Aesthetics and Politics – Syllabus

Aesthetics and Politics

“the forming of the five senses is the entire history of the world down to the present”
– Karl Marx

Can art be political? What does literature do in the world? How is the organization of social relations like or unlike the composition of an artwork? How do different genres or different media think about or engage in politics differently? How do different conditions of production shape media politics? This seminar focuses on theories of aesthetics and politics from a variety of time periods and cultural contexts, and studies examples from a variety of art forms, ancient and modern, high and low.


• Active seminar participation, including: careful completion of assigned reading, thoughtful contribution to discussion (20% of final grade)
• Aesthetic Response Writing (10%)
• Discussion facilitation; written submission of a critical response paper (15%)
• Object Analysis presentation; written submission (15%)
• Seminar Paper (40%)

This course is a seminar, requiring active participation. Productive discussion involves frequent contributions from prepared participants. As you read, make note of interesting, distinctive, or complex passages for comment during discussion. Come to class ready to discuss your notes – to bring your own ideas and perspectives to the conversation and to have reflected on problems and passages that particularly interest you. Participation will count for 20% of the final grade.

Throughout the semester we will conduct several experiments in aesthetic responsiveness and informal writing. Submitting your written work and / or sharing your findings after in-class writing will count for 10% of the final grade.

Two presentations are required of seminar participants. Sign up for both presentations during the first week of the semester.

One presentation is an object analysis of a work of art or a literary passage. Consult the handouts “Techniques for Close Reading” and “Super Short Guide for Writing About Art” in preparation. The written analysis and presentation (which should be a conversational overview of 2-3 pages of written analysis) will count for 15% of the final grade.

The other presentation involves choosing a theory / criticism text from our syllabus and posing discussion questions and leading discussion; you will also submit a written reading response paper the period after you lead discussion. Questions should be prompted by your effort to comprehend the arguments in the text/s and by your interpretation of those arguments; comparing or contrasting to previous week’s readings is encouraged. Possible points of broad interest: What are the key ideas in the text? Are they surprising, obvious, unclear? How are the arguments built? How do the arguments expand upon, refine, or contradict ideas from previous readings?

Your discussion presentation and short paper (2-3 pages) will count for 15% of the final grade.

The final essay for the course is a 7-10 page (graduate students: 15-20pages) research paper that should make an argument about the politics of one or more of the works of art we study in the seminar, paying particular attention to medium. Essays may also include works not studied in seminar. Essays must incorporate criticism or theory from at least three scholarly sources, including at least one not on our syllabus. Visit the library and make use of the very helpful English research librarian, Glenda Insua ( Visit the professor during office hours to consult about paper topics. The essay will be worth 40% of the final grade.

Required Texts (available for purchase at the UIC bookstore and elsewhere)

Aristotle, Poetics (Penguin) 9780140446364
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist 978-0062282712
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go 98-1-4000-7877-6
Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories 978-0805210552
Claudia Rankine, Citizen 978-1555976903
George Bernard Shaw’s Plays (Norton Critical) 978-0-393-97753-0
Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love 978-0-8264-2788-5

PDFS of other materials available via dropbox

Schedule of Readings:

August 28
theorizing forms, theorizing aesthetic politics
Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not a Luxury
Peter Kropotkin, “The Need for Luxury”
Caroline Levine, Provoking Democracy (Chapter One, Conclusion)
Levine, Forms (Introduction)
in class: medium, media
aesthetic response writing

Sept 4 no class, Labor Day

Sept 11
Plato Republic 367e-403c; 462a-462e; 474c-476c; 514a-521c
Immanuel Kant, from Critique of the Power of Judgment: sections 1; 20-22; the “General Remarks” following sections 22 and 29; 39-40
Ranciere, “Ten Theses on Politics”
Ranciere, Politics of Aesthetics 12-30; 42-45
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Essay 1)
aesthetic response writing: your government

Sept 18
medium politics, ancient forms: lyric
Claudia Rankine Citizen
Lauren Berlant, “Citizen”
Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society”
Jonathan Culler, “Apostrophe”

Sept 25
medium politics, ancient forms: drama
George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Aristotle, Poetics
Karl Marx, The German Ideology excerpt
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions”
aesthetic response: your performances

Oct 2
medium politics, ancient forms: architecture
William Morris, “Hopes and Fears for Art” excerpt
John Ruskin, Stones of Venice excerpt
Felicity Scott, “On Architecture Under Capitalism”
Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”
Blair Kamin, “The 606 landscape grows, as do concerns about displacement”
(Field Trip: The 606)
aesthetic response writing: your spaces

Oct 9
medium politics, literary forms: the short story
Franz Kafka, “Before the Law,” “In the Penal Colony,” “The Judgment”
Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death” (excerpt)
Jacques Derrida, “Before the Law”
Frank O’Connor, The Lonely Voice (introduction)

Oct 16
medium politics, literary forms: the novel
Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Margaret Harkness”
Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Literature (Chapter One)
Isobel Armstrong, Novel Politics (“Four Principles of Democratic Reading”)
Alex Woloch, “Minor Characters”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Oct 30
medium politics, literary forms: the essay
Georg Lukacs, “On the Form of the Essay”
Adorno, “The Essay as Form”
James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “The Creative Process,” “Stranger in the Village,”
“A Letter to My Nephew”
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist “Feminism (n),” “How to be Friends with Another Woman,” “Girls,
Girls, Girls”
aesthetic response: personal writing

Nov 6
theorizing spectacle
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle “The Culmination of Separation,” “The Commodity as
Theodor Adorno and Marx Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry”
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory “Art, Society, Aesthetics”
Fredric Jameson, “Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity”
Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine “Blank is Beautiful”

Nov 13
medium politics, modern forms: pop
Carl Wilson, Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love
Joshua Clover, “Survivalpop”
Beyonce, Lemonade
Toni Morrison, Playing the Dark excerpt
aesthetic response writing: your tunes

Nov 20
medium politics, modern forms: photography
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (Part One)
Susan Sontag, On Photography “In Plato’s Cave”
Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature
Vivian Maier, Street Photographer
Edward Burtynsky, Essential Elements
(possible Field Trip: Chicago History Museum Maier collection)
aesthetic response writing: your images

Nov 27
medium politics, modern forms: cinema
David Fincher, Fight Club
David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema title essay
Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed “The Media and Medium of Film”
Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories “Cuteness”
Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic excerpt

Dec 4
theorizing futures, making new forms
Russell Berman, Fiction Sets You Free “Why Literature Matters”
Lee Edelman, No Future, “The Future is Kid Stuff”
Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator (title essay)
Berlant, Cruel Optimism “Affect in the Present”
Margaret Atwood, “It’s not Climate Change; It’s Everything Change”
Marx, “Private Property and Communism”
aesthetic response: medium specificity and medium affordances