Critical Theory

The MU English Department offers a range of graduate courses in this area, from the history of criticism and theory to explorations of the most recent theoretical approaches. Our faculty specialize in such theoretical areas as poetics, feminist and queer theory, Black feminist/womanist theory, postcolonial theory, new media aesthetics, biopolitics, and science studies. In addition, specialists in areas such as film, cultural studies, rhetoric and composition, folklore, and oral tradition teach courses that deal with theoretical concerns.

Recent graduate seminars


Taught by Elisa Glick

In the last year of his life, Andy Warhol created a series of self-portraits that use the jigsaw-like pattern of army camouflage to abstract and disguise his own image, offering an ironic and haunting comment on his reputation as an enigmatic disappearing act.  This enduring image of Warhol as an icon of nothingness—his puzzling “blankness” or machine-like impersonality—will serve as our point of departure this semester.  Are Warhol’s strategies of self-effacement an extended meditation on the complexities of self-revelation?  A critique of humanist notions of identity?  We will take up such questions by investigating a wide range of the artist’s multimedia work, including writings, films, photographs, performance art, collections, sculpture, commercial art, and time capsules.  Focusing on his key motifs of profit, sex, death and fame, this seminar will contextualize Warhol’s aesthetic choices and social commitments within the larger preoccupations and problems of (post)modern cultural production.  For example, how can the avant-garde integrate art and everyday life in the standardized world of mass culture?  Is the autonomy of art necessary to guarantee its utopian potential?   Topics will include:  the cultural milieu of the Factory, nostalgia, celebrity, mechanical reproduction, art and commodity culture, dandyism, authenticity, beauty, pleasure, camp and queer aesthetics, temporality, boredom, and repetition.

Media Aesthetics

Taught by Carsten Strathausen

After having been reduced to a mere ideological formation of bourgeois origin, Aesthetics—originally defined in 1750 by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten as a “science of sensory knowledge”—has made a strong comeback in the field of philosophy and cultural studies over the last two decades. This course suggests that one of the reasons for this historical change stems from the increasing importance of bodily affect in the context of new media technology. Whereas earlier theories of postmodernism (e.g. Arthur Kroker, Jean Baudrillard) claimed that digital media force us to transcend the flesh and leave the material world behind, contemporary digital aesthetics (e.g. Mark Hansen, Brian Massumi, D. N. Rodowick) regards the human body as an irreducible medium in its own right. There simply is no aesthetic experience that does not emanate from—and return to—the constitutive sense(s) of our body. Trying to substantiate this claim, we will not spend much time on the “origins” of aesthetics (i.e., Kant, Hegel, and Romanticism) but instead move quickly towards the historical Avant-garde and American pop culture in the 20th century. Our overall focus, however, stays on the rise of digital aesthetics today in texts by Deleuze, Baudrillard, Hansen, Manovich, Thacker, a.o. This engagement with media theory will be balanced by our investigation of contemporary art-works and new media installations. The goal will be to “apply” theory to practice in order to examine how each influences the other. A crucial question through this course will be to determine the place of literature in contemporary aesthetics.

Postcolonial Theory

Taught by Karen Piper

Postcolonial theory began in literature departments but quickly spread across disciplinary boundaries to impact much of academia.  Today, it is considered an indispensable part of graduate students' theoretical "tool kit" in many departments.  This course will provide an overview of its (often contested) terms and ideas, key thinkers, and recent intersections with transnationalism and globalization. First, we will discuss the history of European colonization and the kinds of rhetoric used to justify colonization, as explained in David Spurr’s The Rhetoric of Empire.  We will then move on to discuss the field of postcolonial studies, becoming familiar with some of its main terms—such as diaspora, decolonization, hybridity, the subaltern, and settler societies.  We will read John McLeod’s, Beginning Postcolonialism and selections from Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism.  Finally will discuss the economic underpinnings of neocolonialism, reading Invested Interests: Capital, Culture, and the World Bank, and look at postcolonial thinkers who are redefining eco-criticism, such as Upamanyu Mukherjee in Postcolonial Environments.  This course is useful for anyone interested inbecoming more fluent about issues of race/ethnicity, globalization andsocial justice, and the history of imperialism and resistance to empire.


Taught by Carsten Strathausen

“Posthumanism,” no doubt, has become a popular buzzword across the disciplines. After so many turns over so many decades, the humanities are currently in the grip of
“affect-theory” and the “posthuman turn.” But what, exactly, is posthumanism? Or, for that matter: what, exactly, is humanism? The premise of this course is that there are numerous—at times complimentary, at times contradictory—versions of “posthumanism” circulating in today’s academic discourse. During the first half of the course, we will try to distinguish the “posthuman” from related concepts such as the “non-human” (Agamben), the “anti-human” (Althusser), the “inhuman” (Lyotard), the “transhuman (Bor” etc. What is the relation between posthumanism and media technology (Marc Hansen, Eugene Thatcher, Katherine Hayles) or the history of cybernetics (Donna Haraway, Norbert Wiener)? Most importantly, how does post-humanism inform larger public debates about “post-anthropocentrism” and “eco-criticism” that extend far beyond the ivory tower of academic discourse into social politics about animal rights and global warming? In the second half of the course, we shall engage a variety of literary texts (e.g. Franz Kafka, Octavia Butler, Cormac McCarthy), art works (Francis Bacon, Olafur Eliasson) and films (e.g. Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, David Cronenberg) that tackle the posthuman head-on. I envision a dialogue of sorts between these works of art and the various “posthumanisms” discussed above, such that posthuman theory will help us understand these works (better), while, at the same time, art will shed a distinct (and distinctly critical) light on contemporary theory. For what is—or what might—a “posthuman aesthetics” look like, and how does posthumanism affect the humanities both intellectually and institutionally today?

History of Poetics

Taught by Alexandra Socarides

While most courses on the history of poetics might begin with Aristotle, this course will begin with Kant and will make its way, often circuitously, to the contemporary poetics of Susan Stewart, Angus Fletcher, Rachel Blau Duplessis and Virginia Jackson. To begin with Kant is to place emphasis on the poetic theory that developed during Romanticism and that still largely informs the way we read, teach, and write about poetry today. Emphasizing this Romantic strain in nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetic theory will allow us to explore how the still-dominant schools of poetic theory—formalism and new criticism in particular—came to define themselves and their goals. After an initial unit on Romanticism (in which we will read 19th C British and American texts), this course will take up extended readings on a variety of topics including: poetry and the social sphere; the definition of lyric voice; the uses and functions of poetry; time and the lyric; theories of prosody; formalism’s past and present; the relationship of poetic and anti-poetic discourses; poets on poetry; poetry and history; the role of the poet; and the poem/reader dialectic. For the most part texts will work across historical periods and continents, providing students with various, and often competing, ways into these topics. A prior knowledge of poetics is not required. This course is meant to be helpful to both readers and writers of poetry, not only because it will make visible where poetry’s themes, forms, structures, and attitudes come from, but because of the fissures in this history that will present themselves under the pressure of our analysis. Students will write two conference-length papers, one of which will be revised.

Contemporary Critical Approaches

Taught by Carsten Strathausen

This course focuses on current trends in literary theory. Our overall goal is to explore both the philosophical as well as the socio-political dimension of theoretical paradigms such as structuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, reader response, etc. Two critical premises will guide our discussion: first, the belief that there is no “meta-theory” able to account for all the insights fashioned by the different approaches to literary and cultural production. The second premise holds that theories do not just emerge out of a socio-historical vacuum, but always carry within themselves traces of the particular context in which they are “born.” Examining that context, then, is an essential part for “understanding” literary and aesthetic theory in general. Rather than dismissing a particular critical approach as “unrealistic” or “outdated,” it is far more productive to assess its strength and weaknesses within and beyond the historical context during which it emerged. This approach should also help students to become more familiar with whatever theory they might find most useful for their own work. The course begins with a brief discussion of the “linguistic turn” in 20th century theory and the fundamental importance of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics from 1916.

History of Criticism and Theory

Taught by Noah Heringman

How is the consciousness of irreversible human-driven change in earth systems--a process increasingly widely known by the term "Anthropocene"--affecting literary criticism and theory?  The Anthropocene is certainly a buzzword in contemporary criticism, but the apparent collapse of a massive distinction between humans and nature should also provoke a reconsideration of the entire tradition of literature as mimesis, the imitation of nature.  In this course, we will consider some classic texts in the history of criticism and theory, including Aristotle's Poetics, Sidney's Apology for Poetry, and Kant's "Analytic of the Sublime," that make transformative claims about the representational capacities of literary art, about its relationship to nature.  We will consider the imprint or "footprint" of literature along with the atmospheric and chemical footprints left by the various systems in which it has flourished, including animal-powered agriculture, coal-driven industry, and the petroleum-besotted Space Age. We will conclude with a number of contemporary theorists who situate cultural production in relation to the threat of climate change, including Stacy Alaimo, Jussi Parikka, Rob Nixon, and Bruno Latour.  We will also attend MU's 11th Annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, devoted this year to the Anthropocene, and engage with the invited speakers there, including the Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes and Marcia McNutt (president of the National Academy of Sciences).  Our course text will be the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (third edition) along with three or four contemporary volumes.

Feminist Theory (WGST 8020)

Taught by Elisa Glick

What is feminist theory? What does feminist writing have to teach us about relations of domination and subordination in our increasingly complex world? How do various feminist theories address categories of subjectivity, embodiment, vision, language, labor, affect, power, and culture? How is feminist theory related to everyday experience? These are some of the questions we will respond to as we survey major topics, approaches, and debates in feminist theory with an eye toward exploring intersections of gender, race/ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Although we will be reading some foundational mid-century texts, the majority of the assigned readings will be drawn from contemporary feminist writing. Paying particular attention to theoretical confluences and divergences among feminists, as well as the conditions under which theoretical works are produced, we will explore the texts and contexts of feminist theories including black feminism, feminist theories of embodiment, postmodern feminism, queer theory, psychoanalytic feminism, feminist postcolonial theory, material/materialist feminism, feminist visual theory, poststructuralist feminist literary theory, transnational feminism, and feminist and queer affect theory.  This course is offered through the Women’s and Gender Studies Department.