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Trouble in the Republic of Letters: Literature and the Law

ENGL 566.640
instructor(s):
T 6-9

This seminar will explore the relationship between two of our most powerful forms of social discourse, literature and the law. The two share conspicuous similarities: a tendency to represent, interpret, and criticize flesh-and-blood interactions; a reliance on story-telling; a fondness for precedent, evidence, and testimony. Yet the two are perhaps even more frequently in conflict with one another, particularly over questions fundamental to both -- such as how language works, what constitutes evidence and truth, and what kinds of advocacy and representation are desirable or harmful.

We'll begin by considering their relationship through one of their most powerful shared fictions, the republic of letters. We'll examine its historical basis in the Enlightenment, but will quickly move on to consider how this fictional space underwrites our sense both of an independent judiciary and what we most often call "the public sphere" or "the court of public opinion." Along the way we'll explore the law-making qualities of literature (its tendency to posit artificial forms onto lived experience even as it insists that those forms have value) and the literariness of the law (its ability to turn fictions into enforceable realities and its fondness for resolving conflict). What do we expect of our laws or our literature? How do each manage to stay alive for posterity? What kinds of interpretive approaches should govern both? How might literature and law be said to regulate one another? Texts for the course will span from the ancient to the recent, and will likely include works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, Wilkie Collins, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as several legal cases and critical essays. Assigned work will be two essays of around ten pages each.