English 250

Research Seminars: Autotheory

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Spring 2021 Best, Stephen M.
Note new time: M 3-6

Book List

Berlant and Stewart: The Hundreds; Clark, T.J.: The Sight of Death; Eribon, Didier: Returning to Reims; Hartman, Saidiya: Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments; Keene, John: Counternarratives; Nelson, Maggie: The Argonauts; Preciado, Paul: Testo Junkie; Sharpe, Christina: In the Wake; Stewart, Katie: Ordinary Affects; Wilderson, Frank: Afropessimism


There is very little criticism we could point to today that purposely flies under the banner of “theory.” This course will explore one variant that does—autotheory—the name given to work that, in one form or another, stages the encounter between first person narration and theory as an established body of contemporary thought. In the hands of Kathleen Stewart or Maggie Nelson, autotheory connects affect to everyday life; in that of Christina Sharpe or Frank Wilderson, it attends to the resonant landscape between the personal and the historical. However rigorously or sketchily defined, one may well wonder what is behind this placement of the self at the center of critical theory, considering how thoroughly a previous generation of poststructuralists critiqued the individual as a self-authorizing ground of discourse. We will respond to that concern by exploring autotheory’s various idioms: forms of attention and intimacy; the ordinary (i.e., acceptance of the everyday as a zone of theoretical activity; the critical desire to remain, as the poet Claudia Rankine put it, “in the quotidian of disturbance”); the commitment to avoid theoretical shorthand that telegraph experience into the limited terms of a totalizing system, and to developing modes of address adequate to their objects (i.e., the effort, as Stewart writes, “not to finally ‘know’ [the uncertain objects of ordinary affect] but to fashion some form of address that is adequate to their form”). At another level of generality, autotheoretical works are often experiments in academic form—a style of academic writing intent to bypass the conventions of academic writing. Acknowledging that a basic task of the graduate seminar is to “discipline” students in the forms of academic writing, we will also inquire into whether (and how) this body of writing, characterized by self-reflexivity and late-stage career adjustment, remains pertinent to scholarly lives in the spring of their formation.

The course reading is likely to include the following: Lauren Berlant and Katie Stewart, The Hundreds; T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death; Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims; Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments; John Keene, Counternarratives; Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts; Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie; Christina Sharpe, In the Wake; Katie Stewart, Ordinary Affects; Michael Taussig, Walter Benjamin’s Grave; Frank Wilderson, Afropessimism. In addition, we will trace the relevant genealogies in psychoanalysis, feminism, the black radical tradition, and critical theory (Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Frantz Fanon), as well as autotheory’s relation to New Narrative and autofiction.

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