Readings in Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Culture, 1790-1900

L627 — Spring 2018

Ballantine Hall 221
Days and Times
5:45-7:00 TR
Course Description

Topic: Life and Living; Michel Foucault declared several decades ago that modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question (The History of Sexuality). Georgio Agamben, more recently, that the principle of the sacredness of life has become so familiar to us that we seem to forget that classical Greece did not even possess a term to express the complex semantic sphere that we indicate with the single term: life (The Open). In recent years, questions regarding what might be summed up as life and the living have emerged as fundamental within literary studies. In this course, we will consider a broad range of long-nineteenth-century British literary texts (from Malthus to Joseph Conrad), alongside 20th and 21st century works of theory and criticism, in an effort to understand and explore this problematic. I imagine our conversations moving between these broad and overlapping topics or rubrics: (1) The biological: Aristotles bios vs. zoe, nutritive, vegetal, natural, reproductive, and political life; the living, animated, vivacious vs. the dead, unanimated, unliving. Natural history and evolution. Sexuality and childbirth. Where do living/unliving distinctions traverse texts and discourses, and where do they break down or become ambiguous? (2) The biopolitical: defined by Foucault as the control and oversight of populations through the management of biology and life. How do living/non-living distinctions organize political categories of rule, sovereignty, control, supervision? (3) The zooanthropological: Jacques Derridas term, by contrast with the biopolitical, for questions of human/animal distinction as they relate to hierarchies and structures of meaning. (4) The characterological: in a more literary register, questions of character and personhood. What defines a person, character, or living being in literary texts? How are the life and death of fictional beings imagined and represented? I have not yet made final decisions, but some possible/likely primary texts include some but not all of the following (some of these in excerpted form): Aristotle, "De Anima; Thomas Malthus, from Essay on the Principle of Population; Coleridge, Hints Towards a More Comprehensive Theory of Life; Percy Shelley, On Life; dramatic monologues by Robert Browning and Augusta Webster; Elizabeth Gaskells Mary Barton; Henry Mayhews London Labour and the London Poor; Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man; John Ruskin, Unto this Last; Charles Kingsleys The Water Babies; Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm; Richard Jefferies After London; Thomas Hardys Jude the Obscure; Joseph Conrads The Secret Agent. Secondary/ critical/ theoretical texts may include: Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am; Georgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal; Michel Foucault on biopolitics; Georges Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life; Denise Gigante, from Life: Organic Form and Romanticism; Catherine Gallagher, The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel; Elizabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely; Stefan Helmreich and Sophia Roosths Life Forms; Elaine Scarrys On Vivacity. Assignments and expectations will include: regular, vocal participation in discussions; one or two class presentations; several response papers posted to Canvas before class with questions for discussion; a final paper (its length depending on whether you are taking the class as L627 or L738), in preparation for which an early partial draft will be written in time for a group writing workshop. Note that although the literary texts are primarily drawn from late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain, I welcome students with other interests. Once I have the class roster, I will send an email to sound the class out about certain reading selections (to avoid any excessive repetition of texts youve recently read for other classes). Please feel free to email me with any questions at This course is offered at both the 600- and 700- level and is listed in both places. To sign up at the 700-level, you will need authorization. Instructor: Ivan Kreilkamp

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