September 3, 2010

canons, texts and contexts

My first full week in Edmonton ends with uneasy anticipation of the next: the beginning of classes. There have been plenty of distractions. As usual, my apartment continues to evolve with occasional additions from the alley, and last night I watched the brilliant but uneven Harry Brown, which stars Michael Caine as a recent widower (and former marine) whose burnout London housing estate is becoming overrun with violence and drug-trafficking. A familiar story (very similar to that of Gran Torino) but told in the most uncomfortable, effective way. The direction achieves the level of estrangement necessary to make Harry Brown feel important and timely without resorting to race, poverty or any of the other usual outlets for easy moralizing (unsurprisingly, the only thing American film critics could appreciate about this film was Michael Caine's performance).

I've appreciated having some time to settle in to my new place, but it's hard to contain my excitement for the coming week. Here's what I'm up against:

Milton and Print Culture
John Milton – canonized poet of the high literary tradition invented in the centuries after the seventeenth – came out fighting in the pamphlet wars of the 1640s. In works like Areopagitica, Milton self-consciously located his own writing and publication within the fervid print culture of civil war London. In other words, while Milton’s literary friends and allies certainly included the likes of Virgil and Dante, his nearer neighbours in print (especially in the 1640s) included petitioning apprentices and a host of writers of cheap pamphlets.

Derrida Engaged
Derrida’s later career is often described as an emphatic turn away from idealism and abstraction and towards issues of more immediate worldly concern. However, Derrida himself questions this characterization, and one point of this seminar will be to investigate ways in which this “engaged” Derrida has always been at work—even in those less overtly politicized moments of his deconstructive program. Texts up for discussion will include Margins of Philosophy (1982), Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International (1994),  Of Hospitality (2000), On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (2005), and The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008).

Empire and Travel in Literary History
This course studies the relation between English (British, European) expansion and travel and the meeting of cultures. It will discuss the relations among English (British, Europeans) and local peoples, Africans and Native Americans and will examine questions of race, gender and class as well as culture more generally. This is a focused survey of works of travel that have mainly to do with questions of politics, religion, identity and/or expansion in the context of literary representation and will show that, from the Middle Ages to the present, travel (including the motifs of pilgrimage, journey, expansion colonization) has long been a concern in English or European literature and culture.


  1. If you are considering posting on your classes during the semester, I'd be interested in hearing about the Derrida one. Just throwing it out there.