Revising Critical Theory


I’ve been teaching a MA-level critical theory course for a couple of years now, and while I think it’s effective on some levels as-is, I would like to offer a more curated, in-depth approach. Currently, the course is organized loosely chronologically, using the 2nd edition of the Rivkin & Ryan anthology–what I used in graduate school. The second edition is much more usefully selected than the first edition, and the introductory notes are excellent; the problem is that, using an anthology like this, one seems required to skim–the anthology sets up reading habits that encourage “dipping into.” The benefit of this approach is that students are exposed to a variety of theorists in (outside of translation) their own words, which allows eager young minds to grapple with and work through difficult prose. It also provides a toolbox-like set of concepts that are definitely useful for basic analytical purposes–defamiliarization, close reading, concrete universal, panopticism, the culture industry, and so on. The problem, however, is that skimps on historicization and debate between; additionally, it has been my experience that working through the primary theoretical texts takes so much time that we have less to devote to seeing how this material has in fact actually shaped the kinds of analysis we do and students are being asked to do.

Should we favor the Pu-pu platter approach for its ability to intrigue, delight, and stimulate further study? Or, should we favor a more selective approach that will necessarily skip important theorists but allow students to engage some ideas more fully? Is there a way to incorporate some of the Pu-pu platter approach in a more highly curated classroom?

I’m considering something along these lines. I’d like to assign three or four full-length texts–tentatively, The Well-Wrought Urn; the Barthes/Foucault works on authorship; The History of Sexuality, Volume 1; and Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. I might swap out Foucault for something from the Frankfurt School, or that and add Zizek’s . This might give us a pretty good overview of the shape of modern and postmodern theory, while making visible some gaps. Readings would be supplemented by student presentations on other theorists–who they are, major works, basic ideas, impact, and sample analyses. These presentations might go into a class website or database–and later classes would extend and revise each term’s statements.  I also want to fit in a project that requires students to locate, read, assign to the class, and report/lead discussion on contemporary critical work that incorporates our theoretical contexts. The big problem I’m having is that I want the class to be able to work through these ideas in practice–but I cannot guarantee that all students will have a specific text-repertoire from day one; which means I have to assign a literary/cultural/visual text or three. This has always been a bit of a hurdle–what to choose? How to keep them vibrant and the students interested? What works well without simplifying the theory, privileging the literary source?

So, these are my thoughts right now, which I wanted to get down on electronic paper while I was ruminating. As always, insight and advice are much appreciated!

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