English 250

Research Seminars: Aesthetics and the Orient

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Spring 2014 Lavery, Grace
Thurs. 3:30-6:30 129 Barrows

Book List

Bourdieu, Pierre: Distinction; Burke, Edmund: A Philosophical Enquiry; Huysmans, Joris-Karl: Against Nature; Said, Edward: Orientalism; Segalèn, Victor: Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity; Watanna, Onoto: A Half-Caste and Other Writings


The kinds of writing called “aesthetics” and “Orientalism” are usually studied in relative isolation from each other, but they share certain features. Both pull readers outside their comfort zones, towards an unfamiliar place of beauty and sublimity; conversely, each marshalls its object as a critical counterexample to bourgeois philistinism. They also inhabit a singular history. Modern European theories whose emergence coincided with the colonial expansion of the eighteenth century, each was renovated, popularized, and vulgarized in the period of “new imperialism”. And indeed the two sometimes seem to converge on some of that later moment's most characteristic literary genres: aestheticism, colonial adventure stories, and the various strains of primitivist revivalism. Even within the framework of literary studies, they figure in a (perhaps surprising) historical coincidence. The conceptual credibility of each was fatally undermined in the late 1970s, with the publication of two encyclopedic scholarly monographs that have dramatically reshaped the way we read: Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), and Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1979).

Working between the literary archive of nineteenth century Britain and the most important theoretical statements on the subject, this course will read deeply in the histories and theories of Orientalism and aesthetics. The course will begin with a close reading of Said and Bourdieu, calibrating (and historicizing) their interventions. We will then work through the nineteenth century from German Romanticism at the century's opening until the anti-imperial aestheticism of its close, turning at last to a small number of contemporary debates that have revisited the problematics of aesthetic thinking and the Orientalist mode of representation.  Along the way, we will draw together anthropological philosophy that imagines aesthetics in spatial terms, as a territory waiting to be discovered (Kant, De Quincey, Johannes Fabian); narratives of world history as a progressive series of aesthetic forms (Hegel, Matthew Arnold, Fredric Jameson); aesthetic exceptionalism that calibrates an allegorical connection between the nation state and the subject of culture (Schiller, Wilde, M. K. Gandhi); and late nineteenth-century attempts to recuperate Orientalist thinking in the service of a geopolitical aesthetics (Yone Noguchi, Sadakichi Hartmann, Victor Segalèn). 

This course satisfies the Group 4 (19th century) or Group 6 (non-historical) requirement.

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