Welcome to the Department of English at Rutgers University

Course No: 350:509
Index # - 18237
Distribution Requirement: B, D
Tuesday – 4:30 p.m.
MU 207

Critique and Its Critics

Nicholas Gaskill

One of the most pervasive (if ambiguous) rallying cries of recent literary theory has been the call to move “beyond critique.” From surface reading to distant reading, from the Actor-Network-Theory to new materialism, there has been a rejection of the hermeneutics of suspicion and the interpretive practices of critique—so much so that this shared tendency constitutes a key feature of our contemporary critical moment. What is driving the turn against critique? What is at stake in these new approaches to literary study, and how do their methods and results differ from those that were developed through critique? What are the political implications of these methodological turns? And what exactly is “critique” anyway?

This course will equip students to understand and evaluate these recent trends in literary study. To this end, after sampling a few contemporary methodological polemics (e.g. Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best on surface reading, Bruno Latour on critique, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on reparative reading), we will look carefully at some of their targets to decide what exactly is being rejected and what the implications of that rejection might be. Are the differences primarily rhetorical? Affective? Political? Philosophical? On which points might critical and post-critical practices be compared most productively? In answering these questions, our discussion will likely touch on many of the following topics: techniques of reading, the hermeneutics of the symptom, genealogy, theories of causality and the relation between literature and politics, the uses of ontology for literary studies, belief and enchantment, aesthetic experience, construction vs. critique, and speculation as a mode of critical practice.

We will devote the first five or six weeks to establishing the intellectual context for critique and the hermeneutics of suspicion, starting with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche and moving through Althusser, Foucault, Butler, Jameson, and Bourdieu. We will then spend the rest of the semester looking at several attempts to break with the tradition of critique. Readings for this part of the semester may include excerpts from the work of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Jacques Rancière, Rita Felski, Paul Ricoeur, Eduardo Kohn, Anne Cheng, and Heather Love. Each week we will pair theoretical texts with literary works. Likely candidates for this portion of the syllabus include Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware, Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood, James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17.

The assignments will give students an opportunity to bring our methodological discussions to bear on their own fields of interest.

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