Summer 14 course materials: Introduction to Literary Theory

This summer, during the June  ‘A’ Term, I will be teaching (for the second time ever), 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 “know a few things well” approach that I tried to employ last time even if I am trying not to teach according either to the “canonical theory” or “theory cafeteria” models which seem to prevail in many such courses.

Download the schedule (ENGL_2112_Schedule_2), the syllabus(ENGL_2112_Syllabus), and the daily worksheet assignment (Daily_worksheet_assignment) if you like. Looking them over as you read will be helpful.

So, in what follows I want to explain and perhaps rationalize the schedule and shape of the course. Note that in the last version of the course we read books of theory, D+G’s Kafka book, for example. Here we are using the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Thoery and Criticism as our only text for two reasons. First, cost/efficiency. It’s a spendy book, yes, but it has resale value to students and could be less than five or six university press titles we won’t even be able to finish. Plus, everyone knows where the readings are and what to bring to class every day. The second reason is that by limiting myself to the Norton, just as with limiting myself to post-1980 theory, I am adding a helpful constraint. I don’t have to think about everything. I don’t think of this as being derelict in my duty as I would have to leave things out no matter what, whether I am drawing from ALL of theory or just from the selections in the anthology. I guess I could add another reason, namely that dealing with an anthology offers us a chance to think about the politics of anthologies, a major point of contention in the culture wars of the 1980s. In any case, I know there are drawbacks to the “antho-logical” approach (not the least of which is the appearance of “cafeteria”style theory), but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in this experiment in course design. (I think. I hope.)

More below the fold.

The starting point for this course, which was implied in the last course through readings from Cusset’s French Theory (the teaching of which did not go as well as I had hoped, BTW), is the fact of theory. That is, we are taking for our starting point a moment when theory was, for better or worse, institutionalized in English and other modern language departments (not mention in other humanities and arts departments) in the United States. The theoretical arguments and arguments about the place, role, usefulness, morality, future, past, etc. of theory that we will discuss come after and follow from the “arrival” of theory “announced” at the famous Johns Hopkins conference by Derrida in 1967. Theory seems to be well-established in the US by 1980, so the class more or less begins there.

Two texts indicate this year (1980) as rough watershed moment. First, Knapp and Michaels’ Against Theory (1982) gave voice to the “other side” that inevitably develops in backlash to new developments in any field. (I don’t mean to imply that this backlash is wrong or misguided, but simply extant.). We are not reading this text because I ran out of space (it was the “last bubble text out”, to use the language of the NCAA tournament–if only I could expand the field to include a “play in” game!). Second, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) offered a concise guide, by a major theorist no less, that offered a means by which students and other neophytes could gain a foothold in what had already become part of the humanistic and academic conversations of the day. So we start here, at the point when theory was well-enough established to warrant an introductory text. The selection from Eagleton,”The Rise of English,” offers not only a way into theory, but also some historicization of the study of the English,a thread that I hope to develop in the course of the course to help students understand their relation to the discipline.

Eagleton begins a week (the first of the course) spent on the question of “The study of English after theory”. The first day of class will be spent on a couple of question, which I am still developing. The first will be about the title of the Haraway essay “Gender for a Marxist Dictionary.” My sense has always been that understanding what is at stake in this title, the manner in which it suggests an entire set of arguments and histories, confluences and contradictions, would go a long way towards developing a mind capable of reading theory at a high level. After that, Eagleton, followed by Richard Ohmann’s “The Shaping of a Canon: American Fiction, 1960 – 1975” which introduces the idea of a canon and the struggles that go into canon formation. Again, a text that hopefully helps students not understand a major debate in theory, but also the manner in which contemporary curricula came to be as they are. Concluding this series of texts is Gerald Graff on “coverage,” which further adds to the discussion about what we read and why we read it and, again hopefully, to students’ knowledge about the relationship between theory and their educations. The week does not end here, but concludes with a selection from Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which helps students to understand the outcome to the debates we discussed earlier in the week, namely with regard to the way we think about literary history.

Here I am making use of the Norton‘s alternative tables of contents here, in this case the group that organizes readings according to issue or topic, here “Literary History.” Each of the first four weeks (the first dealing with a theme for the course, the following three with schools of thought or movements), ends with an issue or topic that relates to but does not perfectly dovetail with the rest of the week. We revisit each of these topics in the last week of class, which offers the most recent texts in the course on these topics. More on these issues in a moment.

For now, note that Said (who, of course, in the 70s was one of the people who got the conversation going about canon formation and the like–but this is post-1980, again), fits with the discussion for the week on the rise of English, the role of theory in English departments in several respects, and questions of canon–but not perfectly.

The second week of the course deals Marxism, and concludes the heavily masculinist bent of the early part of the course. Political theory (and political literature) has, classically, three great themes: class, gender, and race. More recently, LGBT issues have become as important to the study of literature and culture as these three older ones. Disability studies might now constitute a fifth issue in this context. There is not enough time in the course to again deal with everything, so I am focusing on the three “classics” (yes, problematic term), with some queer studies coming in through readings in feminism and through the topic of “the body.” So, the first of these three themes comes into the course through readings in Marxism, mostly by men. We are, again, avoiding all of the classic texts. No Althusser (boo!), or Adorno, or Gramsci, or even Marx. All would be useful, but you have to draw the line somewhere. There is no room for all of them. So we get Jameson twice (the only theorist so “honored”), followed by an excerpt from Derrida’s Specters of Marx (Derrida is the only “canonical” theorist on the schedule, except for maybe Haraway, but this is a rather non-canonical text). Derrida is, of course, looking back over Marxism and, again, offers a point of view that comes after theory. We then read some Spivak (who was originally under feminism), for a non-white, non-male Marxist POV. We conclude the week with Paul Gilroy who not only continues a discussion on postcoloinialism from Spivak, but introduces the topic of Globalization. Marxism does not start or end that topic (and Gilroy is no Marxist), but Marxism fits well with the topic. Again, the idea here is to find a school/movement and a topic through a text that does not fit with the school. Gilroy also offers a point of transition to a discussion of race and ethnicity (as well as a continuation of the theme of the “modern” which runs throughout the course).

I won’t belabor the rest of the schedule too much, but note that after the second week we are reading fewer men and more critics of color. In fact, I am happy that in the last three weeks of the course we are reading far more women than men. There are twelve readings from men on the schedule, and 11 from women, although Jameson does appear twice–I would like an imbalance towards women, but I am in part constrained by Norton, in part by the topics/schools I am covering, and in part by what I think I can effectively teach.

In any case, week three introduces race/ethnicity via Paula Gunn Allen. We then move on to Henry Louis Gates, Barbara Christian,and bell hooks (whose “Postmodern Blackness” returns us to debates about theory by question its value to African-Americans). We conclude this week with the topic of subjectivity/identity with Slavoj Žižek. Of course he is not a theorist of race or ethnicity, but he does offer an important account of subjectivity (as well as a rare dalliance with psychoanalysis here),the consideration of which (in rather different form) is important the study of race and ethnicity.

Week four introduces feminism through Haraway (who is also a Marxist, hence some transition from Žižek). We then deal with Sedgwick, Butler, and Bordo. The topic for the week is “the body” as discussed by Hayles. Hayles is not a feminist in the sense that she does not deal primarily with feminist theory in How We Became Posthuman, but the body as a topic develops post-1980 very much in relation to feminist thought (by Butler, Grosz, and others). Hayles also connects us back to the beginning of the week through the relation between her thought and that of Haraway with regards to technology and post-war culture. She also brings us back to Jameson a bit (the postmodernism essay anyway), albeit from a very different perspective. Finally, along with Haraway, Hayles offers a lens on a future of theory, namely a focus on media and technology important not only to thinkers such as Flusser and Stiegler (who are increasingly prominent in the US), but also in relation to digital humanities).

The final week of class offers texts that are at the forefront of recent thought on our topics from the end of each week. Moretti helps us rethink literary history (and offers further connections with media studies and DH). Hardt and Negri help us think about globalization (in a Marxist framework, somewhat contra Gilroy). Lowe offers further thoughts on race and ethnicity (not to mention gender, not to mention from aa Marxist perspective). Finally, Halberstam develops a thin thread of queer studies and brings back the body in a context more explicitly about sex and gender than the one Hayles introduces.

I am sure this is not a perfect schedule, but I think it will work. I hope that it helps us understand that theory is still developing and that there are historical periods to theory. I wish we were doing some historicist theory. Foucault is my bread and butter. However there is not enough room for everything and I am glad to avoid the temptation to theorize the syllabus via Foucault or White too much. I think a relatively untheorized sense of history, one that lets us situate the syllabus as a response to and development of theory in explicitly institutional, academic contexts will be enough here.

The other two documents are relatively straightforward. The syllabus is a description of course policies and assignments. The daily worksheet assignment is designed to help students think about the texts as they read and before class.

Please make use of these documents in any way you see fit. I welcome comments and criticisms.


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