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Critical Theory Reading Group

  • Flitch Coffee 641 Tillery Street Austin, TX 78702 USA (map)

This week's reading:
Carried Meaning in the Mahābhārata by Dan Rudmann

Recommended sections:
On Translation, pages 35 to 43
The Dharma King, pages 170 to 190
How Far Is Far, pages 191 to 198

The Critical Theory Reading Group will stage a mock defense of Dan Rudmann's dissertation just ahead of the actual defense at The University of Texas at Austin. This will include a 15 minute presentation on the project followed by questions and discussion. We have isolated specific sections above to provide an understanding of the dissertation, though any section is certainly recommended reading.


The Mahābhārata describes itself as both a comprehensive and exhaustive text, incorporating a range of genres while presenting diverse perspectives through a matrix of interacting narratives. Its frame story and subtales are the subject of productive contemporary studies that underscore the significance of the Sanskrit epic, though this scholarship is also famously criticized for overlooking literary inquiry. The following dissertation enacts a close reading of four subtales, Nala’s Tale, Rāma’s Tale, Sāvitrī’s Tale, and The Yakṣa’s Questions, in context with the larger work to uncover the implications of a literary study of the Mahābhārata. By conducting translations of passages from the epic, this dissertation builds sites of alliance among frame and subtale, literary and translation theory, critical analysis and contemporary scholarship, as well as the Mahābhārata and other works of literature in order to consider the ways in which meaning is generated throughout the text. Language, constituent parts, and operative principles are found to reverberate in the epic, eschewing didacticism and stasis for literary vitality. Themes of loss, love, disguise, and discovery veer throughout the subtales as sideshadows that at once collaborate and contradict to continuously redefine one another. The Mahābhārata’s self-conscious and reiterative reinterpretation of its own constructs presents critical insights on translation as dialogical correspondence, occurring within utterances as well as between languages. The act of translation, utilized by the poem itself to develop and proliferate significance, reveals difference and bears the legibility within the epic. 


Critical theory is a way of working, thinking, reading, and knowing at the intersection of more traditional education disciplines stemming largely from the humanities and social sciences.  Drawing on its history anchored in literary and philosophical practices, critical theory functions today as a means of applying social, political, and cultural knowledge in order to reflectively examine, assess, and critique current circumstances of society and culture. 

While not a rigid discipline in the traditional sense, critical theory is a structured form of constant engagement with the world around us. Critical theory involves the direct participation of the ideas, thoughts, products, and mechanisms of others. Contrary to what its name suggests, critical theory is not merely a  deconstructive mechanism for applying a critique or criticism to a static thing or object, rather it is a fluid and dynamic way of examining, understanding, and interrogating the structures and modes of existence. While Critical Theory has no end unto itself and can therefore not be said to be pursuing a particular agenda or predetermined political outcome, the practice of critical theory itself is an overtly political action insofar is it involves the co-disciplinaryco-operative, and co-mmunicative engagement of multiple bodies. 

As its primary mode of operation, critical theory seeks to understand its object of interest through close intimate engagement and critical attentions (see Fawaz How to Read and Watch). As our primary mechanism for engagement we will undertake weekly examinations of what Fawaz calls works of culture which can range in their form from literary texts (theory, manifestos, fiction, poetry, new articles, &c..) to film and photodocuments, to art objects (plastic and performance based). Depending on the direction and desires of the cohort the weekly selection of the works of culturemight center around a central or over-arching theme or we may choose to re-examine a same or similar object from a series of differing vantage points or applied disciplines. In all instances the readings and/or viewings along with all supplemental and supporting materials will be announced and made available on the Friday preceding the Wednesday morning meeting time. As we expand and grow we look forward to providing a space where, more and more, the particular insights and interests of the cohort help to determine the selection of future materials. If at some future point, due to growing interest or fluctuating schedules, it becomes necessary for the reading group to alter or expand their meeting days/times/frequency we will, of course, be fluid and flexible in terms of accommodating the desires and needs of the group. While a bit more relaxed and free-form in it's expression, the group will follow a socratic seminar structure and each session will have a clear and pre-determined flâneur, however this person should change from week to week as the center and focus of the work shifts.

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Earlier Event: November 4
Critical Theory Reading Group
Later Event: November 12
Save the Waves Film Festival