Tag Archives: theory

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!

Gender Studies, Bishop

In 290 tomorrow, I’m going to try something a bit new–students will have read the Ryan introduction to gender studies, which has three distinct portions (not divided as such, but useful): an overview, a closer look at the patriarchal construction/rejection/suppression of the feminine, and a section on homosexual panic and compulsory heterosexuality, all the while focusing on the fluidity of gender rather than its stability. We’re also reading Bishop’s poem, “The Roosters,” about which Ryan has generated some interesting prompts. My plan is to divide the students into three groups, and have each group teach a section of the introduction to their peers in a 5-minute presentation. They’ll need a bit of time to gather thoughts and figure out what is most important, plan an approach, and organize themselves, but I think 15 minutes should do it. Then, we’ll use most of the rest of the class to go over “The Roosters” in general, after reading it aloud, spending the very last portion on a prompted freewrite to prepare for later assignments.

Achebe and the Center

In my tutorial today on the postcolonial novel and theory, we’ll discuss The Empire Writes Back and the chapter on “Re-Placing the Text,” in conjunction with the first part of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and, if we have time, Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Bishop, "Insomnia," and Psychoanalysis

Today in EN290, we discussed Bishop’s poem “Insomnia” from a psychoanalytic perspective. I started the class by turning to some important themes in Bishop’s biography, themes which find expression quite often in her work–loss, alienation, dislocation, and so on. This allowed us to differentiate formalist from psychoanalytic methodology, while also giving us a starting place for our return to the basic principles of psychoanalytic theory. For the next 20 minutes or so, I tried to establish a sense of continuity and difference between this and earlier theoretical approaches we’ve studied–there can never be too much repetition! What ideas/images/practices would most interest a psychoanalytic critic? A deconstructionist? A structuralist? A New Critic? A Russian Formalist? I think that working backward, continually, from the approach-of-the-day may be useful in encouraging students to continue asking the same question of different theories.

For homework, I’d asked each student to annotate a poem of their choice using the tools of psychoanalytic analysis, and some poems were particularly well-suited; the one we worked on as a class, “Insomnia,” had been given short shrift in the annotation. I used an example of close reading for theme to model how to start or set-up an analysis, and we briefly discussed the poem as a whole–I am constantly amazed that students don’t immediately gravitate toward the title as a site for analysis! Then the students got into smaller groups to discuss the poem, jot down notes, and so on. Then, students individually worked on a paragraph of their own analysis–starting with a completion of the sentence, “Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘Insomnia’ addresses….” We weren’t able to finish the paragraphs, so I’ve asked students to finish and revise at home. If I were to have done this class again, I’d truncate the discussion time, which did run a little over, and devote more to the writing and full-class discussion of their analyses. Nonetheless, I do like the continuity established through revision; there’s just never enough time in the period!

Tying up Derrida, Moving on Lacan

Critical theory meets on Tuesday to finish discussing Derrida and to begin thinking about psychoanalysis–largely, Freud and Lacan, but including our crazy friends Deleuze and Guattari. I’m hoping to be able to move fairly quickly through the excerpts we’ve got, but I anticipate having to spend more time than less with poststructuralism. I’ve got a couple of handouts, particularly some general examples of deconstructive analysis, which should come in handy, but I think we’ll also need to go over Derrida’s own style as a performance of his methodology. I definitely want to discuss his constant redefinition of différance, as well as his neographisms, but it would be useful to try to sketch out some definitions, too. Even though Derrida would not really want us to. Well, let’s see… we will put our definitions under erasure, and consider definitions!

From Freud, our reading is pretty straightforward, but I’m a bit worried about the Lacan–“Instance of the Letter” and “Mirror Stage.” I’m hoping that the relationship between Lacanian psychoanalysis and some of the previous post-structuralists we’ve been reading will make his work clearer.

I’m also beginning to consider midterm exam materials… my initial thinking involves a two-part take home exam. The first part presents quotations from our theorists and asks students to identify them and summarize the idea being explored, and the second presents students with a popular but still academic essay (perhaps from the Times Book Review or the LRB), and asks them to identify the different critical approaches that are being employed. I’d like to do just one or the other, but I think I really need to ensure both comprehension and analytic comprehension. Regardless, it will definitely be closed-book; otherwise, there would be no end to the exam!