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Modern Social Imaginaries

ENGL 590.401
instructor(s):
t 3-6

In 1913 social philosopher George Mead asserted, It is fair to say that the modern western world has lately done much of its thinking in the form of the novel. His point was not that novels were doing social theory but that everyday social understanding was being fostered and changed by novel-reading. Mead was anticipating what in current parlance we call the social imaginary. But what does it mean to say that there is an imaginary dimension to the social? What is assumed thereby about the human imagination and what do those assumptions mean for literature and literary study?

This seminar will pursue a genealogy of the notion of a social imaginary. Our aim will be to review major pillars of modern social thought on the way to exploring some of the cultural theories most influential in literary studies. The bulk of our reading may be theoretical but we will include selected novels (titles coming in this space soon) in order to think concretely about how fiction can be understood in relation to modern social imaginaries.

There are likely to be three general sections to the course, in which we will read some (not all) of the following authors. 1. Reasons to Worry about Reason. A review of the 19th century writers who challenged Enlightenment social thought (Marx, Weber, Freud, Nietzsche, Wm James). 2. The Foucault Consensus (and Does Foucault Agree?) A constellation of theorists who extended the critique of Enlightenment into the twentieth century (Adorno and Horkheimer, Norbert Elias, Habermas, Bourdieu, Negt and Kluge, Stuart Hall). 3. Reimagining the Social. New and emergent ways of imagining possibilities for social life in the wake of the Foucault consensus. Some of the key terms for these approaches include: recognition (Nancy Fraser, Charles Taylor, Axel Honneth), reflexivity (Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash, Anthony Giddens), intimacy and affect (Drucilla Cornell, Niklas Luhmann, Seyla Benhabib), everyday life (Cornelius Castoriadis, Michel DeCerteau, late Foucault), sociality and possible publics (Habermas, Wendy Brown, Michael Warner).

Writing assignments will consist of short response papers, one of which will be the basis for a somewhat longer (10-12 pages) paper at the end of the course. Since many of the readings will be excerpts, each student will take a turn reading the larger work in full and reporting to the rest of the class.