E 392M • Life of Theory, Theory of Life
"Theory," in a narrow sense of the word current in English Departments, denotes a late-twentieth-century assemblage of a few specific analytic, structuralist, and poststructuralist philosophies of culture and society. This theoretical assemblage can well be said to have run out of steam, as Bruno Latour has recently declared. Yet of course we also understand theory to denote conjectural thought more generally, as it supplements our practical experience of literature or of life. On this plane, theory can't help but persist. In this course we will read recent speculations, from across the disciplines, concerning the nature of information and of life itself, trace how such theory is already infusing literary criticism, and connect this new thought with the canon of theory in the narrow sense (a canon that remains fundamental to our professional practice, and to which this course will provide a serviceable introduction).
Pursuing this project, we will attend as well to nineteenth-century British literature from Erasmus Darwin to Charles Darwin, a body of work intricately involved with our present-day problematic of vitality, information, and literature. Might the theory of evolution present an aesthetic? Can information as we know it ever be more than a metaphor for biological process? What happens when we take the notion of organic form seriously as ontology? What if, as well as reasoning our way through fields of data, we feel our way through them, attending to how they are organized by emotional or affective epistemologies? What are the implications for the study of literary representation of new ethical thought concerning animals and the environment? Once we conceive of "life" as a property that can be borne by desubjectified code, what becomes of ideas of ways of life, of the life of forms, or of poetry as, in Matthew Arnold's phrase, the criticism of life? What happens to our working concepts of race, nation, sex, and gender, and to our ideas about the literary ramifications of these categories, when we introduce them into this new thought context? Should a return to considering the life of forms in art recast our prosody and our narratology?
Theorists read may include some few of the following: Henri Bergson, A.N. Whitehead, Susanne Langer, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Steven Jay Gould, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, Donna Haraway, Sahotra Sarkar, Kathleen Woodward, William Empson, Katharine Hayles, Friedrich Kittler, Mark Hansen, Timothy Morton, Timothy Lenoir, Sylvan Tomkins, Jerome McGann, Eve Sedgwick, Samir Okasha, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Michael Thompson, W.J.T. Mitchell, Cary Wolfe, Akira Lippit, Jacques Derrida, Robert Solomon, Paul Griffiths, Gillian Beer, Jakob von Uexkull, William Empson, William C. Wimsatt, and William K. Wimsatt.
Period works will be chosen from a list that includes works by authors including Erasmus Darwin ("The Loves of the Plants"); William Wordsworth (Michael); Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Biographia Literaria, Lectures on Shakespeare, The Theory of Life); Percy Shelley (Prometheus Unbound, The Triumph of Life); Mary Shelley (Frankenstein); Walter Scott (The Talisman); Alfred Tennyson (In Memoriam); Matthew Arnold (Thrysis, The Study of Poetry); Charles Darwin (The Origin of Species, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, The Power of Movement in Plants); and Christina Rossetti (Goblin Market, The Lambs of Grasmere).