Let's start with the three terms in our title. "Contemporary" is an easy one; it just means something like "post-1965." "Critical" is a little tougher. At first, it probably makes you think of literary criticism--which is understandable, since this course is taught in the English department. In truth, however, "critical theory" stretches beyond literary theory and is best understood as a transdisciplinary phenomenon. The work of particular theorists can be very difficult to categorize, and the influence of those same theorists is nearly impossible to calculate. Theory has left its mark on almost all of the traditional disciplines, and in so doing it's also blurred the boundaries between them. As Louis Menand explains, "professors in anthropology departments now read the same theoretical texts . . . as professors in French departments." In light of all that, it seems best to describe "theory" as a kind of thinking about thinking, a highly self-reflexive examination of the ways in which writings, readings, and interpretations of all kinds are both produced and consumed.

To give some direction to this course, I've decided to begin with readings from a few of the nineteenth-century writers who paved the way for contemporary critical theory. Once we've taken a brief glance at these writers, we'll focus in on three recent figures: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Mikhail Bakhtin. In the last half of the term, we'll sample a number of very recent developments, including postcolonial theory, gay and lesbian theory, and cultural studies. (It's worth noting that these developments had only begun to take shape when I first began teaching this course--back in 1993.)

I will lecture from time to time, but this will be a discussion class. I like the discussion format because it's fun and because it seems to help students to keep up with the reading. For discussions to work, as we all know, everyone has to be prepared. Everyone has to do the reading, everyone has to review the study questions and handouts, everyone has to have an idea or question in reserve, in case things start to drag or stall. I'm assuming that if you stay in this class, you are declaring your willingness to do those things.

One more thing. My point in offering this course is not to convince you that any one of our theorists is right, but to show you what each theorist has to offer. Some theorists can be confusing or even annoying at first; consider this sentence from Frederic Jameson:

By the end of the term, believe it or not, you will understand what Jameson has in mind. In the meantime, in order to make sure that we don't reject any of our theorists prematurely, I'll be playing the Marxist when we're doing Marx, the Freudian when we're doing Freud, and so on. Please feel free to play along--or to call a timeout at any point.

revised March 30, 1999
mail to Tim Spurgin