Literary Theory: Presentation Samples
Beyond Mere Humanity? The Artist as Animal (LT)
Current concern over humans’ impact on the planet and on the diversity of its species has inspired us to reconsider who we are and what our place in the world should be. What might it mean for the very human pursuit of art, then, if we are reconsidering what it means to be human? Taking our cue from the new theoretical approach of posthumanism, with a brief nod to its predecessors poststructuralism and postmodernism, we will explore what an expanded understanding of humanness has to offer literary creativity and contemplation. In what ways are art in general and literature in particular thought of as specifically human activities? In what ways, by contrast, might the perceptual activities of the artist have possible continuities with animal perception? How and why has contemplation of the world seen through animals’ eyes provided crucial inspiration for literature? Why has it often been so tempting to think of the artist as almost a species unto him/herself?
Packet of PDF readings will be provided by instructor
“Making” Poetry: Language and Technology in the Renaissance (C, LT)
What does poetry have to do with carpentry, shipbuilding, military tactics, horsemanship, mapping, and political science? Most people today would say “absolutely nothing.” If, as it is widely assumed, all good poetry is the product of the imagination, or what Wordsworth called the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” then it would seem to have little to do with the mechanical arts or what the Greeks called “techne.” In our post-industrial, high-tech world, poetry tends to be seen— in the Romantic vein—as an alternative to “practical” work in the sciences or business; it is a last stand for the human heart. But in the Renaissance this was not the case. Anyone pursuing a career as a lawyer, courtier, or statesman knew the importance of rhetoric (one of the seven liberal arts). And that was only the beginning. In “The Defence of Poesie” (1595), Sir Philip Sidney reminded his readers that the word “poet” derives from the Greek “poiein” or “maker.” For Sidney and other humanists, poesie was not only tied to virtuous political action, it was also tied to the mechanical arts, or what we call “technology.”
In this seminar we will explore the role of the poet in the Renaissance and specifically the role of the poet as a kind of craftsperson, someone who could learn from and teach those involved in architecture, building, and instrument making. What did poetic terms like “imagination,” “device,” “plot,” or “invention” have to do with the military arts, architecture, map-making, and ethics? We will discuss poetry’s connection to the spatial or mechanical arts as well as its connection to natural philosophy, including Neoplatonism and other proto-scientific forms of thought. After discussing poetry and technology in the Renaissance, we will look at new ways of thinking about the connection between poetry and technology that are emerging in our own day.
Sir Philip Sidney, “The Defence of Poesie”
Additional readings will be posted on Blackboard.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Politics of Empire (C, LT)
Classics are books that reveal new aspects of themselves with every reading. In the 19th century, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was thought of as just a collection of fanciful myths and tales about the relations between gods and mortals in the Greco-Roman world. In the last half of the 20th century, some readers began to see it as something more: Ovid’s subtle critique of the masculinism, militarism and totalitarian nature of Roman society under the emperor Augustus. We will read selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in translation, and examine and discuss the ways in which plots, themes, and even the idea of metamorphosis itself may cast a subversive light on the politics of empire.
This would be a great opportunity for you to read all of Ovid’s masterpiece, but if you don’t have the time, the sections below are the ones most relevant to our presentation. Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Book I; Book II: Phaethon; Jove, Callisto and Arcas; The House of Envy; Jove and Europa. Book III; Book IV; Book V; Perseus and the Suitors; Minerva visits the Muses; the Daughters of Pierus; the P-Airides; Book VI; Book VII; the Medea tales; Book VIII; Meleager and Althaea, Baucis and Philemon; Erysichthon and his daughter. Book IX: Iole’s tale of Dryope; Byblis and Caunis; Iphos and Isis. Book X: from the tale of Pygmalion to Venus and Adonis (2). Book XI: The house of Sleep. Book XII: The house of Rumor; Caeneus; The Lapiths and the centaurs; the death of Achilles. Book XIII. Book XIV: Aeneas wanders, The Sibyl. Book XV The teachings of Pythagoras; Cipus; The apotheosis of Julius Caesar; the poet of the future.
The Contemplation of History: Marxist Criticism for Writers (LT)
Using the work of Marxist critic Fredric Jameson this class will examine issues concerning the presentation of history (or the history of presentation). Starting with Jameson's work on postmodernism and his essay “Beyond the Cave: Demystifying the Ideology of Modernism,” I will first examine Jameson's take on the shifts between realism, modernism and postmodernism and how they illuminate the writerly issues of quality and aesthetic choice. In what ways does the mode of modernism tend to bestow a canonical status that is perhaps not available or even desired by a postmodern work? (This has implications for genre writers.) How does the modernist text assume an imaginary realist text, and can a writer from a marginalized community assume the existence of such a text? I will also examine how modes of representation-realism, modernism and postmodernism-might help illuminate the broader issues of colonialism/post-colonialism and race. What would constitute a realist as opposed to a post-modern reading of race? Is the shift from the colonial to the post-colonial in any way analogous to the shift into postmodernism? Finally, what does each mode assume about the depiction of history and how can Marxist criticism help a writer in understanding the nature of a given historical moment?
Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986: Volume 2: Syntax of History, (especially the essays “Beyond the Cave: Demystifying the Ideology of Modernism” and “Periodizing the 60’s”).
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” in Image, Music, Text, or in the anthology Art
After modernism; Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis
Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (first chapter, “Culture,” esp.)
Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn
Background Reading (will be referred to in presentation):
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness
Michelle Cliff, The Land of Look Behind
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao
Toni Morrison, Jazz
Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Tourists with Typewriters: The Aesthetics and Ethics of Travel Narratives (C, LT)
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
--Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”
Travel writer, Paul Theroux, has observed that “travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” Thoreau seems to have agreed when he wrote, “Far travel, very far travel, or travail, comes near to the worth of staying at home.” Yet each year, travelers and tourists alike spend their precious vacation time venturing out—into crowded cathedrals, onto perilous ledges, backpacking through gulags or archipelagos, brushing their teeth with bottled water, streaming onto buses and ferries, searching for the best beaches and the best Italian food, touring villas and vineyards, or trekking through devastated landscapes—the Korean DMZ, the wastelands of Chernobyl—searching for lost stories. Why?
“We travel, initially,” Pico Iyer writes, “to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.” This toppling, confusion, and sharpening of the senses that marks so many travel narratives makes them useful texts for all writers to study—if only to observe how a travel writer builds a whole world one tree, one stick of furniture, and one kielbasa at a time through observation and selection of detail. In this presentation, we will first discuss the craft of the required texts as they work to construct worlds for the reader.
But the act of constructing cultures, places, and people by the traveler writer brings responsibilities and is often fraught with potential difficulties that beg questions of travel. At its most innocent, travel writing, Graham Holland and Graham Huggan have observed in Tourists with Typewriters, provides readers a “license for escapism” At its worst, Holland and Huggan argue, travel writing is an “effective alibi for the perpetuation or reinstallment of ethnocentrically superior attitudes to ‘other’ cultures, peoples, and places.” Through this postcolonial lens, readers become nothing more than “eager consumers of exotic—culturally ‘othered’—goods.”
So in this presentation, we will discuss how travel narratives can reveal the “imperial eye” of the writer and/or the traveler; how place can be commodified in text; and how travel itself can be seen as a n exercise in privilege. Additionally, there are ecological questions that arise out of the growing hunger for travel narratives—how does the encouragement of travel imprint the carbon footprint, and how do travel narratives that honor ecologically fragile locations fuel expansion of tourism into the very regions the writer hoped to preserve through documentation. In this presentation and discussion, we’ll wade into these and other conundrums and quagmires regarding the act of travel and the writing of narratives that employ travel themes.
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Marousi
Alain De Botton, “On Anticipation,” The Art of Travel (pp. 3-26)
Suggested Reading (portions):
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
Writing About Race (LT, S, C)
While the effects of race are everywhere visible in our society, we very seldom discuss this subject with any honesty or depth. One reason for this is, to take a phrase from Anna Deveare Smith’s play, we have a “lousy vocabulary” when it comes to race. Actually though we do have a more sophisticated vocabulary to engage in a discourse about race. Unfortunately, one can receive any number of writing or literary degrees without being exposed to this vocabulary. This seminar will introduce some basic intellectual terms and methods to examine race in literature and in our society--dual consciousness, identity, internalized racism, white supremacy, systemic racism, white privilege, post-colonial; the continuing reconsideration of the literary tradition and aesthetic criteria from a racial & postcolonial perspective; etc. While the truth or usefulness of these concepts and methods may be up to debate, I do think it is important for writers to be aware of them. Beyond this, I have often seen writers who are exposed to these concepts and methods find new ways of exploring their own writing, whether or not they have previously considered race as a topic for their own writing. Authors referred to will include Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, Edward Said, Anna Deveare Smith, Frank Wilderson.
bell hooks, Killing Rage (particularly “Introduction,” “Representations of Whitenessin the Black Imagination,” “Black Beauty and Black Power:Internalized Racism,” “Overcoming White Supremacy: A Comment”
James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket (or if single volumes, Notes of a Native Son & The Devil Finds Work)
PDF file with quotations
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
Fantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks
Edward Said, Orientalism; Culture & Imperialism
Anna Deveare Smith, Fires in the Mirror, Twilight
Frank Wilderson, Incognegro
The Absence of Presence: Nietzsche, Derrida and the Project of Poststructuralism (LT)
Truth, essence, substrance, foundation, identity, presence—more than mere words, these concepts lie at the very heart of Western literary and philosophical discourse. It is precisely these concepts, however, which poststucturalism—one of the most controversial yet influential varieties of contemporary literary theory—seeks to question, problematize, and, in the phrase of Jacques Derrida, place “under erasure.” Why this urge to (again in Derrida’s words) “deconstruct” terms that not only have determined the development of Western intellectual and literary categories, but also have shaped our cultural self-understanding from Greek antiquity to the historical moment we now inhabit? To answer this question, we will turn first to what I term the prehistory of poststructuralism—a prehistory located in the writing of the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. When Nietzsche declares that truth is not some metaphysical thing-in-itself, but merely “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms,” he inaugurates the linguistic shift in philosophy that no longer distinguishes between the world and the word, but collapses them so that the former is no longer a stable extralinguistic entity, a referent of the words which re-present it transparently. Instead, the “world” becomes thoroughly produced by language, an entity saturated with textuality. It is only a short intellectual journey from this Nietzschean premise to Derrida’s infamous conclusion, “Il n’y a pas hors de texte” (“There is nothing outside of the text”). What are the implications of such a position for how we read, write and interpret? Is post-structuralism a nihilistic world-view, as its critics charge? If it is nihilistic, might this not offer an opportunity to re-vision the act of interpretation and how we think about literature, philosophy and the text within which we all exist—the “text” we call culture? These are just some of the issues I want us to explore together in this presentation.
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” and “The Will to Power”
Jacques Derrida, “Of Grammatology”
James Joyce, “The Dead”
(The pieces by Nietzsche and Derrida are excerpts from much longer works; these excerpts that form the basis of my presentation can be found in the second edition of Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, published by Blackwell.)
The Intersection of Fiction and Nonfiction: Crossing the Boundaries (C, LT)
So much attention has been given to the relationship between fiction and nonfiction. Some complain when the facts have been distorted or fabricated, others become concerned when real events intercede with the fictional world. It’s as though a wall of genre has been erected, and to suggest even peeking over it is tantamount to literary treason. But do we need this wall? If the ultimate purpose of a piece of literature is to find a truth, why are we beholden to protectors of the separate genres? During this presentation we’ll discuss what it means for something to be true, the role of memory and storytelling, notions of structure, the ethics of including and/or excluding factual details, and how a piece of prose can traverse genre boundaries to find a single truth.
Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
Michael Cunninham, The Hours
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America