My name is Nica Siegel. I am currently completing my dissertation, “A Political Theory of Exhaustion”, in the Department of Political Science at Yale University under the supervision of Seyla Benhabib, Karuna Mantena, and Paul North, which I will file in March 2021. My project addresses theories of political action and its frustrations through a study of the concept of “exhaustion,” engaging the history of political thought, democratic theory, and critical theory broadly conceived. To my research and pedagogy, I also bring expertise in political economy, theories of state violence, genealogies of liberalism, and legal theory, with a particular focus on South African jurisprudence.
An aphorism of graffiti in the recent Minnesota protests tells us, "another end of the world is possible!" Forty years after the “end of history,” confronted with specters of economic, political, environmental and racial crisis, exhaustion is once again central to the atmosphere of contemporary politics—but its politics remain elusive. Pushing against an encroaching sentiment of no-futurism, my research turns to the history of political thought to ask: what kind of a problem is exhaustion today and what can its ubiquity illuminate about the relation between critique and political action?
Engaging with the work of Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, and Herbert Marcuse, A Political Theory of Exhaustion offers the first full-length study of the concept of exhaustion in political science. In the manuscript, I offer an account of how the specter of exhaustion shapes our conceptions of crisis, transformation, and political time, arguing that exhaustion becomes a paradoxical site of imaginative political commitment and mobilization at the heart of the project of political theory. Both because of their heterodox commitments to phenomenology and political economy and their own political vulnerabilities, the thinkers of the dissertation situate these critical moments in their thinking always already within the question of experience and the possibility of survival. For each, exhaustion also emerges, intersectionally, as a threat to the material possibility of life, a site of dramatic material need, the acknowledgement of which shapes at the root a set of ideas about the relation between endurance, critique, judgment, and collective action that are still resonant, with political actors and students alike, today. Building on this, I close the project with literature from recent social movements, using a set of ideas about endurance and care to bolster from the root, rather than constrain, the possibility of transformation in exhausted times.
The book emerging from this manuscript will be suitable both for political theorists and a broader, interdisciplinary audience, building on existing publications including in Theoria; Law & Social Inquiry; and an edited volume in NYU Press’s Houston Institute Series on Race and Justice. I have also begun research for a second book project which expands on the insights of an experimental strand of democratic psychoanalysis to rethink the structure of collective attachments at work in democratic transformation and insitution-building.
My approach to political theory has also also been profoundly shaped by ongoing research in South Africa, which draws on research in both comparative politics and law from time working as a research fellow at the Legal Resources Centre in Cape Town. I have published articles and several parliamentary comments about customary land tenure and neoliberalism including in the South African Journal on Human Rights. I am currently completing an article titled “The Jurisprudence of Neglect” for publication. It uses archival evidence from Bantustan privatization efforts in the 60’s and 70’s to study the neglected role of neoliberalism as a tool for controlling political crisis under apartheid, an intervention in periodization with broader stakes for how we conceptualize the relation between neoliberalism and race in the contemporary state, and the ways in which revolt illuminates and challenges these juridical configurations. In this, I deepen my interests and expertise in law, democratic transitions, decolonial and comparative perspectives on custom and indigeneity, the politics and subject-formations of racial capitalism, neoliberalism, and biopolitics.
Teaching is central to my understanding of political theory and my own vision of my career, especially in a time of dramatic social change. I often recall Hannah Arendt’s evocative comment, which I first encountered as a student at a liberal arts college, that, “philosophic thought can never cancel the fact that Reality cannot be resolved into the thinkable; its job is rather to aggravate this unthinkability,” so that it can be brought to bear on an opaque present. In this, at Yale I have taught in the history of political thought, including in two large introductory courses and seminars about the politics of migration, and theories of non-violence. I can also offer courses and supervise work in ancient and modern democratic theory, genealogies of liberalism, critical theory, theories of political action, and continental and (de)colonial legal theory. I was recently awarded a grant to produce and co-teach “The Death Sentence”, a Spring 2020 Yale seminar in contemporary theories of life, death, and power that builds on work previously published in Law & Society.
I have also honed my commitments to inclusion and diversity as a co-chair and committed participant in Yale’s Women in Theory Writing Colloquium. This work, focused on rigorous mutual support in the writing process, but also frank discussions of power in the academy, has prepared me to undertake both mentorship and collaboration in research. In broader service activities, including coordinating the Yale Political Theory Workshop and organizing to build community between Yale and New Haven, I am committed to creating challenging, supportive, diverse intellectual spaces.