The Object(s) of Literature
What does literature have to do with things? There’s a famous scarlet letter, a golden bowl, a lighthouse, a cookie (well, a French madeleine) and many other objects (famous or not) that populate poems, novels, and appear as props in plays. When we read, “He pulled out a gun,” we believe in some mysterious way that there really is a gun somewhere, rather than just a bunch of words on a page. Understanding how literature re-presents (that is, makes figuratively present what is literally absent) the world of things is to understand the trickiness of texts and the profound claims that literature makes on us as readers. How literature makes use of objects, that is, what the objectives of literature are or can be, will be the focus of our discussion. We will consider the ways in which literature constructs, represents, and produces the facsimile of our world of objects. We have a number of ways to think of the things that surround us—as commodities, as gifts, or treasures, or as fetishes, and writers are always faced the problem of how to translate the material world into the verbal marks on the page (like what you’re reading right now) that stand in for that materiality. As a follow-up to English 301, which is an introduction to reading texts, this course will be an introduction to reading and writing about theory and texts. For that reason, I will limit the number of literary texts, in order to spend a good deal of our time considering how to read and write about theory. Throughout the quarter we will put a few literary texts (Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, Aimee Bender’s An Invisible Sign of My Own) into conversation with several theoretical takes on objects (Marx on the commodity form, Freud on the fetish, Lewis Hyde on the gift, Bill Brown on the thing). Assignments will include short writing assignments and a longer final project.