Latin America, he said.

As part of the program, Spanish and Portuguese Prof. Jorge Coronado will offer a new graduate course on critical theory in Latin America, focusing on Andean countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

“(The project) is an intent to integrate Latin America and other departments that haven’t been sufficiently studied … into that area of study,” Coronado said.

The program will partner with the University of California, Berkeley to bring together faculty from the U.S., South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Mexico. By exchanging ideas, the faculty hope to create syllabi that encompasses a more global, well-rounded outlook on critical theory, Coronado said.

The program will initiate Spanish-to-English translations of texts that will be helpful in understanding a different perspective, Coronado said.

English Prof. Evan Mwangi will work with Stellenbosch University Prof. Tina Steiner, from South Africa, to teach a graduate course on Indian Ocean epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. The course will use materials in Xhosa, Kiswahili, French, English and other languages.

“I’m quite excited about the inclusion of philosophical and literary texts in non-Western languages, and the exposure of the collaborations of major critical theorists with less known figures from Africa and Latin America,” Mwangi said.

Mwangi said students will benefit from the program because it will open doors to new areas of comparative research and allow them to interact with students and professors from other universities in different parts of the world. He said students from partner institutions will be able to visit campus and benefit from NU’s resources, such as the Herskovits Library of African Studies.

Fenves said it is important to make critical theory more inclusive of ideas outside of Europe or North America, because critical theory has always had a “deep and intricate” connection with thought, literature, art and archaeology from the Global South.

“It’s perfectly fine to have a class about Marx or Adorno, but those thinkers themselves were always engaged with the Global South,” he said. “So let’s have that from the very beginning, and let’s have some more people, who have a more intimate understanding of what is meant by that term, help us develop those classes.”

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