English | Critical Practices
L371 | 12593 | Richard Higgins

Richard Higgins

12593 - 1:00p-2:15p TR (30 students) 3 cr.,

TOPIC: Utopia Deferred

This course will approach literary criticism and theory as a social
experience, as an ongoing conversation about the pleasures, effects,
and influences of literature and other media on human experience.
We will take seriously the aims of criticism, which by definition
are critical: questioning, descriptive, skeptical, and even
suspicious of the role of literature and media in human lives.  But
criticism as an intervention in what we think about literature and
culture is also motivated by aims that are hopeful and even
utopian.  Critical theory, then, seeks both to unmake and remake
literary and cultural texts, uncovering and decoding the structures,
assumptions, values, cultural determinants, or desires that give
them meaning as well as proposing new ways of appreciating and
comprehending them ¬– and, in turn, giving us new ways of
understanding ourselves.

Our reading for the semester will be grouped around a few key
literary texts that exhibit their own forms of skepticism (and
discovery): Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian-era novel Villette, Herman
Melville’s anti-slavery novella Benito Cereno, Walt Whitman’s war
poetry and portions of “Song of Myself,” and cyberpunk author
William Gibson’s recent Pattern Recognition.  Within the context of
these literary texts, we will explore theories of the novel and form
(Mikhail Bakhtin), psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud), feminism
(Virginia Woolf), poststructuralism (Jacques Derrida), New
Historicism (Michel Foucault), gender and queer studies (Judith
Butler, Eve Sedgwick), colonialism (Edward Said), critical race
theory (bell hooks), postmodernism (Jean Baudrillard, Fredric
Jameson), semiotics (Roland Barthes), cultural studies (Raymond
Williams, Dick Hebdige), technoculture (Donna Haraway), and the
posthuman (Katherine Hayles).

We will make time as well to consider some examples from popular
music (such as the DIY aesthetic of punk rock or the virtuality of
the collaborative project known as Gorillaz), television (HBO’s The
Wire, for example) and excerpts from the films The Matrix and Being
John Malkovich.  We will aim to emerge from this course with
something like our own utopian responses to the theory and
philosophy under discussion.  How can we remake them in ways that
allow us to speak persuasively about “theory” and how can we adapt
them to our own interpretive goals?

Expect to contribute actively to class discussion, write frequent,
brief written responses to assigned reading, do at least one class
presentation as part of a group, conduct an informal research
exercise at the Wells Library, write three medium-length papers
using critical approaches as interpretive tools, and complete a
final exam.