American Studies | Colloquium in American Studies: Power, Discourse & Identity after Post-structuralism
G620 | 22677 | Kaplan

G620: Colloquium in AMST
Topic:  Power, Discourse and Identity after Post-structuralism

Instructor: Michael Kaplan

Course meets with CMCL-C611

This course responds to the recent emergence of new, radically
discursive models of power and political agency grounded in the work
of so-called “post-structuralist” theorists, particularly Jacques
Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Setting out from the
premise that relations of power are implicit in the structure of
signification itself, these models differ as to the precise meaning
and implications of this premise for political agency and cultural
critique. In this course, we will take a close comparative look at
the four most influential of these new models. Specifically, we will
examine Jürgen Habermas’s attempt to derive rhetorical norms from the
structure of communicative action in order to ground political
legitimacy; Judith Butler’s rhetorical theory of the performativity
of power; Ernesto Laclau’s thesis that the struggle for hegemony is
rooted in the rhetorical dynamics of signification; and Giorgio
Agamben’s recent efforts to elucidate a newly resurgent form of
sovereign power rhetorically grounded in permanent war. While all
these authors conceive of power and discourse as mutually implicated,
their shared premises generate diverging descriptions of politics and
competing, often incompatible prescriptions. A comparative study of
these theories will disclose differences of decisive importance for
critically productive analysis of contemporary public culture,
particularly in relation to gender, race, globalization, and

More specifically, the course deals with the way(s) language becomes
an explicit problem for democracy—and most immediately American
liberal democracy. In different ways, the theorists covered locate
the conditions of possibility for, and constraints on, democratic
politics within specific features of language itself. An important
aim of the class is to show that this is not a purely theoretical
conceit but pertains directly to the ordinary experience of politics
in U.S. public culture, which routinely focuses on the discursive
dimensions of democratic identity, membership and agency.
Accordingly, students will be strongly encouraged to investigate
specific manifestations of "language as a problem for democracy" in
the context of American public culture.