About this class
The catalog lists this class as Literary Interpretation. While there are good reasons for so naming it, I prefer to avoid the term interpretation and substitute reading. Interpretation seems to denote a mediation between individuals or groups who are divided by mutual unintelligibility – foreign language, or vast cultural differences. Interpretation evokes cryptography, puzzles. Texts can be puzzling, but I don’t think they have solutions which stand unaltered for all time. Instead, I prefer the term reading, as in “my reading of Brave New World . . . ” I’m not sure that it differs greatly from interpretation, except that I intend that reading evoke contingency, and multiplicity. There can be many different readings of a single text; not all are persuasive, but the differences that readers perceive are what make literature interesting. The three main elements of this class are Theory, Terror, Dystopia.
Since the disciplinary wars in English and the humanities in the 80s and 90s, theory has become its own specialized domain of knowledge. Theory is interdisciplinary, combining specialized knowledge of multiple domains such as psychology, anthropology, or linguistics with the study of literary texts. Theory is analytical and speculative, and interrogates things that are normally considered obvious, or common sense – like sex/gender, or the way words carry meaning. Theory is reflexive – like thinking about thinking. Theory has always been concerned with answering the question: What is literature? Why is it worthy of study? If you are going to major in English, that is a question you should be willing to spend some time thinking about.
As we look at contemporary theory, especially recent work by Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek, we find that no contemporary account of the post-9/11, post-globalization world can ignore terror – the terrorist figures ever more prominently in science fiction, dystopia, and fantasy of the present day – V for Vendetta, and The Children of Men, and surprisingly, that of the past. Terror has become one of those drastically under-theorized words – an epithet or descriptor to be tossed at anything deemed undesirable, or politically inconvenient. When the head of the US Secretary of Education can label the National Education Association – the nation’s largest teachers union – a “terrorist organization,” it’s time to examine what is at stake when we use such terms. Theorizing terror may mean asking uncomfortable and even distasteful questions, but we study literature and theory not to be comfortable, but to have our views and values scrutinized.
The term was coined to denote a non-utopia: a world gone wrong. What do we mean when we call something Utopian? Are dystopian narratives anti-Utopian, or are they frustrated Utopian desires? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that nearly all science fiction, dystopian and otherwise invokes an imaginary world or future to say something specific about the present with plausible deniability: the way Shakespeare used ancient Rome in Julius Caesar to say something about Elizabethan England. If dystopian literature such as Brave New World uses satire to say something about the 20th century and modernity, does that mean that dystopian fiction is largely conservative, or reactionary? Must skepticism about the possibility of Utopia mean that all Utopian imaginations must be rejected?