Bernard Harcourt on critical praxis and abolition.
Bernard Harcourt | The Blue and White | March 2, 2021
When I spoke with Bernard Harcourt in mid-December, the Trump administration had just executed Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois the previous week—two out of the thirteen citizens that the administration would rush to execute in its final year. Harcourt, who has spent his legal career representing death-row inmates—formerly with Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, and now pro-bono—seemed perfectly suited for the political moment.
Then again, it feels as if there has been not one point in the last decade in which some facet of Professor Harcourt’s work—as a litigator, educator, critical theorist, activist, scholar—did not strike at the heart of American political life. In addition to his death penalty work, Harcourt has challenged Trump’s Muslim ban, advocated for Standing Rock protestors, defended student protestors at Columbia and other universities. He has written extensively on surveillance, counter-insurgency tactics and statistical profiling in policing, the free market, and much more. At Columbia, where he is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and a professor of Political Science, Harcourt directs both the Holder Initiative and the Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, where he moderates his academic magnum opus, the 13/13 seminar series. For 13 weeks each school year, Harcourt hosts scholar-stars to publicly think through themes like Uprising, Nietzsche, or Foucault—this year’s topic is Abolition Democracy. Indeed, an exhaustive account of Harcourt’s writings, institutional affiliations, and accomplishments could fill a seminar syllabus in itself.
Harcourt’s latest book, Critique and Praxis, is at once a compendium of critical theory and a call to action, attempting to reinsert an activist urgency into critical philosophy, and encouraging its readers to ask, “What more am I to do?” One might interpret Harcourt’s entire career along these lines—not as a set of individual projects, but as an assault on the foundations of our punitive society. However and wherever that punitive structure manifests —in academia, journalism, economics, policing, the legal system—Harcourt follows.