On Being Outside of Political Systems

See works by Hannah Arendt, especially The Origins of Totalitarianism, and works by Giorgio Agamben, especially Homo Sacer. The latter is an especially powerful discussion of what Agamben calls “bare life,” or life that has been excepted from political systems and therefore not accorded fully human/alive status. This ranges from the political refugee to the terminally ill on life support. Fascinating read.


Russian Formalism

(which we will not cover in readings)

Russian Formalism anticipated American Formalism by a couple of decades and includes works by the likes of Roman Jacobson, Tzvetan Todorov, and Vladimir Propp. Unlike the American Formalists, who were interested in “close reading” specific works, the Russians were interested in mapping the types and archetypes across entire genres. For example, take a look at Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928). You will see that he charts and classifies various characters and plot elements (hero returns, villain surrenders, etc) common to all folk tale across cultures.

What Is Literary Theory?

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a very useful resource):

“Literary theory” is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts. Literary theory offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of linguistic and unconscious elements of the text. Literary theorists trace the history and evolution of the different genres—narrative, dramatic, lyric—in addition to the more recent emergence of the novel and the short story, while also investigating the importance of formal elements of literary structure. Lastly, literary theory in recent years has sought to explain the degree to which the text is more the product of a culture than an individual author and in turn how those texts help to create the culture.