GRADUATE STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Jessica Ruffin

Jessica Ruffin is a PhD candidate in Film & Media, with Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory. She holds an MA in German Literature and Culture from UC Berkeley (2018) as well as an MA in Humanities from University of Chicago (2008). Her interdisciplinary research brings together aesthetic philosophy, media theory, spectatorial theory, and media archaeology towards inquiry into ethical relation and aesthetic experience. Jessica received the Critical Theory Dissertation Fellowship in 2020 for her project, A World Divided: Schopenhauer, Aesthetics, and Cinematic Experience, which draws upon the aesthetics and ethics of Arthur Schopenhauer in order to reframe and reimagine 20th-century German media and cultural theory in light of ethics, feminist, and critical race theories. Working from this intersectional and historical standpoint—which she terms “amphibious”—A World Divided proposes an ethics of emergence in order to contend with the highly-politicized, contemporary media milieux In Fall 2021, Jessica will join the University of Michigan Society of Fellows for a 2-year appointment. Following that, she will begin as Assistant Professor in the Literature Faculty at MIT.

Critical Theory: How did you arrive at the topic of your dissertation, ”A World Divided: Schopenhauer, Aesthetics, and Cinematic Experience”?

Jessica: My interest has always been to incorporate German aesthetic philosophy into film and media theory. From my undergraduate and my masters’ education, it was clear that German aesthetics spoke to film theory and spectatorial theory in a way that hadn’t been explored; before coming to Berkeley, I hadn’t encountered people who were open to that consideration. At Berkeley, I was drawn towards German studies because the faculty’s engagement with philosophy was more than just a field of study. I could see that their study of philosophy shaped a mode of relation to texts, but also to the world, history, and material. I also knew that Critical Theory was important for both German studies and film studies—Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin are foundational texts within film studies. Benjamin’s “Artwork Essay” and Adorno and Horkheimer on the Culture Industry are required reading for canonical film and media, and that was really where I started and why I pursued the Critical Theory DE. I wanted to answer the question of how the longer history of German aesthetics had influenced the dominant conceptions of cinematic experience. This question led me to take the Critical Theory elective “The Ethics of Abstraction” (offered by Julia Bryan-Wilson and Anneka Lenssen). I vividly remember the first class: they asked everyone to say why they were interested in the course, and each student (including me) spoke to abstraction but not to ethics. Julia pointed this out, and through that course, I realized that my project had to change from the association of aesthetics and politics to one of aesthetics and ethics. Through that re-orientation, Schopenhauer’s influence on early German media and cultural theory became central to my work.

Critical Theory: Taking that a step further, what is the significance of your work, and what will it mean to the Critical Theory audience?

Jessica: You ask about aim, or where I want my intervention to take place. If we talk about ethics, it’s about a mode of relation, and that mode of relation is also about how academic work is conducted and the mode in which we relate as scholars and educators. Some scholars of Critical Theory approach the subject without recognizing how to ethically relate to a text. Working with Critical Theory isn’t necessarily about understanding and taking and transporting meaning, it’s about listening to and being receptive to what the text is doing, therefore, not just studying Critical Theory but becoming a Critical Theorist. If you become a Critical Theorist, you must have an ethical and not just a political relationship to texts and media at large.

Critical Theory: You have master’s degrees in Humanities and in German Literature and Cultures, and your PhD will be in Film and Media. How has your multidisciplinary education contributed to your experience in the Program?

Jessica: When I started college at Stanford, I was planning to major in psychology. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help being so, so excited about all the possibilities. It became a ritual for me to read through the entire coursebook each semester, and see what classes called to me. Even though I was a psychology major, I took introduction to film, moral philosophy, a class on invasive species taught by an ant biologist [Deborah Gordan], and also courses in German aesthetics. It was very powerful to find relations in all these different fields. I started to see formal relations, for example, between the action potential in neuroscience and Marx’s description of political history. You ask what a multidisciplinary approach offers—I say it allows you to see the enaction of methods, modes, and forms across fields. These are the sort of formal relations that you’re able to see when you’re working, as Christina Sharpe would say, “to become undisciplined” and allowing yourself to move through thought and feeling. The Program in Critical Theory’s wide array of electives and affiliated faculty across departments supported this further exploration while producing a collective community trained in recognizing and carrying forward such undisciplinedpractice.

Critical Theory: Undisciplined. That’s a great word!

Jessica: Yeah, it’s fantastic. Sharpe proposes the necessity of becoming undisciplined in the context of Black American scholars attempting to situate themselves within academic institutions that either leave them out of consideration or relegate them to specialized fields. The question is how to resist self-erasure and marginalization within institutional frameworks structured around your absence. While I had struggled with this question for a long time, her proposal to become undisciplined in the wake of American chattel slavery has been a real inspiration of late.

Critical Theory: How has the current political situation affected you and your work?

Jessica: I was inspired to think about ethics rather than politics by taking an art history course on abstraction and ethics—the class I mentioned earlier. Over the course of my study during the Trump-era, I came to recognize that the present media environment does not align with the many readings of media through Critical Theory based on the culture industry, inherited from the reception of Critical Theory in the 1960s and 70s. All this is about mass manipulation, right? How mass media affects our way of thinking and the necessity to break out of whatever manipulation is taking place. And isn’t that the dream of critique–or ideology critique–to remove the blindfold or take the wax from the ears of the masses?

As I learned more about Alexander Nix, psychographics, and targeted ads, it became increasingly clear that manipulative algorithms produce an idealism in which materialism is bound to fail. We need to engage ethics rather than politics because everyone has their own political ideology. You can’t only say, “Racism, anti-Semitism, gender discrimination, heteronormativity are bad” in order to create change. Going deeper than ideology, the questions become how we relate to each other, how we carry out dialogue, how we are receptive. I think this is the original dream for most religions, philosophies and theories, but that aspiration can easily become reified and static. And the intention becomes believe my static ideology rather than how do we destabilize words and connect?

Critical Theory: I’m hearing that you think ethics are the constant that we share to help us re-balance growingly extreme politics and ideologies. Is that what you mean when you talk about ethics?

Jessica: I love how you phrased that. I think that ethics is the ground. When I use the words ethics and aesthetics, I’m referring to their original meaning. Aesthetics is embodied knowledge; it’s what you feel and what you’re open to feeling. Ethics is the manner of being in the world, and aesthetics is how you relate to the world. Therefore, aesthetics and ethics are inseparable. If we think about the purpose of scholarly activity as improving human society, or the environment as a whole, then that would be the ground where we should focus our activity, rather than producing the perfect political ideology or the perfect concept.

Critical Theory: So, the purpose of scholarly activity would be to improve society rather than come up with the perfect ideology or concept?

Jessica: I think so. I’m not a scholar of Derrida (Jacques Derrida). But I think about the function of “différance,” a concept he was specifically trying to create that was itself destabilized. It didn’t have a clear, single meaning. It’s a word that has been so easily taken up by the institution and used. It’s unsettling how much time has been spent seeking to understand this word, when the intended function was to break up language, to get somewhere deeper than words.

Critical Theory: Let’s consider the phrase “scholarly activity.” To me, it suggests a very fluid, open experience. It’s changing; its alive. In contrast, “developing a perfect ideology or concept” feels staid and plodding. One is vibrant, and the other feels frustrated and isolated. 

Jessica: Oh, thank you for that. I think a lot about a common word in Critical Theory, “reification.” I think of reification as becoming concrete, static, frozen. Reification is the enemy of Critical Theory. I would also say that Schopenhauer’s general absence in the interpretation of Critical Theory has contributed to an overemphasis on concept. Hegel suggests that aesthetics has a purpose, but he still insists that philosophy and the ultimate concept is the aim. If you only read Critical Theory through a Hegelian lens, there’s still a belief that through constant destabilization we might eventually reach perfection, the perfect concept.  As opposed to–as you described beautifully–a vibrant mode of being that is not necessarily aiming towards a static goal. And so, I am interested in, as you say, “activity,” a certain fluidity. But also, as a queer Black woman I do have material investments. I want there to be more equity, more just treatment of life in the world. After many years of material oppression, though, I still believe that justice can only come through a certain form of relation rather than pushing for one mode of belief.

Critical Theory: Finally, what are your  future research and career plans?

Jessica: Good question! The world is crazy right now. It feels very hard to think about the future in a positive way. I can at least share that I will be joining the Michigan Society of Fellows as Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor of Film, Television, and Media at University of Michigan Ann Arbor this coming fall. In the spirit of interdisciplinarity, my course offerings will also likely be affiliated with Michigan’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. In 2023, I will begin begin an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Literature Faculty at MIT.

While at University of Michigan, in addition to teaching, I will be revising my current project, A World Divided for publication. This project is specifically about reframing Critical Theory and psychoanalysis, which are foundational for film studies, in terms of ethics. At the same time, what has been happening in the US and globally, specifically racial tensions and rising nationalism, has been increasingly unavoidable. The many global crises pushed me to recognize how my focus and thinking about ethics had, as I mentioned earlier, become disciplined, very much winnowed and not engaged with critical race theory or my own identity as a Black queer woman. So, although the book projects stays within the canonical framework–mostly white male–that I was educated in, the final chapter engages with post-World War II ethics in light of black studies, critical race studies and feminist theory. What happensat that historical moment, when these white male-dominated fields (Critical Theory and psychoanalysis) experience the vulnerability usually reserved for the oppressed? Or experience the destabilization that existed for women and people of color previously? I’m not leaving the canon behind, but I will be investigating how to speak through it with the necessary revision and reimagining. It is turning critique back upon itself by pointing out the errors and omissions that allowed me to erase myself from my own work.

Building on this movement in the book, one of my next projects, “The Will to Breathe,” starts with a powerful example produced by Schopenhauer. He proposes that it is possible to hold one’s breath until death, that the human rational will has the capacity to overcome instinctual will if it is given a strong enough motive. His key examples are Diogenes the Cynic’s purported suicide and captured Africans on slave ships holding their breath, voluntarily until death, in order to escape enslavement. The potential to hold breath, to refuse to breathe, rather than the dominant representation of Black people being denied breath is the starting point. I’m incorporating this image with critical race theory, Black studies, as well as media studies, looking through examples of Black breath and the absence of Blackness within canonical media, and film study specifically. Part of the excitement about the project is, of course, the present proliferation of many images of Black death. With the image of the refusal to breathe, the question becomes, what is resistance? What does resistance look and feel like for a Black subject? But also, how is it possible to imagine a Black subject in a context of modernity where the story of a Black subject is not generally told?

Critical Theory: Many of us think about that statement, “I can’t breathe.” It sounds like it’s going to be a great project. We need to wrap up, but I love the word undisciplined. I’m going to take that word and run with it!

Jessica: Oh, yeah. It’s from Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. I recommend it. I think undisciplined is good and maybe can change the conversation from the idea of interdisciplinary… which still holds onto the stasis a little bit, you know?