FREN512b/SPAN501: “Introduction to Literary Theory”

“Theory makes you desire mastery: you hope that theoretical reading will give you the concepts to organize and understand the phenomena that concern you. But theory makes mastery impossible: not only because there is always more to know, but, more specifically and more painfully, because theory is itself the questioning of presumed results and the assumptions on which they are based. The nature of theory is to undo.” (Jonathan Culler, A Short Introduction to Literary Theory, 16)

Description: Literary works have a peculiar place among cultural artifacts: they are the most conscious, overt attempt to capture, in a seemingly unified discourse, culture's many different dimensions and see them from the vantage point of an individualized consciousness. All of culture is represented in the lives of literary characters and seems to be assigned meaning there. Literary theory, in a like manner, can be seen as an attempt to extend into the symbolic, cultural world theoretical developments from other disciplines: literary theories have evolved out of linguistics, psychology, history, sociology, philosophy, political science, and even mathematics. Each sister discipline lends its own flavor to the field. 

In this seminar we will read excerpts from different theoretical perspectives and consider how they apply concretely, or not, to the understanding of a chosen set of literary texts. What do these theories bring to our reading? What differences do we find among these approaches? 

Of particular interest is to understand how some cultural artifacts become recognizable and persistent. Cultural artifacts can be of a general nature, such as “capitalist justice” or the anti-hero (from Maldoror to “House”), or something more specific to a particular genre, such as the proletarian, the revolutionary, or the cyberpunk. But in such cases a persistent cultural artifact seems to precipitate out of diffuse popular culture and form a historically identifiable and seemingly rigid, autonomous, even robotic, literary entity. Our question is therefore: how and why do some cultural artifacts come to have a “life of their own”, and golem-like, invade all of literature and even all of culture? What is the source of their power?

Enrollment for this course ended on January 10, 2011.
In case of questions, please contact the facilitator.

Blog posts