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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

Selective Readings of Modern & Contemporary Literary Theories

Textuality, Sexuality

and the Postmodern Ethics

An Introduction

discussion starters
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

my questions
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?
  • Why? How is it related to Literary Criticism?
  • How?
    • Suggested attitudes
    • The focus of our course;
  • Contextualizing our focus: before and after New Criticism
why theory

-- 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

  • 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.)
theory as an activity vs theory as a body of knowledge
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.
general questions to ask
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)
articulation vs application
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)
the focus of our course textuality sexuality and the postmodern ethics
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
before and after new criticism
Before and After New Criticism
  • 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.

structuralism e g v propp
Structuralism: e.g. V. Propp
  • 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.
L’Acacia =相思樹

la neige = 雪

l’Orage = storm

la Lune = moon

Plafond = ceiling

Desert = desert

semiotic reading the false mirror
seeing = framing and reconstructing “reality”

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
influences of structuralism some examples
Influences of Structuralism: some examples
  • 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
examples of binarism in traditional literary theories
Politics/Truth vs.

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
examples of binarism in traditional literary theories 2

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)
after structuralism more fluid binaries in contemporary theories
After Structuralism: More 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.

  • 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.