ENGL702 - Cultures of Theory

Prerequisite: An introductory course in critical theory.

An exploration of the socio-historic, material, and cultural contexts o various theoretical practices and traditions.

The course, which will be co-taught with Luka Arsenjuk, offers an advanced introduction to key theoretical and methodological issues in comparative media studies. It will offer students a chance to familiarize themselves with some of the discipline’s foundational texts (McLuhan, Kittler, Stiegler). The main aim of the course, however, is to provide a critical grasp of the more important questions facing any rigorous encounter with the vast problematic of media today. In its scope, the course covers questions that are historical (the non-linearity of the development of media, the relationship between media and history more broadly, the method of media historiography and media archaeology) and theoretical (media and the philosophical concept of mediation, media and the experience of time and space, inter-mediality, media and the idea of art). The concept of media we will work towards through the semester will be historically complex: we will trace the emergence of the concept of media out of a concrete set of material transformations that have occurred over the course of the last two centuries (i.e. the emergence of mass media). But we will also seek to construct a concept that is theoretically reflexive, i.e. a concept capable of critically registering and evaluating the various discursive constructions of “media.”

A discussion of media has in recent years become an integral, some would say essential, part of the humanities curriculum. It would indeed be possible to argue that, following the crisis of the classical humanities, “media” has emerged as one of the crucial terms that still offer a promise of an inter-disciplinary coherence in this otherwise devastated field. WJT Mitchell and Mark Hansen have, for instance, recently compared the impact of “media” to that of the Freudian “unconscious,” Marx’s “mode of production,” and Derrida’s “writing”—all terms that have had transformative effects on the field of human knowledge. Mitchell’s and Hansen’s comparison implies that the concept of media has reconfigured the tasks of thought in the present and opened up the human past for radically new interpretations. Even if one maintains a skeptical relationship to this type of transformist discourse, it is clear that it has become impossible to construct an orientation in contemporary humanities without a critical and historical grasp of “media.” We will dedicate some time to contextualize the rise of the media-centered humanities in relation to the concept of  literature, which has until recently played the role of the hegemon uniting the heterogeneous strands of inquiry in the humanities. The question here will not be solely whether “media” can now begin to perform such an integrating function, but also what type of political, economic, cultural, and aesthetic transformation is signaled by the shift from the master signifier “literature” to that of “media.”

Despite of its growing dominance, “media” remains traversed by tensions and contradictions. The term is marked by an uneven development across the different linguistic and intellectual traditions that have provided it with meaning. As a plural singular noun, it names the collection of individual mediums in their particularity, yet at the same time it carries a universal, transcendental pretension of describing the very element through which humanity gets constituted and develops (general mediality of language, tools, etc.). The concept seeks to name something technological and material, while it at the same time holds on to a great degree of abstract notional content, which allows it to navigate across a large array of technological and material frameworks. The course proposes to investigate these tensions and contradictions in a manner that will be rigorous (developed through a close analysis of texts and media works) and experimental (i.e. will not assume that the concept it seeks to investigate is given in advance), collaborative and encouraging of the students’ individual projects.


An introductory course in critical theory.