Summer 2011 Course: Introduction to Literary Theory

I hate the traditional theory course. I plan to introduce students to my course this summer with a smattering of theory syllabi I have found online, most of which teach the same texts in the same order and seem to understand theory as a meta-discourse: that which operates as an instrument through whose mechanisms we might reveal the real meaning of literature. This tool, which looks like a greatest hits list offered each Fourth of July by your local classic rock channel (with the ok of Clear Channels): the only question is whether “Let it Be,” “Stairway to Heaven,” or “Satisfaction” will be number one (or in this case, whether you will get Barthes or Foucault or both on the question of authorship). You know they’ll be there in some permutation, in some order, but they will be there. Because nothing recent is worth anything and theory, apparently, was something that we did in the 60s and 70s and no only read about. For a discourse that helped dispel the notion of canonicity, it sure does have a, well. . . oh I won’t say it.

What I hate even more about the intro to theory class is the a la carte or cafeteria-style approach it seems to take.

“How would you like to approach the text today sir?”

“How’s the Marxism?”

“A trifle dry sir. Perhaps the reader response?”

“I did that yesterday. I will try the second wave feminism.”

“Excellent. That comes with a side of postcolonical studies.”

“Fine, but could I have that only lightly historicized?”

“Of course sir.”

We throw all of these ideas at students without any historical context, without any explanation of how they fit together, and with an implicit claim that it’s all more or less the same, you just have to choose. And then what do we get? Endless deconstructions or psychoanalysis of characters. Some of that is to be expected, of course, as people new to theory are going to have to try things out. But in the context of the traditional theory class it seems that “trying things out” is preliminary to “getting it right.” I don’t believe in getting things right. I believe in experimenting. I also believe that it’s better to know one thing well than numerous things poorly. So, in this class, we will be dealing with only a few theoretical models in the hopes that we will understand them well in order to take off from them, to experiment with them. Of course, there is some tension here. We are dealing with a lot of Deleuze and this constraint will limit experimentation no doubt. I can live with that, however. By beginning with Cusset’s French Theory I hope we 1) will gain a sense of a broad range of theory and 2) will gain some historical understanding of theory as a developing thing rather than a static one. This latter issue will, hopefully, allow me to impress on the class that we can only ever start in one place and that we cannot hope in a single class to learn everything anyway. As such, we are admitting failure to begin with in order to pick our battles more wisely. (And what is with all of the violent metaphors? I don’t know).

I hope that this class will be more of a laboratory, where we can develop ideas rather than parroting old ones. The focus on Deleuze will, I hope, allow for that.

So, here is the course description I gave the department, although it has changed a bit. I am not dealing with Lacan, Derrida, and Poe. Mostly, I just don’t care for Lacan. More importantly, and perhaps related: I don’t know that I could adequately teach this conversation. So, in stead we are starting with Cusset (most of it) for the reasons mentioned. Following that we will deal with several Deleuzean readings of literature beginning with Whitman. Then we will read Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, along with “The Burrow,” the Metamorphosis, and then In the Penal Colony. This last text will give us an opportunity to look at Liz Grosz’s Nietzschean reading of Kafka in Volatile Bodies and compare what she does with what Judith Butler does, albeit with far less Kafka, in Gender Trouble. Then we deal with everyone’s favorite cypher, Bartleby, and readings by Deleuze, Agamben, and Cornelia Vismann, whose Files: Law and Media Technology I am currently enjoying very much. We move then into the endgame with Barthes’ Mythologies and Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play. . .” (my only real nod to theory’s greatest hits). The idea in this last section of the course is to ask students to do, first, a mythology–to write a short essay on a cultural phenomenon that we can understand in Barthes’ structuralist terms–and then to deconstruct that mythology along the lines that Derrida suggests. We then conclude with the Habermas/Lyotard debate (which serves its purpose regardless of whether it really happened) and a statement by Michael Bérubé from the edited volume What’s Left of Theory?

Course Description
ENGL 2010: Introduction to Literary Theory
Summer B Term
Benjamin J Robertson

Three questions:

  • What is theory?
  • Why do we do theory?
  • How do we do theory?

This class will probably fail to answer these questions not because they are unanswerable, but because we don’t always acknowledge what they are asking. For example, when we ask “What is theory?” we might think we are asking about a definite thing that forms, before we ever encounter it, a widely agreed upon discipline or set of methodologies. And we might be asking exactly that and therefore answer something like, “Theory is a tool that provides a means by which to understand literature.” But what if that question means something else? What if that question, instead of being an inquiry in pursuit of knowledge, in fact presupposes that knowledge? That is, what if when we ask the question we already know the answer, namely, that there is a thing called theory that we might know? If we already know that, that there is theory and it can be understood in terms of its qualities x, y, and z, then the other questions fall into line. Why do we do theory? We do theory so we have a way to understand literature. How do we do theory? We do theory according to the methods provided by the texts that we already know to be theoretical.

This class takes a different approach to this issue. We will pursue two lines of inquiry. First, we will consider where our understanding of “theory” comes from and how this understanding has produced certain reading strategies and, in a very real sense, the contemporary discipline of English in the United States. Second, we will engage in an experimental practice of theory in order to understand how our use of theoretical texts, in combination with literary texts, produce new ideas and knowledges. For example, we will read Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener” with Gilles Deleuze’s “Bartley; or, The Formula” and Giorgio Agamben’s “Bartleby, or On Contingency” in order to understand how different starting assumptions about language and the literary text produce different readings of particular texts. We will similarly engage with clusters such as Poe/Lacan/Derrida and Kafka/Deleuze/Grosz/Butler. We will conclude the term with Roland Barthes’ Mythologies in order to think about how “literary theory” can provide for a means to think beyond the literary.

Potential partial reading list

  • Agamben: “Bartleby, or On Contingency”
  • Barthes: Mythologies
  • Butler: from Gender Trouble
  • Conley: “I and My Deleuze”
  • Cusset: French Theory
  • Deleuze: “Bartelby; or, The Formula”
  • Deleuze & Guattari: Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature
  • Derrida: “The Purveyor of Truth”
  • Grosz: from Volatile Bodies
  • Kafka: “In the Penal Colony” and “The Burrow”
  • Lacan: seminar on “The Purloined Letter”
  • Melville: “Bartelby, The Scrivener”
  • Poe: “The Purloined Letter”

Here is the schedule. I have not yet created a text list, although they should be easy enough to track down from the schedule.


One Response to “Summer 2011 Course: Introduction to Literary Theory”

  1. […] ENGL 2112: Introduction to Literary Theory. You can find the description of my previous stab at it here along with some course documents. This time things will be a bit different, as I am eschewing the […]

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