English R1A

Reading and Composition: The Novel and the Police

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Fall 2021 Geary, Christopher
MWF 12-1 233 Dwinelle

Book List

Defoe, Daniel: Moll Flanders; Hopkinson, Nalo: Brown Girl in the Ring; Rosenberg, Jordy: Confessions of the Fox

Other Readings and Media

Other readings will likely include short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as shorter excerpts or pieces by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Angela Davis, Cedric Robinson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Fredric Jameson, John Bender, D. A. Miller, Eve Sedgwick, Stephen Best, Sal Nicolazzo, Robyn Maynard, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Jackie Wang, and Alex Vitale.


Abolish the police! Defund ICE! Free them all! The wave of protests across the global north last summer over the brutal killings of Black people by police initiated a profound cultural shift, massively amplifying Black Radical critiques of racial capitalism and the carceral state. In this course, we will study some path-breaking works of this abolitionist political theory, as well as the writings of several early proponents of police and prisons and some foundational theories of ideology and the state.

In this light, we will also then revisit some recent debates in literary studies about the politics of literary form and cultural criticism. In his classic study, The Novel and the Police, D. A. Miller detected an intimate collusion between police power and narrative technique in the realist novel. Indeed, the novel emerged as a genre in English literature just as carceral institutions such as prisons and plantations were coming into force, and several early English novelists were involved in the organization of Britain’s first professional police force. However, in recent years, arguments such as Miller’s have been indicted by many critics for relying on a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that approaches every text like an ideological crime scene and over-rates the carceral function of literature.

But is the connection between the novel and the police just a red herring? Or are novels, like prisons, obsolete? What can novels tell us about the history of the carceral? Can they help us envision its end? Why is critical reading so consistently figured as police work? What would a consciously abolitionist literary criticism look like? With these questions in mind, informed by our political-theoretical readings, we will read a range of novels, from an early experiment with criminal autobiography to some classic detective stories, to an Afrofuturist dystopia of the broken-windows era and a contemporary trans reimagining of the eighteenth-century origins of policing.

As we explore these issues, you will also practice your skills of critical analysis and textual interpretation by writing, workshopping, and revising a series of (very) short papers. In these papers, you will have the freedom to focus more on our political-theoretical or literary-critical readings as best serves your own interests.

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