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Selective Readings of Modern & Contemporary Literary Theories. Textuality, Sexuality and the Postmodern Ethics An Introduction. Discussion Starters. What is(are) your interested field(s) and how do you do literary criticism?

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Selective Readings of Modern & Contemporary Literary Theories

Textuality, Sexuality

and the Postmodern Ethics

An Introduction

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Discussion Starters

  • What is(are) your interested field(s) and how do you do literary criticism?

  • Which theoretic issues and literary theory do you like? Can you give some examples to discuss them?

    Examples of Theoretic Issues : 1. Representation, Structure, Writing, Discourse, Narrative, Figurative Language, Performance, Author, Interpretation, Intention,

    2. Unconscious, Determinacy/Indeterminacy, Value/Evaluation, Influence, Rhetoric,

    3. Culture, Canon, Popular Culture, Literary History, Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Ideology, Diversity, Imperialism/Nationalism, Desire, Ethics, Class

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My Questions

  • What is beyond poststructualism?

  • How do we discuss the issues of ‘value,’ ethics (i.e. right or wrong), and meanings of human conduct when the absolute truths in human history have been challenged?

  • How is political action and ethics possible when human subject is seen as divided, barred, fictive and fragmentary?

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  • Why? How is it related to Literary Criticism?

  • How?

    • Suggested attitudes

    • The focus of our course;

  • Contextualizing our focus: before and after New Criticism

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-- no longer “literary study,” ignoring the beauty or essence of literature (e.g. Frank Kermode clip 1; E. Said clip 5);

-- “keep politics lukewarm”; a mere word play or mind game; abstract and obscure; separate from reality or politics

-- “fetishization” of theories (T. Eagleton); clip 3


-- the problem with using “we”  Interdisciplinary clip 2

-- A tool box of pluralism. It provides us new frameworks and perspectives; helps us ask new questions of the texts we study and about our lives. Clip 3 (Marina Warner)

-- democratization of English Studies. clip 4

e.g. my own experience

Why Theory?

Video: Literary Theory:

what has it done for us?Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode, Edward Said and Marina Warner

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  • Read with an active mind. (Do not feel “oppressed” by the difficult languages.)

  • Always read to get the main points (to find the questions the theory asks) and to ask questions.

  • Always try to relate and to map. (It’s impossible to separate all the theoretical discourses into mutually exclusive theoretical schools.)

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Theory as an Activity vs. Theory as a body of knowledge

  • “In the former, theory is taught as a means of understanding the world; in the latter, theorizing is encouraged as a pedagogical practice in which students become actual participants in the use of theory.” (Henry Giroux’s ideas explained by Storey)

  • It’s better to know how to theorize than to memorize all the theoretical jargons.

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General Questions to ask

  • 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?

  • What are the theorist’s key terms? How are they defined?

  • 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 84)

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Articulation vs. Application

  • Application –one-to-one correspondence between a theory and a text;

  • Articulation (接連) of theories and texts, of different theories : connecting, negotiating, translating.

  • “wrestling with the angels”: “The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency.” (Stuart Hall textbook 1901)

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The focus of our course: Textuality, Sexuality and the Postmodern Ethics

  • Textuality: structure of myth, narrative, signs; from work to text to intertextuality and discourse;

  • Deconstruction/Framing: of author, of (symbolic) language and of “deconstruction”;

  • Sexuality: construction and representation of gender and sexuality; performativity;

  •  Topics: Other and the postmodern ethics

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Before and After New Criticism Postmodern Ethics

  • Before: ref.

  • New Criticism: Practical Criticism, Formalism

  • After: Structuralism –Basic ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure?

    1. The synchronic vs. the diachronic; langue vs. parole// competence vs. performance

    2. Language is a system of difference. Meaning occurs in binary opposition between two signs. (e.g. toy, boy)

    3. sign = signifier and signified; the connection between them is arbitrary.

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Structuralism: e.g. V. Propp Postmodern Ethics

  • syntax as the basic model for their analysis: Subject + predicate = Actant (agent) + function

  • Propp: for him there are 7 "spheres of action" (villain, hero, false hero, donor[provider], helper, dispatcher, princess [and her father].) and 31 functions.

  • e. g. Cinderella’s modern versions:

    • Cinder Edna: Edna -- no fairy godmother as helper; Cinderella -- marriage not the happy ending.

    • Hollywood versions: Working Girl, A Cinderella Story –still needs “magic”—the man’s help or fairy godmother.

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L’Acacia = Postmodern Ethics相思樹

la neige = 雪

l’Orage = storm

la Lune = moon

Plafond = ceiling

Desert = desert

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seeing = framing and reconstructing “reality” Postmodern Ethics

1) means of perceiving reality: eye

2) hollowed out and replaced with artificial signs of blue sky + pupil.

3) “Photographic” sign & drawing sign frame each other

Semiotic Reading: The False Mirror

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Influences of Structuralism: some examples Postmodern Ethics

  • Sign= signifier + signified referent

  • Language is not mimetic (a mirror, or a transparent container of reality); it constructs reality; it speaks us.

  • Binary thinking.  open to deconstruction

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Politics/Truth vs Postmodern Ethics.

Plato – the realm of appearance vs. the realm of Form  poetry twice removed


Aristotle –Three unity, etc.

Examples of binarism in traditional literary theories

  • Sir Philip Sidney: to teach and delight

  • The Mirror and the Lamp

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Reason Postmodern Ethics

Plato – poetry tells lies and excites emotions.

Pope -- golden rules; restraint, good taste, Dryden: "wit": propriety of thoughts and words


Romantic poets: imagination

New Criticism: Setting up Literature as a discipline (autonomy, organicism, etc.)

 An “objective” approach, just as Structuralism is scientific

Examples of binarism in traditional literary theories (2)

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After Structuralism: Postmodern EthicsMore Fluid Binaries in contemporary theories

  • Politics vs. Poetics;

  • Art vs. popular culture;

  • Culture vs. Economic Relations;

  • Father vs. Mother; Lack vs. imaginary plenitude

  • fixity of meaning vs. fluidity of language, identity and culture, etc.

    The lines are no longer clear-cut. Autonomy and Absolute truth are out.

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References Postmodern Ethics

  • Storey, John, ed. .What is Cultural Studies: A Reader. London: Arnold, 1996.

  • Sadoff, Dianne F and William E. Cain, eds. Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates. NY: MLA 1994.