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 Human and Nonhuman Humanities.  Where and how can we now locate the human in the humanities? How can we frame a contemporary moment in which urgent social issues, as catalyzed by (say) the #BlackLivesMatter movement, collide with a series of academic discourses and imperatives focused around the nonhuman, the inanimate, and the technologically animated? This seminar will take on those questions by combining two major thematic strands, to be intertwined throughout the semester: “Figuring the Human,” in which we will engage digital prosthetics for memory (cultural and personal) and imagination (new forms of inscription, readership, stimulation); and “Encompassing the Nonhuman,” which will address itself to major new theoretical markers (speculative realism, thing theory, and the “new materialism,” among others), as well as the 24/7 online life of data and algorithms. More often than not, we hope, these two strands will combine in surprising ways. (As we will see, a movement or moment such as #BlackLivesMatter engages issues of both the utmost humanity and the most ruthlessly algorithmic logics of social media.) The course will feature a particular emphasis on the pressures that get put on the category of the human, whether figured in terms of automata, the cyborg, the posthuman, or the radically other non-human. Throughout, the question will be how does one read, write, and live an idea of human that is unequivocally both a discursive and a digital construct.

Texts will consist of fiction, film, theory, and other forms of media, including such works as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and Shelley Jackson’s hypertext deformation Patchwork Girl), E.  T. A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman,”  Edward S. Ellis’s The Steam-Man of the Prairies (a dime-store novel),  William Gibson’s Neuromancer (and Agrippa), Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven, and stories by our own Emily Mitchell. Possible films include Blade Runner, Memento, and Tetsuo, The Iron Man. Major theorists and thinkers we will read include Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Federica Fabretti, Johanna Drucker, Ian Bogost, Steve Shaviro, Jane Bennet, and Bill Brown, among others. We will also look at Twitter trends and Twitter bots, interactive fiction (Emily Short’s “Galatea”), at digital art, and numerous other artifacts of algorithmic culture.

Requirements will include weekly responses (blogging), a group presentation and a modest group project, as well as a final project that could take the form of a traditional seminar paper or a public-facing individual or group digital project. The seminar should be of interest for students working in literary periods from the Long Eighteenth Century to the contemporary, as well as media and cultural studies, theory, and digital humanities.