CLEN 6xxx Topics in Literary Theory

D. Tenen

Topics in Literary Theory is a course meant to address a range of key concepts related to the contemporary study of literature and textuality, including ideas about form, figure, trope, narrative, discourse, interpretation, genre, period, value, canon, archive, influence, authorship, readership, and reception of literary texts.

In this semester's seminar we will cover the major literary, philosophical, and theoretical works related to the long history of formalism. Canonical texts in aesthetic theory from Plato, Hegel, Herder, Lessing, Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Leon Trotsky, Percy Lubbock, W.M. Wimsatt, Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Claude Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Susan Sontag will lead us to a more recent body of work from media theorists, literary scholars, and computer scientists including Jean Baudrillard, Alexander Galloway, Sharon Marcus, Caroline Levine, Kathleen McKeown, Donald Knuth, Marjorie Levinson, Franco Moretti, and Johanna Drucker.

Two rich intellectual histories will collide in these readings: one, the intellectual history of form in literary theory and the other, the material history of formats as a concept in textual criticism, book history, and software design. Format will emerge as a concept that mediates between form understood as internal "rules for construction" and form understood as "external shape." The formatting layer transforms one type of structure, a series of bits arranged into tracks and sectors, into another, letters arranged into sentences and paragraphs. We will draw a history of text formats that commences with several "control characters" limited in function to actions like "carriage return" or "stop transmission." With time, the formatting layer will encompass all manner of machine instruction, including structures of governance like "digital rights management" and "copy protection." A manufacturer's ability to censor or to surveil electronic books is contained within the formatting layer. The concept of formatting developed in this course is critical therefore to our understanding the capabilities of digital texts: from electronic books that modify themselves to suit the reader's geographic location, gender, or socio-economic status to "smart" contracts that contain the rules of their own execution.