Formalism and Its Discontents – syllabus

Foundations of Research in Literary Criticism

Formalism and Its Discontents

As an introduction to graduate study in literature, this course focuses on the formalisms that trace the contours of literature as a unique object, field, and mode of being in the world.  While attention to form at some level must always define literary study, methodological and theoretical developments of the 20th century in particular make that attention a core locus of dispute and discontent.  As a way of entering these debates, we will immerse ourselves in key moments of formalisms ranging from the Russians to New Criticism, from Levi-Strauss to psychoanalysis, from structuralism to post-structuralism, along the way asking about the property and properties of literary language, the technologies of meaning and dissemination, and the many crossings, vexed and generative, between aesthetics and politics.

 Schedule of Readings



24 Aug


Form Objects

31 Aug            Samuel Coleridge Biographia Literaria

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

Charles Baudelaire, Salon of 1859

Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

Terry Eagleton, “The Rise of English”

Formal Language

7 September    Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”

Martin Heidegger, “The Nature of Language”

Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such”

Ferdinand de Saussure, “Course in General Linguistics”

J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words excerpt

Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: “The Linguistic Foundation”

Michel Foucault, “The Prose of the World”


Literary Ontologies

14 September Culler, Structuralist Poetics: “Literary Competence”; “What is

Literature, and Does it Matter?”

J. Hillis Miller, “What is Literature?”

Louis Althusser, Letter on Art

Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature: Introductory; Reading;


Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Literature excerpt

Russian Formalism

21 Sept            Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”

Boris Eichenbaum, “The Theory of the Formal Method”

Mihkail Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship

Roman Jakobson, Linguistics and Poetics, Two Aspects of Language,

Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry

American Formalism, aka New Criticism

28 Sept            Cleanth Brooks, “The Heresy of Paraphrase”; “Irony as a Principle of


William Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy,” “The Affective


Renee Wellek, “Concepts of Form and Structure in 20th Century


John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”


From Form To Structure

5 Oct               Roland Barthes, “The Structuralist Activity,” “From Work to Text,”

“Death of the Author” “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative”

Foucault, “What is an Author?” “Discourse on Language”

                        Culler, Structuralist Poetics: “Linguistic Metaphors in Criticism”


12 Oct             Claude Levi Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”

Edgar Allen Poe, “The Purloined Letter”

Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”

Culler, Structuralist Poetics: “Structuralism and the Qualities of



Formal Economies

19 Oct             Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams: “The Dream Work”

Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret”

Slavoj Zizek, “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom?”

Jean Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economies: “Numismatics”


                        4pm, Student Center East, Illinois Room


Discontents: Dissemination

26 Oct             Jacques Derrida “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourses of the Human

Sciences”; “This Strange Institution Called Literature”

Barbara Johnson, “Nothing Fails Like Success”

Discontents: Reading For Form

2 Nov              Miller, “The Critic as Host”

Paul De Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric”; “The Dead End of Formalist


Geoffrey Hartman “Beyond Formalism”

Discontents:  Strong Historicisms

9 Nov              Stephen Greenblatt, “Towards a Poetics of Culture”

Terry Eagleton, “Ideology and Literary Form”

George Lukacs, “Art and Objective Truth”

Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: “On Interpretation”

Alan Liu, “The Power of Formalism”


Discontents:  New Formalisms

16 Nov                        Caroline Levine, “Strategic Formalism”; “Affordances of Form”

Susan Wolfson, “Reading for Form”

Marjorie Levinson, “What is New Formalism?”

Russell Berman, Fiction Sets You Free: “Why Literature Matters”

Tzvetan Todorov, “The Notion of Literature”

Angela Leighton, “Form’s Matter”

New Old Forms

30 Nov            Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections