Dr. Alex E. Blazer Course Site Syllabus
Practicing the Theories Article Summary  
Exam 1 Exam 2 Exam 3


From Criticism to Theory

English 491-75: Interpretive Theory: The New Criticism to the Present

Spring 2004, TR 7:00-8:15PM, Bingham Humanities Bldg 106

Practicing the Theories

1. The New Criticism

Read Lowell's poem, available on Blackboard > English 491 > Course Documents > Course Packet, and answer the following questions. We will discuss your answers in class on Thursday, January 22.

  1. Do a New Criticism reading of the poem, answering Lois Tyson's "The Question New Critics Asked about Literary Texts" on page 134.
  2. What would Cleanth Brooks say are the primary tensions, ironies, and ambiguities of the poem? What is the universal theme into which these tensions are harmonized? Does the poem have organic unity?
  3. Would John Crowe Ransom approve of this poem's confessionalism? Does the poet have sufficient "aesthetic distance"?
  4. According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, what would be an incorrect reading of the poem using the intentional fallacy? Using the affective fallacy?
  5. Would T. S. Eliot say that this poem dissociates sensibility (thought and feeling)? Is it sufficiently impersonal?

2. Structuralism and Semiotics

Watch three different family sitcoms, one episode each, of The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Roseanne, and answer answer the following questions. There will be a screening of the three sitcoms after class on Tuesday, February 3. We will discuss your answers on Thursday, February 5.

  1. Do a structuralist reading of the eighties sitcoms by answering Lois Tyson's "Some Questions Structuralist Critics Ask about Literary Texts" on pages 224-225.
  2. Apply Ferdinand de Saussure's idea that concepts are differential within a formal system to the three sitcoms. Think of the entire, ongoing tradition of sitcoms as the underlying system (langue) and the three sitcoms as particular phenomena (parole) within that system. What identity do these sitcoms effect by being part of the same system? What characteristic do they achieve by being different from one another?
  3. Roman Jakobson argues that metaphor is the primary trope of Romanticism and Symbolism, Surrealism, and poetry while metonymy is the primary trope of Realism, Cubism, and prose. Which trope predominates in sitcom form? Assuming the collective speaker is the sitcoms creators and the audience is the addressee, which function (referential, emotive, conative, phatic, metalingual, poetic) predominates in the sitcom form? In what instances in the shows do the poetic function come to the forefront?
  4. Claude Lévi-Strauss suggests that writing is a form of power, but not in the way we typically think. Rather than freeing, he argues that it enslaves the populace to a system of laws. Extrapolating this point to the televisual medium, how might these sitcoms regulate the family ideal and thus how our culture behaves? Compare and contrast these eighties sitcoms to sitcoms from the sixties (Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best) and the nineties to the present (Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons). How has the familial law of the land changed over the decades? Which core "values" remain the same?
  5. Northrop Frye generically defines archetypal heroic quests in terms of the seasonal cycle. Does his schema work for sitcoms in general and for the three sitcoms from the eighties in particular? In other words, how might the family sitcom be a variation on the hero myth? What seasonal phase and genre might a cop show be considered? a hospital drama? a reality show? If sitcoms do constitute comedy according to Frye's system, describe the eighties sitcom world view in terms of the five traits of the "comic vision" on pages 1455-6.
  6. Tzvetan Todorov analyzes the structure of narratives through plot. He does so by finding similar plot patterns in a number of the Decameron's tales, specifically the move from disequilibrium to equilibrium. Can these three particular episodes of three different sitcoms be reduced to a similar plot structure? If you are familiar with the run of any of these three series, can you group individual episodes in terms of similar plot patterns and devices? What might be the master plot of eighties family sitcoms? of family sitcoms in general?
  7. Roland Barthes looks at the myth of soap, Einstein's brain, and campaign photography. Do a semiotic analysis of the mythic imagery of the three sitcoms, particularly in their opening credit montages. Barth also declares the author dead, meaning that she has been superceded by the system of language and writing. In what ways do the three sitcoms illustrate his argument?

3. Poststructuralism and Deconstruction

In the last two units, we practiced the theories at the end of the unit. For this unit, we'll practice the theory directly after studying the theorist. Read John Barth's short story, "Lost in the Funhouse" and two poems by Barrett Watten, both available on Blackboard > English 491 > Course Documents > Course Packet, and answer the following questions, updated weekly.

  1. Do deconstructive readings of the Barth's story and Watten's poem by answering Lois Tyson's "Some Questions Deconstructive Critics Ask about Literary Texts" on page 259.
  2. How do Barth and Watten's works subvert our traditional conceptions of authorship, i.e., the expression of a singular, proprietary voice and vision, and, by extension, identity, i.e., the unified self and essential psyche? In other words, apply Michel Foucault's question "What is an author?" and subsequent answer regarding the multiplicitous subject-position within discourse to these two texts (see page 1631 for a succinct summary of the author-function). How do the narrator and Ambrose put the position of the author and the position of identity in question? How do Watten's poems show that the poet and poem are the expressions of the discourse in which he exists? How do both of these works of literature foreground the concept that identity is produced by one's position within discursive fields?
  3. Judith Butler argues that gender is a performance. How doesThe Great Gatsby's Daisy perform the southern belle, and how does Tom Buchanan perform the macho man? Butler further asserts that performative acts compel identity to be conceived not as stable and inherent being but rather the effect of discursive and cultural inscription. How do the other characters in the The Great Gatsby trouble the norms of gender? For instance, how do Jay Gatsby and George Wilson's actions feminize their identities? How does Jordan Baker masculinize her identity? Moving beyond the particularities of gender (and Butler's theory) and to the generalities of post-structuralist identity formation, how do the subjectivities of the characters in The Great Gatsby (Gatsby and Nick in particular) shift and play?
  4. Paul de Man argues that in all language, but especially in literature, there exists a conflict (between, on the one hand, stable grammar and certain semiology and, on the other hand, unstable rhetoric and open-ended figurative speech) that renders meaning indeterminate and throws interpretation into a state of undecidability. How do the three texts (Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse," and Watten's poetry) deconstruct themselves? Note that Tyson's exemplary essay on deconstruction answers this question with regard to Fitzgerald. How does Barth's story turn the structural grammar of the coming-of-age genre on its head and open itself to an aporia of meaningful interpretation? In Watten's poetry, how does the interplay between regular language, on the one hand, and (parenthetical) or "quotational" language, on the other, bring a reader/reading to the brink of meaning but nonetheless defy interpretation? How does meaning paradoxically ("proceed") and "(recede)" at the same time?
  5. Jacques Derrida uses such terms as différence (to differ, but also to defer meaning), supplément (to substitute, but also to supplant), and exorbitant (to exceed metaphysical meaning of the transcendental signified) to argue how knowledge is continually deferred and supplanted in a never-ending chain of signifiers. Writing is the absence of presence of truth and meaning; writing is the ghost of meaning; and yet writing exceeds any and all meaning that can be interpreted from itself. How might Watten's poems constitute the praxis of Derrida's theory? How does Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" foreground the textuality of iteration over any final, absolute meaning? In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, how does Nick Carraway's narrative about Gatsby (if not all the myths surrounding Gatsby) simultaneously miss and yet exceed the point of Gatsby?
  6. Jean Baudrillard opines that we have lost the real to signs and defines hyperreality as the condition of living in a world, not simply of signs, but of real fakes. How does the modernist book and character of Gatsby usher in this postmodern American condition of blatant and irremediable simulation? How do the mirrored structure and receding character-narrator of Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" further Baudrillard's critique of simulacrum? How do Watten's poems suggest that all we can know are the signs of language, and no-thing (no reality) besides?
  7. By calling for an heterogenous and erotic writing of the body that affirms all possibilities for the self, Hélène Cixous deconstructs the masculine/feminine, self/other, and presence/absence oppositions which limits men in a sameness of presence and alienates women in an otherness of absence. Can this écriture féminine be applied to Watten's poems? That is, do Watten's poems break through the boundaries of conventional, patriarchal language? Or is the pleasure of these texts merely the pleasure of writing as Barthes defines it in "From Work to Text." Although certain readings of Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" may foreground Ambrose's obsessional character born from oedipal castration anxiety and fears of sexuality (that is fears of women), how might the ending of the story affirm an-other love of writing the inifinite possibilities of self? What works of lliterature have you read that enact Cixous' laugh?

4. Psychoanalytic Criticism

Watch the film Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986) and answer the following questions. There will be a screening of the film after class on Thursday, March 25. We will begin answering questions on Tuesday, March 30.

  1. Do psychoanalytic readings of David Lynch's Blue Velvet by answering Lois Tyson's "Some Questions Psychoanalytic Critics Ask about Literary Texts" on pages 32-33.
  2. Apply Sigmund Freud's Oedipal complex to Blue Velvet. How might the film be read as a rivalry between Jeffrey Beaumont (the child), and Frank Booth (the father) over the sexual desire of Dorothy Valens (the mother)? Note the instances of the uncanny in the film. Why are the opening sequence (the extreme close-up of the grass and ear) and the closing sequence of the bird eating the worm so disturbing? How does the town of Lumberton seem familiar and strange at the same time? Psychoanalyze Frank Booth's nitrous oxide and blue velvet fetish. In what ways is Jeffrey not a detective but rather a pervert? Apply Freud's dreamwork to the film. How might the manifest film be read as a latent castration anxiety and unconscious desire for knowing omnipotence?
  3. How might Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence be applied to this film? How does the filmmaker, David Lynch, misread or swerve away from classic film noir?
  4. Think about Jeffrey and Dorothy's relationship in terms of imaginary dyad between child and mother. How might Jeffrey's look at Dorothy (in the club, in the closet) constitute a version of Jacques Lacan's mirror stage? How does the primal scene (Jeffrey in the closet watching Frank's sadistic rape of Dorothy) thrust Jeffrey into Frank's world, the symbolic world? In what ways might Blue Velvet be read as an inauguration into the world of the phallic signifier and consequently a dual between Jeffrey and Frank for the phallus.
  5. The Freudian and Lacanian readings of Blue Velvet posit Oedipal/castrating fears and phallocentric desires; however, might the character of Dorothy articulate a semiotic space within the film noir space? How might the film constitute a chora of the maternal body according to Julia Kristeva? How does Lynch's application of the maternal and semiotic chora rupture and revolutionize the symbolic ejaculations of conventional film noir?
  6. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari also react to Freud's Oedipal complex and Lacan's unconscious language. How might the film be read as opening a multidimensional network of desire (of desiring machines) that exists outside the repressive channels of the Oedipal complex and the unconscious language structures alike? How might the film deterritorialize desire from its conventional territories. Where is desire reterritorialized? How might the psychoanalytic roots of the film not be Oedipal but rather rhizomatic, not hierarchical and phallocentrically signified but rather nonhierarchical and polymorphously desirous? How might the film be thought of as a desiring machine?
  7. In what ways does the film prove Laura Mulvey's argument about narrative cinema? How does the movie structure the audience's gaze to identify with Jeffrey's? How is Dorothy turned into an object of desire as well as castration anxiety? Next, think about how the film might also subvert Jeffrey's desiring gaze. How might Dorothy's depressive subjectivity rupture the peasure of Jeffrey and the audience's gaze?

5. Feminist Criticism

Apply the concepts discussed by Tyson and the other feminist critics to a work of literature that you've read in the last few months and that includes women characters and is perhaps written by a female author.

Article Summary and Presentation

Once in the semester, you will summarize a particular thinker's essay or group of essays and post your summary to Article Summary discussion board in Blackboard > English 491 > Article Summaries. Typically this due date will be the class period before the class discusses the work. If the summary includes more than one essay, you may either summarize one essay, a combination of the essays, or all of the essays—it's your choice, though I have made helpful suggestions. The summary should be 2-3 pages (500-750 words) long and formatted in MLA style for Microsoft Word. (Here's a template.) Moreover, the paper should summarize the article's argument, define key terms, and include questions for class discussion. You will also be responsible for introducing the essay and issues for discussion to the class in an informal presentation of approximately 3 minutes on the day the class discusses the work, which will typically be the class period after you post your summary to Blackboard. I'll respond to your paper via your university email within one week of your post.


Note: As I wrote on the syllabus course schedule, we may have to slow down for certain theorists and theories. We will not be able to discuss each and every article in class. Thus, some articles may only be summarized on Blackboard's Article Summary discussion board and introductorily presented to the class by the person assigned to the article. It is extremely important for each


Week 1 due Saturday, 1-17

Ransom, "Criticism, Inc."

Wimsatt and Beardsley, "The Intentional Fallacy" and "The Affective Fallacy" Dorsey Wise
Week 2

due Tuesday, 1-20

Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and "The Metaphysical Poets" [I suggest summarizing "Tradition and the Individual Talent"] Laura Logsdon
due Thursday, 1-22

de Saussure, from Course in General Linguistics

Maren McGimsey
Week 3 due Tuesday, 1-27

Jakobson, from "Linguistics and Poetics" and "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances"


Lévi-Strauss, "A Writing Lesson" from Tristes Tropiques Amber Marlow
due Tuesday, 1-29

Frye, "The Archetypes of Literature"

Joshua Gentry
Todorov, "Structural Analysis of Narrative" Stephanie Ramser
Week 4 due Tuesday, 2-3

Barthes, from Mythologies, "The Death of the Author," and "From Work to Text" [I suggest summarizing only ""The Death of the Author"]

Michele Wilbert

Week 5 due Tuesday, 2-10

Foucault, "What Is an Author?," "The Carceral," from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, from The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, An Introduction, and from Truth and Power [I suggest summarizing only "What Is an Author?"]

Marea Stamper

due Thursday, 2-12 Butler, from Gender Trouble

Angela Rowley

Week 6 due Tuesday, 2-17

De Man, "Semiology and Rhetoric" and "The Return to Philology" [I suggest summarizing only "Semiology and Rhetoric"]


due Thursday, 2-19

Derrida, from Of Grammatology and from Dissemination [I suggest summarizing one or the other but not both]

Eric Been

Week 7 due Tuesday, 2-24

Baudrillard, from "The Precession of Simulacra"

Jason Schwalm

Week 8 due Tuesday, 3-2

Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"

Mike Minton

due Thursday, 3-4

Freud, from The Interpretation of Dreams, "The 'Uncanny'," and "Fetishism"


Week 9 due Tuesday, 3-9 Bloom, Introduction, The Anxiety of Influence

Joshua Fischer

Week 10 none No Class: Spring Break  
Week 11 due Tuesday, 3-23

Lacan, "The Mirror Stage," from "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," "The Signification of the Phallus" [I suggest summarizing only one of the articles]

Jared Busch

Kristeva, from Revolution in Poetic Language  
due Tuesday, 3-25

Deleuze and Guattari, from Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and from A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [I suggest summarizing only one of the articles]

James Wandling
Week 12 due Tuesday, 3-30 Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"

Ben Lucas

due Thursday, 4-1

Gilbert and Gubar, from The Madwoman in the Attic

Sarah Henkenmeier
Week 13 due Tuesday, 4-6 Kolodny, "Dancing through the Minefield"

Jen Uebel

due Thursday, 4-8

Bordo, "The Body and the Reproduction of Feminity" from Unbearable Weight

Nellie Childers
Haraway, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" Jason Fox
Week 14 due Tuesday, 4-13

Smith, "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism"

Emily Kolb

Christian, "The Race for Theory"

Leah Bomar
due Thursday, 4-15

Sedgwick, from Between Men

from Epistemology of the Closet

Zimmerman, "What Has Never Been" Peter Walsh
Wittig, "One Is Not Born a Woman"  
Rich, from "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" Brad Dolin
Week 15 none


Week 16 none No Class: Reading Days  
Finals none    

Exam 1 Review

Exam 1 will cover the New Criticism and structuralism. Half will be taken in class on Tuesday, February 10 and include identification, short answer, and short essay questions that will test your overall understanding of two theories' key methods. The other half of Exam 1 will be a take-home essay that will ask you to compare and contrast the two methods. The take-home portion should be completed in approximately one hour and turned in on Thursday, February 12.


Essays and Concepts

Exam 2

Exam 1 encouraged you to learn key terms so you would be able to use and apply these building blocks to the overall theory. Exam 2 assumes that you have continued that habit of defining core concepts and thus focuses on the overall critical theory and methods of interpretation. The exam, composed of two essays questions, will be taken at home.

Exam 3

Like Exam 2, Exam 3 will be taken at home and composed of two essay questions. Unlike Exam 2, you have two weeks to complete the exam. Therefore, you should consider it part exam and part paper.

Exam 3, Essay 2 Topics

Student Theorist Text
Been, Eric Michel Foucault Albert Camus, The Stranger

Bomar, Leah

Judith Butler Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Busch, Jared

Laura Mulvey Irreversible (dir. by Gaspar Noe)

Childers, Nellie

Sigmund Freud Andre Dubus, "Killings"

Dolin, Bradley

Jean Baudrillard Gore Vidal, Live from Golgotha: The Gospel according to Gore Vidal

Fischer, Joshua

Harold Bloom T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Fox, Jason


24 Hour Party People (dir. by Michael Winterbottom)

Gentry, Joshua

Northrop Frye The Lord of the Rings trilogy (dir. by Peter Jackson)

Henkenmeier, Sarah

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar Laura Restrepo, Leopard in the Sun

Kolb, Emily

Barbara Smith Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Logsdon, Laura

Jacques Derrida Frank O'Hara, poetry

Lucas, Benjamin

Jacques Derrida John Ashbery, "The One Thing That Can Save America"

McGimsey, Maren

Adrienne Rich Susan Glaspell, "Trifles"

Minton, Michael

Cleanth Brooks Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ramser, Stephanie

Barbara Christian Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

Rowley, Angela

Laura Mulvey American Beauty (dir. by Sam Mendes)

Schwalm, Jason

Judith Butler Bret Easton Ellis, Less than Zero

Uebel, Jennifer

Sigmund Freud Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Walsh, Peter

Laura Mulvey Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (dir. by Quentin Tarantino)

Wandling, James

Jean Baudrillard Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

Wilbert, Michele

Sigmund Freud William H. Gass, The Tunnel