August 22, 2011

courses I should be taking

Although I'm sure that writing my thesis will be totally exhilarating, I can't help feeling the sting of bereavement as I look over the graduate course calendar for the coming school year and realize what I'll be missing. I can't be too bitter. If I end up doing a PhD, I'll have another chance to feel jaded and overwhelmed by reading lists and intimidated by the precious competition of colossal egos attempting to out-radical one another. There's also a slight chance I'll be able to sit in on one or two of them.
Cultural Forms and Social Circulation
How do we understand how the relationships between literary and cultural forms (both old and new) and their efficacy for generating new modes of sociability? To address this question, this seminar will focus on theories of cultural production and circulation as well as case studies from both earlier historical periods and contemporary culture.

Every historical period has its examples of the ways literature has generated new forms or modes of sociability and transformed old ones: literary debates generated new modes of cultural engagement in Enlightenment-era coffee houses; out of Restoration theatre culture inspired controversy about the relationship between women and prostitution; 1830s New York City saw publics coalesce around racial performance and textual “blackface” in newspapers. For more recent examples, we can turn to the ways second-wave feminists made poetry-reading central to their consciousness-raising groups, the uses anti-globalization activists make of global technologies to organize alternative cultural resistance, or the emergence of transgender identities in the wake of Leslie Feinberg’s book Transgender Warriors. But how exactly should we understand the relationship between cultural forms and the audience forms and the publics they produce? What, in short, are the possibilities—as well as the limits—of what literature can do in the world?

In recent years, it has been common for literary and cultural critics to focus on the politics of literature and culture in terms of the (usually narrative) content of a cultural object. This course aims to augment this approach to reading politically by focusing less on what texts mean and more on how they mean and what they can be said to do: the forms they take, the media and objects through which they circulate, the affects they generate, and the social constituencies they help consolidate. This course thus invites students to consider theories of texts’ social effects in terms of their cultural circulation: how they produce audiences, take unpredicted paths through the world, consolidate social groups, and even generate identity categories.

To do so, we will bring together concerns from a number of overlapping fields including reader response criticism, linguistic anthropology, history of the book, French and German cultural theory (from the Adorno to Bourdieu), public sphere theory, and literary criticism. Theoretical texts will include readings such as the following: Theodor Adorno “Lyric and Society”; Greg Urban from Metaphysical Community: The Interplay Between the Senses and the Intellect; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey; Karl Marx The Grundrisse and from Capital; Lauren Berlant from The Female Complaint, Michael Warner Publics and Counterpublics; Benjamin Lee Talking Heads; Gerard Genette Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation; Nietzche “On The Utility and Liability of History for Life”; Frederic Jameson The Political Unconscious; Stanley Fish Is There a Text In This Class?; Janice Radway Reading the Romance; and Walter Benjamin The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Pierre Bourdieu The Field of Cultural Production; D.F. McKenzie “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy, and Print in early New Zealand,” Martin Heidegger “The Age of the World Picture.”

Medieval Texts: Medieval Dissent: Plowmen, Lollards, and Outlaws
In 1381, Wat Tyler led an army of peasants into London in the first documented popular revolt in English history. Driven by agrarian unrest, encouraged by priests like John Ball, and calling for legal and social reform, they burned the palace of the Savoy, London home of John of Gaunt, and confronted the king himself on the plain of Smithfield. It is said that at the head of the peasants' procession was someone reciting a passage from The Vision of Piers the Plowman by William Langland. While this use of his text may have shocked Langland into a more conservative revision of the work, it was not inappropriate. The issues of social responsibility among the "estates," and of the failure of the religious to practice what they preach, were central to his work.

Piers refers disparagingly to those who recite ballads of Robin Hood, and this is the period of Robin Hood ballads, which, despite Langland's dismissal of them, are closely linked to the themes of Piers Plowman. The earliest stories of Robin Hood make him a representative of the yeoman class, the lower gentry, who, like the peasants, had grievances against the powerful, including the "lords" of religion. It is interesting that in our earliest known Robin Hood story, it is the Abbot of St. Mary's Abbey in York who is the principal villain; it is Robin, not the abbot, who proves to be the "true" Christian, practicing the virtue of charity and honouring St. Mary Magdalene, patron saint of the lowly.

This is also the period of calls for religious and social reform under John Wyclif, and his followers, the Lollards, raised another revolt in the early fifteenth century, seeking the violent overthrow of Henry IV. They were violently suppressed, outlawed and driven underground, but survived and continued to be a voice for reform until the period of the Protestant Reformation.

In this course, we will consider some of the literature produced by dissenting voices in late medieval England, including the letters of John Ball, the writings of the Lollards, works of anti-clerical satire, Langland's Piers Plowman and other "Piers" works which it inspired in subsequent generations, and various of the earliest tales of Robin Hood. Issues of social criticism and difference, of heresy and rebellion, of tolerance and intolerance will be considered within the literature and history of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England.

Literary Themes: On Violence
This course will provide an opportunity to compare philosophical, sociocultural, and literary conceptions of violence in order to evaluate how each portrays the interrelations between subject formation, witnessing, complicity, and resistance. The general aim is to introduce methods of critical discourse analysis (with an emphasis on modes of figuration) while familiarizing ourselves with the interdisciplinary intellectual histories that inform recent topics in literary and cultural studies. This term, we will begin in the 19th century with the master-slave dialectic from G.W.F. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit as well as selections from his Philosophy of Right (week 1). Georges Sorel’s syndicalist theory of the state and revolution will prepare us for a close reading of Walter Benjamin’s grafting of Marxism onto Jewish Messianism in “The Critique of Violence,” which revises Sorelian figures (week 2). A close friend of Benjamin, Hannah Arendt shared his inclination to rethink the narrative form of historical writing as evinced in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which configures the histories of anti-Semitism and imperialism with the modes of persecution and terror deployed by the Third Reich and the USSR (weeks 3-5). Having reviewed Arendt’s prescient yet contested theses about imperialism from The Origins, we will subsequently look at Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (week 5) in order to reflect on the case for violence that contravenes against colonial and racist structures of domination. Following our evaluation of selected writings and lectures on governmentality, security, and biopower by Michel Foucault (weeks 6-7), Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (week 8) will bridge our reading of Arendt with both Foucault and Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, a collection of essays that draws on Agamben among others as she targets both the covert and explicit forms of violence that states have mobilized in the course of pursuing the so-called “war on terror” (week 9). Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (week 10) and J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (week 11) will serve as departure points for our reflections on the power dynamics at stake in witnessing war and atrocities at different levels of proximity. The course will conclude with Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing (week 12) and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (week 13), which will provide occasions to mark the 10th year anniversary of September 11th. Ultimately, then, Coetzee’s and DeLillo’s novels will also give us opportunities to reassess the explanatory value of the theories we have read up until this point as we explore examples of literature’s capacity to bear witness to cataclysmic histories and events.

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