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Theory in Practice

ENGL 294.401
MW 2-3:30

What does theory do for literature? What does literature do for theory? In this seminar we will examine some major works of literary criticism produced in the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, asking specifically what we can learn from a close attention to literary critics' use of that body of writing we have come to call "theory." What can we learn, for example, from closely examining D.A. Miller's application of Michel Foucault's theory of sexuality to Charles Dickens's David Copperfield in Miller's own book The Novel and the Police? How does Eve Sedgwick's engagement with structuralism help her bring out new insights about George Eliot's novel Adam Bede in her critical work Between Men? Each week we will read (often in excerpt) a work of literary criticism, one of the works of literature it analyzes, and one of its guiding theoretical texts in order to give ourselves the tools to knowledgably discuss literary critics' uses of theory. How and why, we will ask, do literary critics engage with theories drawn from the realms of cultural criticism, poststructuralist philosophy, and linguistic theory as well as from the world of literary theory? We will also seek to trouble the distinctions between literature and theory, and between "primary" and "secondary" works. How might we think of using a novel, for example, as a framework for understanding a more "theoretical" work?


While we will engage with a broad range of literary, critical, and theoretical texts, this seminar is not designed to present students with a survey of modern literary theory. Rather, it provides "case studies" showing how several different literary critics adapt theoretical frameworks from a variety of disciplines to the purposes of literary criticism. We will read works by critics and theorists such as Freud, Marx, Foucault, Althusser, Barthes, Benjamin, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Sedgwick, Miller, Armstrong, and Jameson. We will also read selections from some examples of the literary works these theorists and critics focus on. Course requirements will include a few short papers and a final paper, as well as a research project and regular participation in discussion.


fulfills requirements