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Theorizing (with) the legacy of Cold War internationalism

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Organizer: James Robertson

Co-Organizer: Marla Zubel

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The last decade has witnessed an explosion of scholarship on the politics and aesthetics of socialist and anti-colonial internationalisms during the Cold War. In conferences, research clusters, special issues, edited volumes, and monographs we have mapped the international networks that facilitated these global movements from the era of decolonization through the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have combed newly declassified archives to recover the lost histories of socialist “friendship” and anti-imperialist solidarity that animated cultural production in both the former Eastern Bloc and the Third World.

Many of the insights of this scholarship have been achieved precisely by scholars moving away from and complicating previously dominant traditions of critical theory, prompting a re-evaluation of the discourses offered by postcolonial studies, poststructuralism, and postsocialist studies. Excavating the rich history of cultural ties between the Second and Third worlds, for instance, has demonstrated the paucity of postcolonial frameworks in accounting for the proliferation of affiliations and cooperation across East-West boundaries. Whatever its historical failings, the project of international socialism inspired an alternative universalism that sought to incorporate the diverse experiences of global modernity and weave them into a broader vision of emancipation. Taking this vision seriously has invited reconsiderations of poststructuralist critiques of “otherness,” the nation state, and “grand narratives.”

While research on socialist internationalism has opened new horizons of understanding by complicating previously dominant theoretical paradigms, less attention has been given to the possibilities it might offer for theory-building. This seminar aims to take stock of this rich scholarship and to reflect on its dialogue with multiple traditions of critical theory. 

We want to ask what the implications of this research might be for major bodies of theory, from postcolonialism or critical race theory to world systems theory and Marxism. What complications or challenges does it present to these traditions? Can this scholarship be integrated and used to enrich, extend or make more nuanced some of their epistemological frameworks? Or does this scholarship confirm the value of the empirical and archival over the theoretical and speculative? What might deeper engagement with these theoretical traditions bring to the study of the political and cultural contours of internationalism in the twentieth century? Finally, how might recent research on socialist and anti-colonial internationalisms complicate our understanding of political and aesthetic ruptures and continuities between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

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