Today marks the beginning of my second term in Edmonton. It's been snowing nonstop for the past three days and it's hard to say when I'll begin biking again (residential streets are not a priority for snow plows). It looks like I'll be doing plenty of walking, so it's a good thing I found my old winter boots. Here's how my upcoming semester looks:
Shakespeare and the Commons
This graduate seminar in the Shakespearean drama takes up the challenge of much contemporary legal theorizing of the common, which urges a turning-back to the early modern period for reclamation of ideas and practices displaced by the rise of capitalism. Its principal premise is that one way to understand what early modernity might offer to a contemporary politics of the common is to turn back to one of the most important writers of the early modern period and investigate the various constructions of the common and the commons in his work. To study the various expressions of the common in Shakespeare is herefore to ask (with a specific writer as test-case) how literature contributes to the common, and thus to contribute to a theory of literature (if only by theorizing one of the things that it does). The course’s second premise is that we can only achieve this, in Shakespeare’s case, by bringing historical conceptions of the common and the commons to bear, and so the enterprise demands historical enquiry. We will therefore read, in addition to select plays by Shakespeare including Henry VI Part II, Timon of Athens, and King Lear, some early modern case material, the text of key early modern laws, and excerpts from debates in the Elizabethan and Jacobean House of Commons. Some of our readings will be philosophical, some legal, but the emphasis will fall on our inquiry into the Shakespearean theatre as a forum for a practice of communing, for it is only by understanding the Shakespearean theatre as a historical practice of the ‘common’ that we help the early modern irrupt into and shape what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call ‘altermodernity.’ Depending on student interest, we could build towards a study of contemporary constructions of the ‘creative commons’ in order to consider how we might, with our investigation of Shakespeare’s engagements with the ‘common,’ revise standard constructions of Shakespearean authorship (which continue to be bourgeois, Romantic, and Lockean).
Introduction to Cultural Theory
The primary aim of this course is to give graduate students in English an opportunity to focus on the complex relationships that exist between forms of power, the constitution of knowledge, and the activity of contemporary criticism. By working through the ideas and concepts deployed in a number of influential essays in cultural theory, the goal is to enhance students' critical vocabularies and to challenge the 'commonsense' of contemporary theory in an effort to help students develop new insights into their own projects and fields of interests. With respect to the study of culture, what can we do with the theoretical concepts and approaches we have inherited? What relevance do these have to contemporary circumstances and situations? What are the connections that we have identified between knowledge and power? And how do we imagine that criticism intervenes in this relationship to interrupt regimes of knowledge/power in order to create new ways of thinking, knowing, acting, and feeling? These are the kinds of macro-questions that will guide us as we work through key concepts in cultural theory across seven areas: culture, power, ideology, scale and space, time and history, subjectivity and collectivity.
Aesthetics and Politics of Literary Reading
What it means to read a literary text has become a highly contested question. Are our readings determined by our cultural position, or are they an outcome of the power of literary language and our experience as readers? Stanley Fish argues that understanding is constrained by the institution we fi nd ourselves in. Interpreters “are situated in that institution, their interpretive activities are not free, but what constrains them are the understood practices and assumptions of the institution and not the rules and fixed meanings of a language system” (Is There a Text 306). Fish goes on to argue that, for this reason, an interpretation is always to hand. Reading literature does not involve puzzling out its meaning: “sentences emerge only in situations, and within those situations, the normative meaning of an utterance will always be obvious or at least accessible” (307). This representive view is open to challenge: according to Martha Nussbaum “good literature is disturbing in a way that history and social science writing frequently are not. Because it summons powerful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles” (Poetic Justice 5). The reader who “is not at risk,” says Howard Brodkey, “is not reading.”
While these contrasting approaches also have much to say about the role of criticism and theory, and the institutional practices of English as a discipline over the last 150 years, in this course we will primarily be concerned with their implications for reading. We will interrogate historical and current practices of reading in their light. We will also compare them with a third possibility, that of investigating actual readers, a focus that has so far received little attention and has been actively discouraged by some authorities. Jonathan Culler, for example warned of “the dangers of an experimental or socio-psychological approach which would take too seriously the actual and doubtless idiosyncratic performance of individual readers” (Structuralist Poetics 258). But are readers really idiosyncratic? What do empirical studies show occurring during literary reading? First we will review the history of formalist accounts of reading, from Kant and Coleridge, through the Russian Formalists, to the Lancaster school of stylistics (Geoffrey Leech, Mike Short, Willie Van Peer) and the cognitive poetics of Reuven Tsur. Second we will look at some of the standard theoretical accounts of the reading process, contrasting the aesthetic approaches of Roman Ingarden and Wolfgang Iser with the constructivist views of Stanley Fish, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Siegfried Schmidt. We will go on to look at empirical studies of literary reading, beginning with studies of historical readers by Richard Altick and Jonathan Rose, then examine several typical modern studies of readers, including a critical review of the methods used to study actual readers and the different levels at which response to literary features has been studied, from phonetic to narrative.