Selective Readings of Contemporary Literary Theories:

Psychoanalysis, Marxism and Cultural Studies

tentative schedule

This course is designed for you to achieve three goals:

1) critical reading of both primary and secondary theoretical texts to get a general un derstanding of important contemporary literary theories,
2) engagement in theoretical issues (such as text and textuality, canon formation, interpretation, ideology,
discourse, identity, power relations, etc.) as they arise from our reading of the primary texts, and
3) analyzing literary texts from different theoretical perspectives with an awareness of the limitations of each.

Modern and Contemporary Critical Theories form quite a complicated network of discourses which cannot be clearly divided into different camps, nor lined up in a chronological order.  Instead, in between different theoretical schools, there are intersections and appropriation, contradictions and negotiations, not to mention convergence of different schools in a later theoretical school, or re-visiting or discovery of earlier theorists.   Different maps can be drawn of this theoretical terrain, just as different routes can be taken by students to enter, struggle with and get intellectually engaged in the theoretical issues.

Out of the many possible routes, this course chooses the two theoretical schools, Psychoanalysis and  Marxism, which later get combined and further developed in Cultural Studies.   To better understand their critical differences and interconnections, we focus on some recurrent issues: language, desire  ideology/discourse, and how they work on human bodies.  We will first examine how "language" serves as a model of analysis in structuralism and poststructuralism, and then see how "language" is also used in the section on psychoanalysis,  with Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Lacan's interpretation of Freud and Kristeva's revision of Lacan's Symbolic Order.  Marxism, likewise, has to adjust itself to poststructuralist problematization of representation and social reality, as we can see from its re-interpretations of economic determinism and ideology.

Psychoanalysis and Marxism "seem" the exact opposite to each other, the one looking inward at human psyche and the other, outward at social relations.  Still, they share two views about human existence (and literature alike): contradiction and social conditioning.  While Psychoanalysis discloses the contradictions hidden in repression, defense mechanism and the very use of language, Marxism challenges the  contradictions in the form of exploitation, alienation and ideological control.  As for social control, it is (the Name of) the Father in Freudian psychoanalysis, and its power exercised through ideology, State Apparatuses, discourse or hegemony in Marxism.   

Desires vs. the various forms and modes of social control leave human subject fragmented and human body docile, but not completely powerless--at least not for all the theorists.    We will discuss terms such as the carnivalesque (Bakhtin), the semiotic (Kristeva), rhizome (Gattari and Deleuze), gender as performance, etc., to find ways of evading or challenging the straightjacket of patriarchy and its language.   

Will these critical theories also be stimulating and liberating for us, as they are supposed to be for the society they address?  Inevitably, we will encounter difficulties in the theories' languages and allusiveness.  This, however, should be a challenge for us to keep our mind active in teasing out the main points, in answering and questioning them, and, most importantly, in relating them to our texts and our lives. 


In this course, you will be responsible for:
1) active participation in class and on the internet,
2) a 30-minute report on a theoretical text with an outline ready for online publication,
3) a 30-minute report on how a certain theory can be "critiqued" by, "used" on, or articulated with another literary or theoretical text.  
4) a term paper of both theoretical discussion and literary application.

Questions to bear in mind when reading and making your reports:

  1. What are the theorist¡¦s main concerns?   What questions does s/he ask and how does s/he answer them?  Do you have any questions? 
  2. What are the theorist¡¦s key terms?  How are they defined?
  3. What is the theorist¡¦s method?  Is a methodology explicitly laid out or is it implied? 
(modified from ¡§Doxography versus Inquiry¡¨ by Donald G. Marshall. 
Sadoff, Dianne F and William E. Cain, eds.  Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates.  NY: MLA 1994: 84)