At least through much of the nineteenth century, the essay was perceived by many as a secondary, less creative genre of writing, suspected for its incidental, public, and parasitic nature. Others, such as Walter Pater, T. W. Adorno, and Roland Barthes, have been considerably more appreciative, often, like Pater, seeing the essay as the "strictly appropriate form of our modern philosophical literature." The first part of this seminar will examine the different possibilities and debates that have described this particular form of writing from its sixteenth-century beginnings in the works of Montaigne (when, in Foucault's words, "commentary yields to criticism") through twentieth-century theories and practices of the essay from Lukacs and Adorno through Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, and Christa Wolf. The majority of the course, however, will concentrate on the reincarnation of this literary form as the essay film, and in this context we will investigate the work of Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Erroll Morris, Derek Jarman and others. Rather than assuming experience with film scholarship and film history, we will use this course as at least a partial introduction to both.
Students will be encouraged to develop their own positions and arguments (most notably in a final research project). My own emphasis, however, will be on 1) the historical and cultural conditions that encouraged essayistic writing, 2) the formal and expressive possibilities made exclusively available by the essay, and 3) the larger issues raised by the essay about the relation of writing to creativity or originality, to the politics and industry of a public domain, and to aesthetic categories such as romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism. Besides the primary research project, students will submit one shorter essay and, at some point in the semester, lead the seminar in a short discussion of their project.