ENGL 511.01 (s) (3 crs) Spring 2017
Studies in Critical Theory: Modern and Contemporary

Dr. Stephan Flores (sflores@uidaho.edu)                                                      
Class meets 2:00 pm - 3:15 pm  TR                                                            TLC 246             
http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~sflores/                                                  885-6156
Office hours: W 2:30-4:00 p.m. & by appt.                                                 125 Brink Hall

This course ventures through modern and contemporary critical theory with focused study of post-structuralism(s) including deconstruction and Lacanian (and post/legacy Lacanian) psychoanalytic theory, as well as some attention to the limits of meaning and the cultural politics of affect/emotion and to feminism, gender, queer analyses, with less attention to material cultural analysis, including Marxism, postcolonial theory, and 'direct' historical contexts for interpretation.  Whew—that’s a lot of territory! Put differently, our main anthology has a lot of important stuff in it and a course such as this—that ranges from structuralism to post-structuralism and beyond—is in many respects 'essential' or 'foundational' reading for graduate students studying literature and culture.

English 511 (s) can be repeated/taken under different subtitled topices/emphases, and this particular section provides a good basis for understanding premises that need to be considered in a wide range of other, focused critical perspectives from narratology to postcolonial theory to trauma theory to studies in rhetoric, and more. The range of critical perspectives explored in this course engage with relations among desire, power, history, representation (particularly the figurative turns of language), texts and identities. As we work through the readings in theory, we also shall explore short works of fiction (perhaps one story each by Henry James, Edith Wharton, and particularly Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor as well as some contemporary stories, including stories by Alice Munro as well as Lydia Davis's brief story "Break It Down") poetry, and (optional) consideration of the film "Me and You and Everyone We Know" (2005, dir. Miranda July) as we develop an understanding of theory in literary and cultural studies.

We'll devote approximately two-thirds of the course to introductory/foundational graduate level explorations and understanding of what are widely regarded as vital texts and contexts (as represented in the Rivkin and Ryan Literary Theory anthology and via PDFs in our Bblearn site—also see further below, bottom of this webpage for a review of some premises/concepts); I have left some theoretical perspectives relatively unexploree in order to provide for more sustained study as well as variety and depth in other areas (for example, colleagues offer courses in narrative theory, film theory, rhetorical theory, and courses in postcolonial literatures and theories as well as eco-criticism). Still, I'll provide--in addition to our main theory text's coverage--PDFs in a range of theories for you as a resource (and opportunity for future reading). I also have decided to pare back our study of some of the 'foundational' texts so that we can consider recent theorists' incorporation and sustained reworking and advances or development of prior concepts, such as Mari Ruti's productive reconsiderations of Lacan's work deployed in her own prolific series of recent studies.

For the remainder of the course we’ll consider, in part, the figure/concept of the “remainder,” of what exceeds our grasp and our view, perhaps beyond our desire but nevertheless something/one we intimate that we need or cannot do without. As Mari Ruti states, we shall (try to) attend to “what is least tangible, least intelligible about our being, including the inchoate frequencies of desire [rebellious energies] that sometimes cause us to behave in ways that work against our rational understanding of how our lives are supposed to turn out.” So in thinking theory we are caught up at the limits of how we read, understand, live, love—perhaps plagued/buoyed by what Lauren Berlant terms “cruel optimism” as we confront relations that we find overwhelming, unbearably incoherent, imbued with a negativity and a singularity that unsettle our fantasies of sovereign stability and control and power but which may thereby prompt change—this course—the course of theory— may change your life (!). Change how you read and write (and act?).

Written work includes concise Inquiry Starter responses to our reading (posted weekly on Bblearn), a Critical Analysis essay and a longer Term Essay on topics of your choice, engaging with theory, and with options of including consideration of a particular literary text (or film).

Note that our main text by Rivkin and Ryan, Literary Theory: An Anthology, is coming out in a new third edition by mid-February—until that is available, we are making do with PDFs that I have created from scanning chapters from the second edition, available in folders online in our course Bblearn site.

Jonathan Culler states "there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant, what enlarging of context might be able to shift what we regard as the meaning of a text.  Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless,” or in the words of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: “in every textual production, in the production of every explanation, there is the itinerary of a constantly thwarted desire to make the text explain. . . . what inhabits the prohibited margin of a particular explanation specifies its particular politics.” Chris Barker writes that "Structuralism and poststructuralism have been widely influential within cultural studies because both schools of thought focus on how meaning is made, and meaning-making is an essential function of culture. Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry concerned with the intersection of power and meaning in popular culture. Structuralism is a theoretical approach that identifies patterns in social arrangements, mostly notably language. While poststructuralism builds on the insights of structuralism, it holds all meaning to be fluid rather than universal and predictable. Both structuralism and post-structuralism are important theoretical influences in cultural studies and have enabled the field to explore culture as a set of signifying practices.. . . " —Chris Barker, “Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and Cultural Studies” in The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

Note: this 500-level course does not presuppose that you have completed a prior course in critical or literary theory. If you have completed a course, such as our Engl 310 Literary Theory course—great! If you haven't, don't be overly concerned, especially if your undergraduate degree is in English studies; if you are interested in having at hand, or browsing through an introductory critical theory text, such as the one I have used in Engl 310, I recommend Robert Dale Parker's How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, Third Edition (Oxford UP, 2015). Also note that undergraduate seniors with strong academic records may wish to consider taking this course, particularly if you plan to go to graduate school, here or elsewhere—know that this course could then be substituted for Engl 310, but that if you eventually go to graduate school here, you won't be able to count this particular section/topic of Engl 511 towards your graduate degree, if you have used it to count towards your undergraduate degree.

Primary desired learning outcomes for this course:

1. To develop an understanding of theories and practices of modern and contemporary critical theory with focused study of post-structuralism(s) including deconstruction and Lacanian (and post/legacy Lacanian) psychoanalytic theory, as well as some attention to the limits of meaning and the cultural politics of affect/emotion.

2. To develop critical reading and writing strengths suitable for graduate coursework in literary and cultural studies.

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Required text: Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 3rd Edition (Wiley-Blackwell, February, 2017) ISBN: 978-1-118-70785-2
-Also a book by Berlant and Edelman that is currently available as/in PDF online (see our Bblearn site) but you may wish to have your own paperback version: Berlant, Lauren, and Lee Edelman. Sex, or the Unbearable (Duke UP, 2014). 978-0-8223-5594-6
-And among a good range of essays in theory, we’ll (try to) include more of Berlant (excerpts from Cruel Optimism, 2011), of Ruti (essays and excerpts from The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within, 2012), Todd McGowan’s writings, including excerpts from The End of Dissatisfaction?: Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment (2004), and possibly excerpts from Alison Weir's Identities and Freedom: Feminist Theory Between Power and Connection (2013), Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Second Edition (2015), and Fredric Jameson's The Antinomies of Realism (2013).

James, Henry. "In the Cage."

Wharton, Edith. "Xingu."

Wharton, Edith. "The Other Two."

Herman Melville, Billy Budd (version with hypertext links/notess)

Lydia Davis:





1. Fifteen written Inquiry Starters: a thesis/problem-driven analytical response (approximately 200 words each) informed by some aspect of the text under discussion (for the assigned reading for that Tuesday and/or week)--see two examples for Inquiry Starters via this weblink). Inquiry Starters present a means for you and the class to share close critical analysis and reflection, enthusiasms and questions as you delve into the text’s significance, methods, and effects, and to learn from others' comments (a version of Graff's "They Say, I Say" exchange, see Bblearn). No late entries —Inquiry Starters are due/posted on the Bblearn discussion thread (see left side menu on Bblearn, click on that, then find appropriate thread for each IS, and post an entry and provide a "title" for your entry) before class (by 1:00 pm on the near weekly due date--due before almost every Tuesday's class). ISs posted after 1:30 pm will be docked/reduced by four points—that is, your semester point total will be reduced by four points for each late or missing Inquiry-Starter entry. Come to class prepared to talk about your ISs/ideas; at times we'll spotlight individual ISs, using the projector to introduce the ISs via Bblearn to facilitate discussion, so keep in mind that you may be called upon in class to comment further upon your IS. Remember: Missing or late inquiry-starter entries will be counted against your semester grade, and if your grades are on a borderline between grade ranges then missing even one entry may reduce your semester grade (see below).

2. A Critical Analysis (5-6 pages, 12 pt Times New Roman font, double-spaced, 1-inch margins, due by noon on Monday 27 February, hard copy in my mailbox in Brink 200 and electronic copy sent by email to me preferably in MS Word or rich text format: This assignment directs you to explore a significant issue and theoretical question/strategy/topic that you identify in one or more of our readings. Your analysis can be quite "thesis-driven"—that is, you may find it effective to compose a thesis for your response that maps out for readers the engaging, important points that you want to develop—or you may prefer a more reflective, question and problem-posing approach. You are not required in this analysis to incorporate secondary criticism/scholarship, but you may find that reading one or more related scholarly articles on the work in question will enrich your underderstanding and sharpen your analysis. See also general advice for writing a Critical Essay, as well as the folder in Bblearn on writing essays, though of course this critical analysis essay is quite concise, and necessarily or perhaps more focused and selective than longer essays. See also University of Idaho Guidelines on Academic Dishonesty (including plagiarism). In accordance with the UI Student Code of Conduct, I report instances of academic dishonesty/plagiarism, to the office of the Dean of Students.

3. Term Essay exploring some aspect of our readings in theory, with option of situating your essay in relation to one or more literary texts from our studies or resources (double-spaced (12 pt, Times New Roman, 1-inch margins, MLA format, approximately 11-13 pages for main body of essay), --due Monday May 8 by 4pm, with printed copy in my mailbox in Brink 200, and also send a copy to me by email, preferably in MS Word or rtf format attachment. This critical essay develops ideas prompted by our study and discussion, by recent scholarship, and by your perspectives. I shall attend to the ways that you select, define, and engage questions and contradictions, and to the clarity, imagination, and grace that you demonstrate in presenting your topic, (hypo)thesis, and argument, and the extent to which your work engages with, explains, and contributes to the larger "conversation" of scholarship on the topic and text(s) under analysis. I do not always expect essays to conclude by "solving" such problems or by "proving" your thesis; I hope that you address interesting topics (questions for debate, interpretation, and analysis) in thoughtful and useful ways. Please feel invited to confer with me during the writing process. See also general advice for critical essays similar to prior advice that pertains as well to this Term Essay, and also see the folder of advice, in Bblearn. Write about text(s) different than what you addressed in your Critical Analysis. You may draw upon and incorporate your prior work but the substantial, major portion of the Term Essay should be new, either an extension of your prior writing or an essay on another topic and perspective (thesis) than what you presented in your Critical Analysis. See also University of Idaho Guidelines on Academic Dishonesty (including plagiarism). In accordance with the UI Student Code of Conduct, I report instances of academic dishonesty/plagiarism, to the office of the Dean of Students.

4. Participation: Please take advantage of opportunities to share your insights and to listen and reply to others' ideas (often the Inquiry Starters can help you to initiate and to enter conversations). I hope that questions and discussions will enable you to move the class in directions you find most helpful, give you opportunities to develop critical skills through collaboration, and provide for a productive, interesting exchange of perspectives among the class. The Inquiry Starters will prompt our discussions: you should be prepared to comment on the day's reading for every class session--that is, complete the reading and be ready to contribute to each class meeting, including periodic occaions where I'll ask you to write about (in class) some aspect of the reading under discussion for that day.

5. All required work is due at the beginning of class on the due date—work turned in late will be graded accordingly. Required graded written work will be downgraded one notch (for example, B+ to B, converted to points for each assignment) for each weekday late (not just days classes meet but counting just one day for a weekend); note, however, that the Term Essay cannot be turned in late--it is due in class on December 12. Work submitted more than a week late will not be accepted. I will grant short extensions for medical and family emergencies—but talk with me as soon as possible to request an extension. Always keep copies of your work.

6. Attendance: One or two absences will not affect your semester grade; a third absence will lower your semester total by three points, with a five-point reduction for each additional absence (four absences=minus 8 points, five absences = minus 13 points); six or more absences is sufficient cause for you to receive a failing grade for the course, regardless of your semester point total. All absences will be counted—excused or not—if something extraordinary occurs, talk to me.

7. Grades: Critical Analysis (75 pts); Term Essay (135 pts). These required assignments add up to a maximum of 210 points. Thus 189-210 points equals an A, 168-188 equals a B, 147-167 equals a C, 126-146 equals a D, and anything below 126 merits an F. I shall reserve a potential six bonus points based on my perceptions of the strength of your participation and efforts over the semester, including discussion in class as well as quality of Inquiry Starters posted in Bblearn; incomplete or missing Inquiry-Starter entries will be counted against your semester grade, with the loss of four points for each missing or incomplete entry; --make every effort to complete each week's Inquiry Starter on time, in part because such penalty points add up all too quickly.Also note that near the end of April, I will post your point totals for the graded assignment, and any accumulated penalty points to date for missing/late ISs, and absences, to the Grade Center in Bblearn.

8. Office hours. I encourage you to confer with me—especially before assignments are due—to talk about your interests, intentions, and writing strategies. If you cannot make my regular hours (in Brink 125), we’ll arrange another time. I also welcome communicating with you by E-mail (sflores@uidaho.edu).

9. Use of cell phones during class is prohibited; use of laptops or tablets is permitted for access to the online components of the class.

10. Do not submit work for this class that you have submitted or intend to submit for a grade in another course; as always, be careful to cite anyone else's work that you draw upon. See highlighted link on the class website to a useful guide to avoiding plagiarism, and a link to information on the university's policies regarding plagiarism. See also University of Idaho Guidelines on Academic Dishonesty (including plagiarism). In accordance with the UI Student Code of Conduct, I report instances of academic dishonesty/plagiarism, to the office of the Dean of Students.

11. Classroom Learning and Civility: To support learning and discovery in this course—as in any university course—it is essential that each member of the class feel as free and as safe as possible in his or her participation. To this end, we must collectively expect that everyone (students, professors, and guests) seek to be respectful and civil to one another in discussion, in action, in teaching, and in learning. Because knowledge and learning are constructed and construed through social inquiry and exchange, it is vital that course dialogue and debate encourage and expect a substantial range of reasoned, expressive, and impassioned articulation of diverse views in order to build a stronger understanding of the materials and of one another's ways of knowing. These practices strengthen our capacities for understanding and the production of (new) knowledge. As with the critical writing assignments for this class, our primary aims include engaging with texts and their varied critical interpretations by identifying problems, developing claims and arguments with supporting lines of evidence and explanation, and enriching our literary understanding, interests, and commitments.

Should you feel our classroom interactions do not reflect an environment of civility and respect, you are encouraged to meet with me during office hours to discuss your concern. Additional resources for expression of concern and avenues of support include the chair of the Department of English, Dr. Scott Slovic, the Dean of Students office and staff (5-6757), the UI Counseling & Testing Center’s confidential services (5-6716), or the UI Office of Human Rights, Access, & Inclusion (5-4285).

12. Disability Support Services: Reasonable accommodations are available for students who have documented temporary or permanent disabilities. All accommodations must be approved through Disability Support Services (885-6307; dss@uidaho.edu; www.uidaho.edu/dss) located in the Idaho Commons Building, Room 306 in order to notify your instructor(s) as soon as possible regarding accommodation(s) needed for the course.

Schedule/Syllabus; If we fall behind, then on occasion we may defer or spill over discussion to next day, and adjust accordingly--for works that we discuss only one day, you are to have finished reading the work prior to class discussion; for works that we discuss over several days, make an effort to have finished most of the work prior to the first day of discussion but recognize that for the first day we'll likely focus our analysis/conversation on the first half or so of the text under discussion.

NOTE: as we proceed through the schedule, I intend to note in advance on days where multiple excerpts/texts are listed, which reading or readings we'll focus upon for discussion. The pace is challenging but steady and manageable. AS OF JANUARY 10 I AM STILL WORKING ON THE COURSE SCHEDULE OF READINGS BELOW--SHOULD HAVE A NEARLY FINISHED SCHEDULE BY START OF FIRST CLASS MEETING!






Literary Theory: An Anthology (LT) 1.1, Introduction (3-7): Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Formalisms--all Rivkin and Ryan selections early in semester are available in PDFs in Bblearn, from 2nd edition--the new 3rd edition will be published in February; also read Frank Lentricchia's essay "In Place of an Afterword—Someone Reading" (via PDF in Bblearn); optional: Jonathan Culler, "The Literary in Theory" (2000, again, via pdf in course Bblearn site); at some point soon start reading Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor (via two PDFs in Bblearn or this version online Billy Budd with hypertext links/notes--have this read by Jan. 26); read Sarraute's brief "Tropism XVIII"


LT 2.1-2.3 Introduction: Rivkin and Ryan, The Implied Order: Structuralism (53); Jonathan Culler, The Linguistic Foundation (56); Ferdinand de Saussure, Course on General Linguistics (59); LT 4.1 Introduction: Rivkin and Ryan, Introductory Deconstruction (257); Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

In your reading of Culler and of Saussure, include/ponder such questions as these:
Why are the ideas of the process or means of signification as “arbitrary” and as “differential” and with ‘value’ as ‘negative’ so important? Can you think, for example, of current issues in our society that can be understood via Saussurian analysis (such as Black Lives Matter or immigration issues, or historically in Shakespeare’s time or prior to that, what it means to be a ‘man’ etc. --what other examples come to mind for you?)
Is speaking (la parole), as opposed to language (la langue), an ‘individual’ act, as Saussure avers?
To what extent does language exist only "by virtue of a sort of contract signed by members of a community"?
Must language be a "union of meanings[signifieds] and sound-images[signifiers]" within a system of signs?
Why is "value" an important concept as distinguished from "signification?"
Why don't concepts have positive content? What are some of the implications of this?
Language is form and not a substance” (LT 71)—any comment on this?
Can you transpose Saussure’s chess example to the example of a traffic light (red, yellow, green) to explain how via Saussure how we understand—how meaning functions or is communicated—in a traffic signal?
What other questions/problems come to mind for today’s readings? What ‘takeaway’ key ideas?
In the brief excerpt from Culler, this statement is intriguing?: “the rule is always at some distance from actual behavior and that gap is a space of potential meaning” (LT 2nd ed. 57).

LT 4.6 Jacques Derrida, "Différance" (278); optional: see John Phillips's "Introduction to Derrida" in series of three PDFs in Bblearn

if you can manage it (timewise), also try to read LT 4.8 Derrida, "Semiology and Grammatology" (332), especially because this is a succinct commentary on much of Derrida's ideas in/on différance; see John Berryman, "The Ball Poem" (in Bblearn PDF of some poems)

optional: Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense (262); Nietzsche, The Will to Power (266); Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference (271); Tompkins, Jane. "A Short Course in Post-Structuralism." College English 50.7 (Nov., 1988): 733-747.(in misc. theory folder)


Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (PDF); LT 4.7 Derrida, Of Grammatology (300); see Paul Fry on Derrida and my Summary/Explanation of Saussure and Derrida/deconstruction, via PDFs in the Derrida folder (both of these are condensed but still extensive summary explanations, by Fry and by me); see Seamus Heaney's poem, "From the Frontier of Writing" (via pdf in 'some poems' in literature folder in Bblearn); Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn



LT 4.9 Barbara Johnson, "Writing" (340); rec.: excerpts from Niall Lucy, A Derrida Dictionary (on Bblearn)--try to finish reading Melville's Billy Budd by today




Melville, "Billy Budd, sailor." Barbara Johnson, "Melville's Fist: The Execution of Billy Budd"; optional: excerpt from William Spanos's The Exceptionalist State and the State of Exception: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, sailor; and/or one of the other essays on the novella, in the Bblearn folder; Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn



LT 5.1-5.6 Introduction: Rivkin and Ryan, Strangers to Ourselves—Psychoanalysis (389); Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (397); Freud, On Narcissism (415); Freud, The Uncanny (418); Freud, excerpt from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (431); Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (438); also see Stephen Dunn's poem "On Hearing the Airlines Will Use A Psychological Profile to Catch Potential Skyjackers" (via Bblearn pdf in 'some poems')


LT 5.7-5.8 Jacques Lacan, The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of I (441); Lacan, The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious (447);see Donald Justice's poem, "The Missing Person" (via pdf on Bblearn); LT 7.12 Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (712); Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

continue with Zizek; LT 7.10 Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (693); additional resources: for the trajectory of psychoanalytic theory in relation to film theory/criticism, from Freud to Lacan to Zizek, see Elsaesser and Buckland's highly engaging chapter on "Oedipal narratives and the post-Oedipal (Back to the Future) in PDF in Bblearn, and also Cutrofello on Zizek; optional: Habib, Ch. 4, The Era of Poststructuralism (I): Later Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction (77-112, via PDF IN Bblearn);


Literary Theory (LT) 8.1-8.2 (Second ed./PDF) Introduction: Rivkin and Ryan, Feminist Paradigms (765), or see LT 7.1 Introduction: Feminist Paradigms/Gender Effects, in new Third ed. (p.893); Gayle Rubin, The Traffic in Women (LT 770 PDF or 901 in 3rd ed.); see also the short story, Doris Lessing, "A Woman on a Roof" (1963, on Bblearn); Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn (your post can look back at last Thursday (Lacan/Zizek) or focus on today's readings)

Allison Weir, Identities and Freedom: Feminist Theory Between Power and Connection (2013)--Introduction, Rethinking a Paradox (PDF); see also one or more of these stories, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's, "A New England Nun" (1891), "Two Old Friends" and "The Revolt of 'Mother'" (on Bblearn in PDF and via weblink); in relation to the territory we have surveyed and that Weir takes up, you could look 'back' at Linda Alcoff's 'classic' essay "Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory (1988/PDF in Misc.Theory folder) and we shall read/discuss Judith Butler early next week.


Weir, Chapter 1: Who Are We?; LT 7.5 Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination" (955) Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

LT 7.9 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Epistemology of the Closet" (1014); also see Weir, Ch. 4 Transforming Women (PDF)


Critical Analysis due Monday February 27 by 12pm/noon (hard copy in Brink 200 plus send by email to me); LT 7.8 Jaspir Puar, "'I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess': Becoming Intersectional in Assemblage Theory" (1000); Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and the Face (LT 348); Naomi Morgenstern, The Baby or the Violin: Ethics and Femininity in the Fiction of Alice Munro (LT 422); also see the two-page introduction to Phenomenology, Reception, and Ethics, in our Literary Theory anthology LT 3.1 "Introduction: Situations of Knowledge/Relations with Others (297-298)



Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Preface and 1. Sex without Optimism, in Sex, or the Unbearable (vii-34)--via weblink to PDF on Bblearn, if you did not purchase your own paperback of this text; watch via Bblearn "Me and You and Everyone We Know" (2005, dir. Miranda July); Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

Berlant and Edelman, 2. What Survives, (35-61); and Lydia Davis, "Break It Down" in in Sex, or the Unbearable


Berlant and Edelman, 3. Living with Negativity, (63-117) and Afterwords (119-125) in Sex, or the Unbearable; Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

conclude Berlant and Edelman; Jeffrey Williams' interview "Queer 2.0: Judith 'Jack' Halberstam Complicates Gender" (in Misc. Theory folder); recommended: Halberstam, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Men, Women, and Masculinity" (in Misc. Theory Folder)


Mari Ruti, “From Melancholia to Meaning: How to Live the Past in the Present”; Ruti, “Reading Lacan as a Social Critic: What It Means Not to Cede on One’s Desire.” Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn


Sara Ahmed, “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness"; Mari Ruti, “Happiness and Its Discontents"


Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Introduction; Lauren Berlant, Ch. 1 of Cruel Optimism, or if you prefer to read more of Ahmed, see her "Affective Economies" (LT 9.4) and read that instead of one of Berlant's chapters; Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

Berlant, and Jennifer Cooke. “Transformations and challenges in politics, teaching, art and writing: an interview with Lauren Berlant.” ; Berlant, “A Properly Political Concept of Love: Three Approaches in Ten Pages” ; Robert Frost, "Home Burial"


Ruti, “The Fall of Fantasies: A Lacanian Reading of Lack"; Munro, "Carried Away"; Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

No class meeting today, but proceed to (have) read Miriam Marty Clark, Allegories of Reading in Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” (LT 4.10 555)




Munro's "Sunday Afternoon" and "Hired Girl"; Isla Duncan, Social Class in Alice Munro’s “Sunday Afternoon” and “Hired Girl”( LT 6.11, 858) Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

LT 9.1 Cognition, Emotion, Evolution, Science--Rivkin and Ryan, "Introduction: In the Body of the Text" (1255)


LT 5.7 Lisa Hinrichsen, "Trauma Studies and the Literature of the US South" (636); CARL PHILLIPS "Stray" and "Wild Is the Wind" (handout)

Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

LT 6.1, Marxism, Critical Theory, History, Introduction: Rivkin and Ryan, Starting With Zero (711); Hammad, Suheir. “first writing since.” [and if you can manage it, the relatively concise essay by Rothberg:] Rothberg, Michael. “’There Is No Poetry in This’: Writing, Trauma, and Home.” Greenberg, Judith, ed. Trauma at Home: After 9/11. Ed. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 2003. 139-143. 147-157. [in Trauma theory folder in Bblearn];

optional: see the PDF Notes on Marxism plus Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory entries on Marx, in Misc. Theory folder; and/or review Habib's chapter on the era of poststructuralism, which includes a brief section on later Marxism


Todd McGowan, “The Capitalist Gaze” (in McGowan folder); Rapaport on Social Relations (Marx, Lacan, Levinas, Nancy--in Misc. Theory folder) Inquiry Starter due by 1pm on Bblearn

Ruti, Mari. “Why Some Things Matter More than Others: A Lacanian Explanation.” Constellations 23.2 (2016) : 201-211. (in Ruti folder)

Optional for future reading!: James, Henry. "In the Cage."and see these articles in folder on Bblearn: Hugh Stevens, "Queer Henry In the Cage"; John Carlos Rowe, "Working at Gender: In the Cage" (2000)

James, Henry. "The Jolly Corner.";


Term Essay due Monday May 8 by 4pm

Finals Week [no final exam in this class]


Other short fiction we may dip into or you may peruse (available in course Bblearn):

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, "A New England Nun" (1891)
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, "The Revolt of 'Mother'"
Edith Wharton, "Autres Temps . . . " (1916)

Additional essays and excerpts that extend range of assigned readings noted in schedule above include these pieces, available on course Bblearn site--note that only several of these will eventually be 'assigned' and placed on the course schedule above--the remainder will serve as resources and avenues/opportunities for your further reading and study.

Ahmed, Sara. “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness.” Signs 35.3 (Spring 2010): 571-594.

Berlant, Lauren, and Jennifer Cooke. “Transformations and challenges in politics, teaching, art and writing: an interview with Lauren Berlant.” Textual Practice 27.6 (2013): 961-970.

Berlant, Lauren. “A Properly Political Concept of Love: Three Approaches in Ten Pages.” Cultural Anthropology 26.4 (2011): 683-691.

Ruti, Mari. “Happiness and Its Discontents.” The Chronicle of Higher Education January 20, 2014.

Ruti, Mari. “From Melancholia to Meaning: How to Live the Past in the Present.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15.5 (2005): 637-660.

Ruti, Mari. “Why There Is Always a Future in the Future.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 13.1 (April 2008): 113-126.

Ruti, Mari. “The Fall of Fantasies: A Lacanian Reading of Lack.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 56.2 (July 2008): 483-508.

Ruti, Mari. “Winnicott with Lacan: Living Creatively in a Postmodern World.” American Imago 67.3 (Fall 2010): 353-374.

Ruti, Mari. “Why Some Things Matter More Than Others: A Lacanian Explanation.” Constellations 23.2 (2016): 201-211.

Ruti, Mari. “Reading Lacan as a Social Critic: what it means not to cede on one’s desire.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 17.1 (March 2012): 69-80.

More to browse . . . .
Tompkins, Jane. "A Short Course in Post-Structuralism." College English 50.7 (1988): 733-47. (also available in PDF in Bblearn misc. theory folder)

Derrida, Jacques. “Différance

[excerpt from "Différance"]: http://www.hydra.umn.edu/derrida/diff.html

Derrida, Jacques. "Signature Event Context"

All in One Summary/Overview of Perspectives in Critical Theory

And additional older links/summaries/resources, some of which I may get around to revising:

New Historicisms

What Is Deconstruction

What Is Psychoanalytic Criticism

What Is Feminist Criticism

What Is Marxist Criticism


Mary Klages on Humanism and Literary Theory

Mary Klages on Bahktin

Mary Klages on Claude Lévi-Strauss

Mary Klages on Poststructuralism/Derrida

Mary Klages on Homi Bhaba/Race and Postcolonialism

Mary Klages on Postmodernism (via Sarup)

Mary Klages on Postmodernism II (via Lyotard/Baudrillard)

Professor Lye's Advice on Analyzing Literature

Jack Lynch's site/theory sources

Purdue OWL workshop/guidelines on using MLA for citation

MLA Quick Guide to Works Cited/citation

Advice for Presenting Papers at Conferences and 'Conferencing'

Peter Barry suggests that the following five premises are shared across many perspectives in contemporary critical theory: 1) Politics is pervasive; 2) Language is constitutive; 3) Truth is provisional; 4) Meaning is contingent; 5) Human nature is a myth [though one might wonder about the findings from neuro/cognitive science] (Beginning Theory, second edition, Manchester UP, 2002).

Here is a list of points and ideas that I typically address in introductory courses in literary/critical theory and practice, such as English 310 (drawn initially from series of essays in Critical Terms for Literary Study, with page references omitted).
1. Specific discourses, language practices shape how we understand, construct/construe identities to produce meaning .
2. Because the terms (words as well as larger relations of texts/contexts/institutions) through which we make meaning develop out of social use and are themselves part of our inquiry (interpretation), we are engaged in larger cultural debates and exchanges.
3. a) literature is not an autonomous object of knowledge but a writing practice/activity; b) debate continues over whether we can determine meaning—how does meaning exist and how is it produced?
4. Because literature is not purely aesthetic—separate, distinct from qualities and connections shared with cultural contexts, we always occupy positions from which we read/interpret.
5. Meaning comes into being through socially conditioned and constrained interpretative processes.
6. Through interpretation we act rhetorically, taking positions with interests to persuade, exchanging texts with others, and reconstructing the meanings of texts as well as the meaning of ourselves.
7. Signs and representations presume a kind of social agreement and never occur in isolation: there is always a context invoked for interpretation.
8. But representations cannot be controlled completely or desire articulated fully: it is as if the text eludes attempts to determine its meanings, prompting us to repeat interpretive strategies familiar to us as a way of trying to understand or to master the text’s “otherness.”
9. Moreover, there are gaps between one’s intention and its textual realization, and among writers, texts, and readers. Yet gaps also invite the production of unforeseen and uncontrolled meanings—perhaps even to include a glimpse of alternatives to the past and to the present and to invoke utopian futures.
10. One way of trying to understand literature is in terms of its relation to history. If one could assume that history is comprised of knowable facts/events/attitudes, then a particular cultural and historical setting and its predominant ethos/meaning could be seen to shape and to inform its literature.
11. Formalists resist this privileging of history over literature by claiming that literary language and practice evince unique qualities and structures (forms and techniques) that do not function primarily with reference to the world or to its representation but with reference instead to literature, with this distinct and self-referential character used as a basis for formalists’ claims about both the nature of literature and the human condition. Moreover, formalists are concerned with how things are done or executed distinct from what a story is about.
12. Deconstruction (or more broadly, poststructuralism), however, challenged the assumption that literary language is unique by showing how (all) discourse makes claims to “truths” and meanings through interpretive conventions and (differential) relationships: these reading practices turn upon the figurative aspects of language—upon the figuration of tropes and metaphors—and are thereby understood to participate in a futile effort to stabilize or ground interpretation (upon, for example, the privileging of one term over another, or metaphysical/philosophical assumptions that seek origins/ends and bases of authority to account for and to determine meaning).
13. Deconstruction suggests that meanings are always in play, detached from claims of referentiality or direct correspondence to the world; but the premises of deconstruction also resituate literature as a form of cultural practice and production that has a material life and effects.
14. If the meanings of “individual” texts are now made problematic—situated in relation to culture and to the uncertain play of language and signification—then “individuality” and one’s assumed autonomy and the possibility of self-recognition or understanding also are called into question (the traditions of “liberal humanism” are thereby questioned). Such attempts to identify cultural positions and identities alert us to the heterogeneity within and across cultures—to conflicting positions—and to the possibility of significant actions and agency because of the limits or lack of wholly successful determinations of meaning and identity.
15. If literature puts our identities into play, sometime precariously, it may be understood as enabling us to experiment with possible selves and to instruct us about what positions or places we (should/might) take in the world.
16. Fictions thus not only reflect but make culture, with consequent effects that may police behavior or that may challenge the reigning assumptions of a given culture, to test alternative ways of being or seeing.
17. Familiar, repeated stories (plots) may reassure us about the order/relations /values (ideology) those stories represent and enact.
18. We need such repeated plots because in some way the stories do not fully satisfy our desires or accomplish their functions and goals. Each story contains some loose end that unravels its effect, and often this unraveling occurs because the text depends upon a figure or system of figurative language that can be analyzed to show how the text’s figures and rhetorical aims attempt to contain and occlude conflicts that the text cannot fully resolve.
19. Language is a system of figures through which our ideas and knowledge become possible, and through which we “agree” upon what is “true.” Yet this awareness of the social and systemic nature of meaning also enables us to challenge received and practiced values and meanings.
20. This awareness of how meaning can be both “determined” by some groups and then made “indeterminate” by others, and the notion of exploring how texts fail to fulfill their purposes, undermines our confidence in being able to determine or to control meaning—or to agree upon interpretation and to reach mutual understandings as we choose and negotiate among “relevant” contexts for deciding upon particular meanings.
21. Furthermore, not only are the contexts and premises to which we appeal to settle differences subject to dispute, intentions themselves are “shadowy and unstable,” riddled with repressed desires and meanings.
22. Hence, we seek to find ways to relate determinacy and indeterminacy, to mediate or confer among different contexts and positions (see opening quote from Jonathan Culler above).

Further observations:
23. One strand of interest in the points made above has to do questioning/exploring relations with others, with concepts of identity/difference/otherness and what this may mean for understanding others (other texts) and living with (in relation to) others—questions about to what extent social relations are possible or are comprised by “community.”
24. For example, Herman Rapaport writes: “In Grundrisse, Marx writes that capitalist society is contradictory in that ‘The mutual and universal independence of individuals who remain indifferent to one another constitutes the social network that binds them together.’ In short, the social relation within bourgeois society amounts to the fact that there really is no social relation at all. ‘Social coherence,’ Marx wrote, is ‘expressed in exchange value’ (Rapaport, The Literary Theory Toolkit).
24. Following Rapaport’s review of social relations further, Lacan’s conceived of alterity/big otherness in terms of a radical difference of someone unknowable/unfathomable whose singularity somehow manages to demand recognition/submission from us in terms that break the very social relation in which that demand is related to us. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, for example, offers an example of a story of a relation of non-relation.
25. Following and yet departing from Husserl and Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas posited an Other whose asymmetrical and nonthematizable difference interrupts our consciousness and ethical complacency to put in question (demand?) what should constitute our ethical responsibility to such radically unknowable others.
26. Such ideas led George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot to ponder whether community itself is comprised of such non-relationships of singularities interrupting one another. Jean-Luc Nancy uses the phrase “inoperative community” to suggest how “communication” may work against cohesion to produce what Jacques Rancière calls dissensus, or what Derrida takes up in his writings on pardon, the gift, hospitality, the promise, forgiveness, and the signature—all essentially about a “relation/non-relation of the social relation and how this ultimately bears upon notions of community that are predicated on assumptions of a contractual nature, which all societies share, to some very great extent” (Rapaport 284). See also Giorgio Agamben’s writings on when societies make exceptions to what constitutes social relations or what constitutes being human.
27. What is at stake therefore in understanding literature participates in (what is at stake in) determining what comprises our identities and relations to others, to concepts of community, to ethical obligations and rights, and to the problems (or virtues) of positing others or indeed ourselves as singular, unknowable.

Put differently or in reprise/addition, here is how Michael Ryan sums up theory, through a series of claims in the last chapter of An Introduction to Criticism: Literature/Film/Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
1. Culture is nature: culture and our cognitive abilities have evolved, and have adaptive value; stories that work to sustain group survival (a prerequisite for individual survival), may inculcate cultural self-regulating norms such as ethical reciprocity.
2. Words make things: groups with power seek to promote norms that preserve their power, often along opportunistic rather than principled lines—for example, the word “terrorism” may determine what we take to be things, what we purport to know about the world of Islam, or even the world. We project order onto the world (as Foucault argues, this includes how such power produces the categories of “knowledge” that identify sexual identities/practices and what constitutes “madness.”)
3. We know what we know: we impose order onto the world that is not there, and we do so with limited perspectives and experience. If, however, other perspectives are given credibility, the stories we tell about the world change, and typically those with power and material interests are reluctant to afford to allow that to happen.
4. Learn Arabic: we often react to the uncertainty of multiple perspectives, incomplete knowledge, and complexity by composing (or aligning with) a particular sense of order imposed onto the face of uncertainty and the unknown/other. We avoid assuming, taking up, the perspective of a presumed adversary because that might undermine our feeling of control.
5. Reality is a fabrication: we help to construct a shared perception of reality that papers over what is contingent and made-up. “When we see the reality of commercial culture, we do not think ‘This is a camp; we work hard and get life sucked out of us so that a small coterie of wealthy investors can live lives of leisure.’ Instead, we think ‘We are all free; we can all consume whatever we want if we work hard to get money to pay for consumer goods.’ . . .We are offered toys instead of truly free lives.” “The ‘real’—that particular cultural construct that we hold in our minds and that is often quite different from physical reality—is of our own making.
6. Not all stories are true: we narrate/tell stories, most typically in a linear order from beginning to end, such as the U.S. national narrative of a government devoted to freedom, established by the founding fathers versus many historians’ counter-narrative of a national government established to reduce democracy and to increase the power of a monied elite. “Contemporary critical theory distrusts national narratives of the kind I just described that create a single subject out of complex multi-perspectival situations and a single transcendent theme out of complexly articulated flows of experience.”
7. Power is belief: contemporary cultural theory argues that when we believe such national stories, we help those in power to remain in power. And power here is primarily commercial in character; it is not political power, although the two often coincide. Modern life, at least since the Renaissance in the West, has been organized around commerce.
8. You are not who you think you are: Contemporary critical theory disputes the belief that we are ‘free’ selves whose actions originate in wills over which we exercise complete control. As Freud explains, we control our instinctual drives in order to be civilized , but they manifest themselves nevertheless in displaced, indirect forms (as symptoms of our unconscious yearnings and fears displayed in symbolic form). We are not fully self-determining selves because each of our selves is constructed in part through interactions/relations with others, from childhood on. We internalize these social relations so that our self is relational; in particular, our socio-economic class/location conditions our preferences and tastes, rather than such preferences originating with some distinct, interior self.
9. You have to learn to be yourself: we tend to adapt ourselves to our culture’s prevalent ideals by repeatedly adopting, performing models of identity; yet according to neuroscience, not all gender identity, for example, is a learned performance; men and women are driven by similar but different genetic programs that are realized through the language of culture. The drives or fuel is physical but the forms and shapes it takes are culturally coded.
10. Capitalism is bad for you: if by capitalism, one refers to the economic subordination of the majority of the world’s population to the will and power of a minority. Capitalism consists of making wealth for some by convincing a lot of people to work for less than the market value of the goods they make. Workers have in a sense to be underpaid for capitalism to work. So if you are a member of the owning class, congratulations. Capitalism is good for you. But if not, capitalism is probably bad for you.
11. Effects are sometimes causes: contemporary theory is concerned with mistakes in thinking, such as mistaking effects for causes; racist social discourses may be based on “common sense” perceptions that accept surface notions rather than invisible structures—for example, by taking the effects of racism on a population that has suffered discrimination and subsequent disenchantment, and then taking such disenchantment (an effect) as evidence that the population is unworthy of equal opportunities or any redress for discrimination
12. Identity is difference—and is therefore contingent: terms/identities, are defined in differential, dependent relation to other terms; a thing named by “terrorism” or by “rebellion/treason” is constituted in its identity by its difference from other things that it is not. “Illegitimate” violence is defined in relation to what is considered “legitimate” violence. “Because things relate in an essential way to other things . . . because they are connected, you can’t separate them into neat identities that serve one’s self-interested purposes for long without the contingency, the insubstantiality and impermanence, of those acts of identity-making becoming evident.”
13. We all live in the past: most things are the end result of previous events and they are often more like echoes than things. But too often some focus instead on the present as what is real, and may even assert that no archeology can be performed to show how the present derives from the past or rests on its ruins.
14. The world is all there is: sometimes certain kinds of thinking are overly empirical or speculative, and contemporary theory seeks to see connections not apparent in an empirical mode of thinking, and seeks as well to counter overly speculative beliefs in hidden expressions of spirit behind events/people, as if there were some ultimate cause.
15. Nature is culture: literature provides us with a way of understanding how our social life works, and the same evolved and adaptive cognitive processes that allow humans to organize social life in particular ways are at work in the construction of literary and cultural narratives. Human social life consists of a choice of narratives for living, with ‘narratives’ being understood here as an actual life experience spread over time and guided by cultural stories that justify it to participants. Both the cultural and real-world narrative can change; both use frames to exclude norm-dissonant perspectives and values and to ensure that the meanings that support the continuity and homogeneity of the lived process are stable, predictable, and enforced. Who tells the stories in the culture thus largely shapes how that cultural world will be organized. Stories are what people believe and how they believe, and how people believe determines how they act and how they live. Stories can change how people think, perceive, believe, and act. The analysis of the work they perform is thus an important endeavor. And that is what criticism is all about.