English 190

Research Seminar: Suspicious Mind


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
10 Fall 2017 Best, Stephen M.
TTh 12:30-2 106 Mulford

Book List

Coetzee, J.M.: Disgrace; Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness; James, Henry: The Ambassadors; James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw; Melville, Herman: Benito Cereno; Poe, Edgar Allan: The Purloined Letter

Other Readings and Media

Films:  Rope (dir., Alfred Hitchcock); The Lives of Others (dir., Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck); The White Ribbon (dir., Michael Haneke)

Description

Literary critics have made suspicion an essential aspect of what it means to read.  When we set out to do a “suspicious reading” of a text we assume a few things about it: that its true meaning consists in what it cannot say, know, or understand about itself; that such meaning lies at a certain remove from the reader; and that “symptoms” of meaning’s buried presence need to be “demystified” by the critical reader.  This is a class on suspicious and non-suspicious modes of reading.  We will interrogate the roots of suspicious reading, most pointedly in the writings of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, but we will also be unafraid in asking whether conceiving literary works as hiding their meaning or possessing an “unconscious” remain relevant ways to conceptualize texts in an era of fake news, unsubstantiated allegations, conspiracy theories, and “alternative facts.”  Should we continue to see literature as a laboratory for critique, where we interrogate the work of art and diagnose its hidden anxieties and meanings, or as a possible resource for alternatives to suspicion?  To answer this question, we will explore recent shifts toward an “ethics of reading” that reorients reading from something we do to the text to something that is done to us (where ethics refers not to the situation of readers and characters, or the author’s worldview, but to the varieties of formal relationality that works of literature afford in the process of reading -- i.e., building networks, communicating with intellectual strangers).

The course takes up its topic in three distinct observances: [1] the literary and cinematic tradition in which a hermeneutics of suspicion is subjected to scrutiny (Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter; Herman Melville, Benito Cereno; A. Hitchcock, Rope; F. H von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others); [2] the literary-critical turn toward “surface reading,” a portmanteau term that captures reading practices willing “to respect rather than reject what is in plain view,” in the words of Rita Felski, particularly those attributes of a text that in the past may have been dismissed as either too feminine or too queer, i.e., style, texture, surface, the ephemeral, the obvious, and the enchanting; and [3] works of literature and film that reward attentiveness to the play of their surfaces (Henry James, The Ambassadors; J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace; Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon).

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