How to do Literary Theory

This is a course in the lively history and practice of literary theory. Since the genesis of this thing we call “literature,” people have had theories about it: what it is, why we care about it, what impact it has in the world, how and if it matters, what makes a piece of writing good or bad—and who decides all of these things. In this course, we will read a wide range of answers to these questions written by very different people in very different places and times, from Ancient Greece to 20th century Europe, from post-colonial Africa and India to present-day U.S.

To get a feel for how these different literary theories work in practice each student will also choose a literary text on which to perform different styles of readings. Those literary works could be just about anything, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to a work of poetry by M. NourbeSe Philip, to contemporary experimental prose. By the end of the course you will be an expert in that text and in the various ways it can, or might, be understood in a plurality of literary methodologies, including: Close, Suspicious, & Distant Reading; Formalism; Historicism; Narratology; Psychoanalysis; Queer Theory & Feminism; Postcolonial Theory; Critical Race Theory; and more.

Course Readings:

Introduction II: T.S. Eliot, “Tradition & the Individual Talent”

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, “On the Abolition of the English Department”

Week 2: Close Reading

Cleanth Brooks, “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from The Well-Wrought Urn

Roland Barthes “The Death of the Author”

Week 3: Historicism

Walter Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Hayden White “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination”

Raymond Williams “The Uses of Cultural Theory”

Week 4: Formalism

Aristotle Poetics

Marjorie Levinson “The New Formalism”

Ellen Rooney “Form and Contentment”

Week 5: Narratology

Peter Brooks Reading for the Plot

Week 6: Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud “The Uncanny, “The Fetish,” “Screen Memories”  

Cathy Caruth “Claims of the Dead”

Week 7: Postcolonialism

Audre Lorde “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”

Kamau Brathwaite The History of the Voice

Ania Loomba “Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies”

Rob Nixon “Slow Violence”

Week 8: Critical Race Theory

Henry Louis Gates “Talking Black”

Kodwo Eshun “Further Notes on Afrofuturism”

Toni Morrison Playing in the Dark

Barbara Christian “The Race for Theory”

Week 9: Queer Theory; Gender and Sexuality

Gilbert and Gubar “The Madwoman in the Attic”

Audre Lorde “Women Redefining Difference”

Kimberlé Crenshaw “Intersectionality”

Judith Butler “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”

Week 10: The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Eve Kasofsky Sedgwick “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion”

James Elkins Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?

Franco Moretti “Distant Reading”

Gayatri Spivak “Close Reading”

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