Studies in Literary Criticism&Theory: Ethics&Literary Critism

This “Studies” class will introduce you to the
scholarly discussions that have comprised the so-called “turn to ethics” in
literary criticism over the past two decades. It will also engage you in modes
of practical textual analysis aimed at illuminating the relationship between
the ethical dimensions of literary texts and their formal structures. You will
come away from this course with an understanding of some of the major concepts
and guiding questions related to criticism’s turn to ethical inquiry. The
primary texts I have selected all pose problems that can be approached from a
variety of literary-critical and ethical perspectives. All three novels are
formally and/or linguistically inventive, offering occasions to reflect upon
the complex interaction of narrative form and ethical function. All the primary
materials deal with morally compelling situations, including colonialism and
slavery in early America (Morrison), post-apartheid society in South Africa
(Coetzee), the Holocaust and the socioeconomic situation of post-Soviet Ukraine
(Safran Foer), the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the 1982 Lebanon War
(Folman’s animated film WALTZ WITH BASHIR), and the
detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants in the United States
(McCarthy’s film THE VISITOR).

In order to establish a common frame of
reference and a historical foundation for our discussions of ethics and
literature, we will devote the first five weeks of the semester to an overview
of some of the central texts in the European philosophical tradition to which
contemporary treatments of literary ethics frequently refer. These materials
include excerpts from Aristotle, Mill, Kant, Levinas, and Derrida. Short
stories by Paul Bowles, Albert Camus, and Mohammed Dib and poems by Paul Celan
and Nelly Sachs will serve as departure points for discussions of how these
philosophical treatments of ethical questions intersect with literary forms. We
will spend the remainder of the semester on “case studies” that examine the
assigned works of fiction, poetry, and film alongside further readings in
philosophy and literary criticism.

Required Texts: (available from
Revolution Books): J. M. Coetzee, DISGRACE (Penguin, 2008); Jonathan Safran
Foer, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (Harper Perennial, 2003); Toni Morrison, A
MERCY (Vintage, 2009); Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womak, eds. MAPPING THE
P, 2001), and a course packet.

Assignments: Three précis on the
assigned reading in philosophy and criticism (1 page each); one in-class
roundtable contribution (5 minute provocative statement, followed by a
structured discussion, based on one of your précis); one analysis of a primary
text drawing on at least three of the assigned readings in philosophy and
criticism (5 pages); an abstract for a term paper (1 page); a term paper based on
independent research (20-25 pages).