ENGL 238
Key Topics in Literary Theory: The "Critique of the Subject" Spring 2020
Division I Writing Skills
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Class Details

This course will introduce students to one of the core topics in the field of literary theory: the “critique of the subject.” Is the “subject” (i.e. the “self”, what we refer to when we use the word “I”) coherent, bounded, and autonomous, like what Christians mean when they speak of the soul? Or is the subject, rather, the contingent product of historical and political forces (like the media, gender norms, and beliefs about race, property, and the law)? Is language best thought of as something humans use to express their thoughts to communicate with one another? Or is language, rather, something which shapes and determines the very forms that human subjectivity can take in the first place? Is “the subject” really real? Or is our sense of self ultimately just an illusion: an effect of language, power, or history? We will consider all these possibilities, and more. We will begin the course by reading classical accounts of subjectivity by Descartes, Kant, and Husserl, before studying a dizzying array of theoretical “critiques” of this philosophical tradition. Not only will the sheer variety of theories be somewhat dizzying, many of the theories themselves are truly mind-blowing (in the best sense), many of them totally upending our sense of what it means to have a self or to think of ourselves as human in the first place. By the end of the semester, students will be familiar with versions of the “critique of the subject” that are associated with a number of influential theoretical approaches, including: phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, New Historicism, postcolonial theory, and queer theory. We will read a few literary texts in tandem with various theories, but students should know that the emphasis throughout will fall squarely on the theoretical texts themselves: in particular, how to understand them, how to write about them, and how to put radically different theories in meaningful conversation with one another.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 19
Expected: 19
Class#: 3733
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: four papers totaling about 20 pages; engaged participation in class discussions
Prerequisites: a 100-level ENGL course, or a score of 5 on the AP English Literature exam, or a score of 6 or 7 on the Higher Level IB English exam
Enrollment Preferences: first- and second-year students, and English majors who have yet to take a Gateway course
Distributions: Division I Writing Skills
WS Notes: Each student will write four 5-page papers on which I will provide written feedback regarding grammar, style, and argument.
Attributes: ENGL Criticism Courses
ENGL 200-level Gateway Courses

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