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Monday, 19 February 2007


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This is certainly an interesting syllabus, but I see several potential problems, the greatest being that the premise of the course (namely the attempt to historicize theory by setting it up as a mere "function of professional forces and institutional structures [which are] the social forms we establish that enable us to do certain kinds of work," rather than as a response to the critical or theoretical demands attendant on any hermeneutics) is itself put in question by several of the strands of theory addressed by the course. The syllabus here already authorizes a certain version of theory without naming the "professional forces and institutional structures" that motivate it do so.

One way to work through this problem would be to foreground it, which would amount to setting up the conflict between historicism and, say, philology as the central polemic in the history of theory. This would be similar, though not identical, to the version of the history of theory authorized by de Man in The Resistance to Theory - namely, the perpetual, inevitable conflict between literary theory and critical theory, confounded as they are by the echoes of the term literary criticism. Part of the problem with your premise, after all, is that you haven't specified whether the "theory" you aim to teach is literary theory or critical theory. In either case (historicism vs. philology, literary theory vs. critical theory) the focus on a recurrent problematic would allow for a course which covers both the historical and theoretical dimensions of the topic. Another example along this trajectory would be to cover the fate of "subjectivity" in literary-critical discourse.

A more problem-based approach to teaching "theory" would also help remedy what seems to be the striking absence of continental theory on the syllabus above: the indirect influence on American literary studies of Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Husserl, and Heidegger and the direct influence of Saussure, the Prague School, the Frankfurt School, the Constance School, not to mention the major omissions from France (Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, Lacan). Especially if you plan to update the syllabus with the inclusion of "nods to queer and postcolonial theory," the importance of these influences as theoretical background are indispensable.

Regarding de Man texts in particular, "Form and Intent in the American New Criticism" and "The Resistance to Theory" are particularly appropriate choices for the above syllabus as it is proposed, insofar as both specifically address the American institutional context. However, a broader, more theoretically inclined approach might get more out of "The Rhetoric of Temporality" from B&I (a very challenging article for undergrads, perhaps, but also an effective way to teach de Man's take on irony and allegory, which are indispensable to his work), as well as "Semiology & Rhetoric" in AR. Of course, given my particular investment in de Man, I might be tempted to organize a course on theory by working through parts of RT and B&I article by article, pairing each theoretical movement with the corresponding analysis by de Man: Jauss + "Reading and History," for example, Heidegger + "Heidegger's Exegeses of Holderlin." The danger of this approach, though, would be to err too far in the opposite direction, privileging continental theory over the American institutional context.

Luther Blissett

The question to ask, after asking, "What would I teach, and why?", is, "Why am I teaching a theory class in the first place?"

What level are we considering? Graduate or undergraduate? This is perhaps most important. Graduate students might require or be interested in a history of the professionalization of theory. Ph.D. students most of all, MA students much less. Undergraduates neither require nor are interested in such discussions. A slim percentage of undergraduate English plan to pursue doctoral degrees in the subject. So we need to discuss what the BA in English tends to do with his/her degree and how a theory seminar could help him/her.

So for an undergraduate theory seminar, I would stick to work that most informs literary criticism, that most deals in literary debates, that most guides or reflects upon pedagogical needs.


Interesting! Now I feel like I have _even more_ things to read, sigh. I agree with Blissett above that there probably should be more of the Continental heavyweights and more on psychoanalysis and Marxism, and I don't really like the choices for feminist theory. I would feel compelled to put Butler's Gender Trouble on there though, which reminds me of what you said about certain theorists becoming so canonized they are "ossified" (i.e who reads Laura Mulvey's other works?).

I also agree that "why are you teaching theory?" and "who are you teaching it to?" are very important questions to ask before starting to put together the syllabus. A course should have various goals in mind, considering that it is physically impossible to "cover" everything about theory in a class --- or a lifetime. This also almost seems like a "topics course" on the institutionalization of theory, or an introduction to grad school seminar, more than a theory course per se.

And there are other ways of teaching that to be considered. For example, I know someone who teaches the intro to grad course (although not the year I took it, alas) by studying the changes in PMLA over the years and particularly in the 60s, and has students trace over time the changing styles and focuses, the questions asked and unchallenged assumptions, of a journal in their field. And my undergrad theory survey had philosophy books and a course reader; the class was diametrically opposed to the one you list, as it traced language (focusing on a few things like metaphor and metonym) through "theory" from Plato through philosophers to the structuralists and finally Derrida and some other poststructuralists. What the class lacked in "coverage" it made up for in consistency and developing an "argument" through the format of the course itself (tho' I have problems with the common habit of creating laser-focused grad seminars based around a chapter in the prof's forthcoming book).

Oh, and while I feel I need to get a certain book out of the library before responding to your theory essay (and damn, that's intimidating ... blogreading is my "entertainment"), one thing I thought of was that this fear about the "Balkanization" and loss of coherence in theory has been around a long time. Check out the introduction to Richter's anthology, where he worries about the "language" of theory becoming debased into a "pidgin" or "creole" and preventing communication. Which is kinda fucked up, not only in the lack of trust he places in the next generation of scholars and theorists, but the various colonials and colonized people who created pidgins and creoles were perfectly capable of communicating and creating new, vibrant arts with their hybrid languages.

N. Pepperell
I labor over my syllabus, often spending weeks reading and re-reading material, justifying the inclusion of this text and the exclusion of that one; then reversing course, concocting an equally compelling counter-justification for excluding the former and including the latter; then re-reversing, re-re-reversing, &c.

I generally keep doing this until I run out of time, making all my course designs feel like, essentially, they were a matter of chance... ;-P


I'm in a bit of a rush tonight -- someone has her MA review tomorrow and requires comforting -- but I wanted to note that I was a little confusing, er, confused here. Williams writes about a graduate course, but if I'm prepping syllabi for job talks, I ought to be thinking undergraduate. Some sort of compromise should be possible, however, and I'll address it tomorrow. (This is my way of saying: "You people, with your thoughtful thinking, I can't do that right now!")


You could have alternatively responded with a rephrase of the question thus:

"Does it make any difference which selection of De Man I include in the Norton...?" which more accurately, I think, identifies the real problem of modern theory (i.e. the ethics of establishing hierarchies - intellectual, artistic, etc.).

Since all choices are exclusive, any individual selection rests upon some external criteria you've set up. Surlacarte's answer attempts to get at the root of the problem, though one could argue the attempt to "foreground it[the problem of selection and the attendant issues of theoretical framework(s)]" just covers it's own tracks. Explaining your dilemma this way just incites the problem to recede into the shadows ; it's still there - foregrounding the question of ideological constructs as they apply to selecting theory texts itself deserves attention as way of talking about a way of talking (see: all the way down, turtles).

Make your selection based on whatever criteria you choose, try to have it be somewhat consistent intellectually and accept the limitations of the format in which you work - the students can't read everything (though heaven knows some instructors try this approach) nor does it follow that the limitations of your selection/process are truly limitations. Why assume everyone needs the same level of complex interaction as you do? Isn't it more in line with the goal of education to introduce them to a subject, and let their own interest/dissatisfaction drive them to a deeper knowledge?

I think that would take some of the intellectual heat off you, in the sense that your choice, whatever, will be more productive than restrictive - particularly given the fact that you probably would use any particular piece as a springboard for further discussion in your class.

I note that the Norton Anthology of Criticism does just that: include a piece, but include a bibliography of primary sources and criticism - make the reader take some responsibility, I say.


Lanval, I lost you a bit on the part about the turtles, but I would suggest that the foregrounding of the problem that I proposed is precisely a way (one way among many) of accomplishing what you propose in the end of your comment - that is, identifying the way in which debates internal to theory shape the criteria for selection and reception of any theory canon is an effective way of placing the responsibility on the reader/student. This doesn't mean, and I didn't mean to suggest, that the result is an authoritative theory cannon independent of all external selection criteria or immune to critique. Still, it does offer a means of avoiding the specific blindspots based on which I critique the Williams syllabus. The point is to think critically and strategically about the selection criteria, rather than using the inevitable limitations of all selection criteria as a reason to be arbitrary (not that I think you mean to advocate arbitrariness). Am I missing a deeper critique here?


Yes, and no, I guess. We're really arguing for the same thing, but it looks like I'm a bit more callous about how to get there. I AM kind of arguing for arbitrariness - not for it's own sake, but because I feel like backing out to create a framework for understanding the way in which "The syllabus here already authorizes a certain version of theory without naming the 'professional forces and institutional structures' that motivate it do so" (your comment from above) just removes the problem one step.

Your statement implies a need to reveal an underlying structure which is invisible in the syllabus Williams offers (and I agree with you on that) but your statement itself has a particular theoretical underpinning which it might be useful to explore, and so on...but now we're on to the turtles - a probably apocryphal reference to a lecture given by a physicist on the nature of the Einsteinian universe; afterwards an elderly lady approaches him, and says something like

"You're wrong young man, about the universe. It rests on the back of a great turtle."
Our eminent scientist asks archly: "And on what does that great turtle rest?"
To which the lady nods knowingly, stating, "very clever young man, but it's turtles all the way down." (I pinched this from Hawking's "A Brief History of the Universe" if you'd like the original).

So I was suggesting that rather than worry too much about whether or not Williams's syllabus assumes too much, Scott would be alright if he created something similar - lay out your idea (i.e. the notion that theory is a result of professional forces, etc.) and let that stand. If the students ask for more, question the premise or challenge the structure, that would be an opening to broaden the conversation in the direction(s) your proposing.

In part the problem is one simply of amount vs. time. There are many, many good pieces by most any critic you could name. More than once I've gone to the Norton anthology looking for something, and found myself wondering "Why in #%$@* did they include X instead of Y?!" So when we ask which piece by any author should be included, we're already in trouble. The real answer is "all of them" but that's not possible. So after that, you're constructing a syllabus that passes the "rubber-meets-the-road-test"... does it enable a certain level of understanding about a (or some) topic(s)? If so, then I would give a thumbs-up, even if that understanding isn't nuanced enough to engage in the kind of theoretical dispute we're having fun with here.

All that said, I'm making a pretty narrow argument, and I know it. If pressed, I'd admit that using my own "rubber-meets-etc." standard, your approach of historicizing (or problematizing) the ideological underpinnings of theory-as-concept would work pretty well far more often than not.

In origin I was just thinking about the "De Man" question as problematic in it's assumptions, in some ways. So many good pieces by De Man; so little space. maybe in the end, you just pick what you like/works/fits and hope that's enough to engage those minds active and flexible enough to do something more with it.



Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste

Gosh, what a trip down memory lane this provokes...

Back in the mid-eighties I was friendly with Paul's daughter Patricia; we each rented places on Chester Street in Sommerville, before the Red Line expansion came to Davis Square. One saturday, I was called to bring my cat to her apartment to catch a mouse; the two non-primates quickly became friends, so I had to scoop up the little rodent and chuck it out into the yard.


My responses to y'all here have taken monstrous form, and will constitute a post instead of a comment. (This is my way of saying "You people, with the making me think not once but twice, and then some more, you will have your responses shortly." So please, um, bait your breath?)

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