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ENGL 494 B: Honors Seminar

Sensation and the Socio-Political

Meeting Time: 
MW 12:30pm - 2:20pm
DEN 314
Professor Harkins in front of bookshelf
Gillian Harkins

Additional Details:

I'm Not OK, You're OK
I'm Not OK, You're Not OK
I'm OK, You're Not OK
I'm OK, You're OK

-- Four Life Positions from Thomas Anthony Harris, I’m OK, You’re OK (1969)

I’m OK, You’re a Drone

-- Bookshelf Title from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999)

This class will explore the rise of “sensation” as a category of social, cultural, economic, and political experience. Sensation has been variously associated with feeling, emotion, viscerality, embodiment, touch, smell, and sight. Coupled with the category of “reason,” sensation has historically been used to organize relations among those caught up in the wide net of European Enlightenment. European colonial expansion and domestic industrialization used specific criteria of Enlightenment “reason” and “sensation” to distribute recognition and punishment across patterns of racialization, indigeneity, differential modes of gendering and sexing bodies, and the making of distinct “cultures” of class and region. At one end of the spectrum, the categories rational and reasonable were reserved for those at the top of aristocratic/capitalist, Christian/European supremacist, and masculinist/heteropatriarchal hierarchies of European Enlightenment. At the other end of the spectrum, the categories emotional and sensual were used to describe any formation of knowledge and experience not articulated to the top of this hierarchy. And yet, across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and its white settler colonies, the category of “sensation” was used as a mode of articulation that connected these two ends of the spectrum without closing the gap between them. Sensation, carefully cultivated and properly experienced, would create a bond between new national communities and would enable emergent social groups to name a shared experience: bourgeois, “white,” democratic, familial. In the wrong hands, however, sensation threatened to become merely “sensational,” seeking cheap effects rather than high value participation in elite regimes of aesthetics and politics. Hence the sensational also came to denote the excessive – that which exceeds conventional approaches to the socio-political, that which is simply too
much body or soul and not enough reason, judgment or critique.

These two categories – reason and sensation—continue to structure life in the twentieth century, although their operation across and through race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and region is increasingly confusing and difficult to map. The once explicitly politicized category of “sensation” has become more strongly associated with the category of “feeling,” which continues to mobilize new social formations of belonging and exclusion while at the same time modifying the meaning of the “political” as such. Feelings are moralized and normalized, rather than politicized, and we are caught up in networks of allegedly good and bad feelings, normal and abnormal sensations, right and wrong visceral reactions. This changing framework for reason and sensation is most familiar in the rise of “self-help” referenced in the epigraphs for this class, where feelings are linked to personal –rather than political--health and well-being, while political health and well-being is increasingly linked to personal feeling and the management of life itself (see Alys Weinbaum’s concurrent Honors Seminar on “Biopower”). These two epigraphs remind us that our own age of self-help, and its current impasse in the rationales of pharmacology and warfare as “cure,” is a relatively recent phenomena best understood in relation to a longer genealogy of reason and sensation. Thus our class will begin in the nineteenth century but move quickly into key flashpoints of the twentieth, exploring the changing technologies and practices of capitalism and governance relating sensation and the socio-political. Our focus throughout will be on what theorist Fred Moten calls “fugiti

Catalog Description: 
Survey of current issues confronting literary critics today, based on revolving themes and topics. Focuses on debates and developments affecting English language and literatures, including questions about: the relationship of culture and history; the effect of emergent technologies on literary study; the rise of interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities.
GE Requirements: 
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Other Requirements Met: 
Honors Course
Last updated: 
March 24, 2016 - 11:25am