The second half of the twentieth century saw an explosion of literary ‘theory’. The effects of this explosion are still being felt: Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, queer theory, cultural studies, historicism, new historicism, and postcolonial theory all compete and cross-pollinate within the sphere of contemporary ‘literary studies’. Although ‘theory’ is comprised of an extraordinarily diverse array of schools and movements, taken as a whole, it has challenged existing ideas of literature and raised deep questions about the relationship between literary texts and broader notions of language, culture, identity, politics, and history. This course does not seek to cover this enormous field (an impossible task!), rather, it seeks to make some sense of why and how it has come to be so wide. It seeks to demystify some of the more obscure and intimitading aspects of theory and to introduce students to theory’s exciting potentials. Above all, it seeks to explore how these theories raise fundamental questions about literature and how (and why) it is studied.  Theory, in the end, is a multitude of attempts to answer what are seemingly simple questions: What is literature? How does it relate to the individual and to our world? What is its purpose?  How do we analyse or interpret it?

The particular focus of this course is on poststructuralist criticism, which is highly attuned to the relationship between the literary text and language more generally. The reasons for this choice of focus are twofold. First, poststructuralism is one of the most important and distinctive strands of theory to emerge in the late twentieth century (see the likes of Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes). Second, it is a strand that has influenced almost all other schools of criticism, including psychoanalysis (Lacan), Marxism (Jameson), and gender studies (Butler). We thereby gain a sense of the broader state of contemporary literary criticism and of the interconnectedness of its diverse theories. But we will also end the course by questioning poststructuralism: What is it reacting against? What are its potential limits or shortcomings? And what alternatives are beginning to be developed in the early twenty-first century? 




We will meet once a week for three hours.  The course will be made up of formal lectures, group work, and class discussions guided by student presentations.  Each week different students will present short argumentative papers on that week’s reading and its potential application to literary texts. 




Class Participation and Attendance – 10%
Paper Presentation – 15%
Mid-Term Paper – 35%
Final Paper – 40%




All the readings can be found in the course pack and include:

Ferdinand de Saussure, selections from The Course in General Linguistics.
Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’
Jacques Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’ and ‘…That Dangerous Supplement…’ from Of Grammatology
Michel Foucault, selections from Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality
Slavoj Žižek, ‘Courtly Love, Or Woman as Thing’
Helene Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’
Judith Butler, selections from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’

The course pack is available for sale at AV & Reserve counter (Main Library, 1/F) at HK$155.00 per pack. Please make sure that your enrolment has been approved before purchasing the course pack. No refund can be arranged.



Last updated: 22 August 2016