SoSe 14: Materialist Minds: Embodiment and the Self in Literature and Theory
Natural opiates flooded her system and, after a few minutes, she started to feel a bit better." This sentence from Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2011 novel The Marriage Plot is just one example among many that ... read more
Natural opiates flooded her system and, after a few minutes, she started to feel a bit better." This sentence from Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2011 novel The Marriage Plot is just one example among many that attests to the widespread adoption of psychobiological explanatory models in contemporary American literature. While literature has always been a privileged site for the production and interrogation of consciousness, character, and the self, in recent years such themes have increasingly been treated not in traditionally humanist terms but in the language of neurology, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology. Reflecting on this trend, scholars in the humanities have noted the emergence of "neo-naturalist" tendencies - both in literature and cultural theory - and new analytical terms like the "neuronovel" or "biomedicalization" have been coined to describe what many consider a significant change in cultural ideas and artistic practices.
This course will use such observations and assumptions as a starting point for readings in recent American literature dealing with materialist or medical understandings of the human subject. Our discussion will be guided by questions such as:
What are the functions and consequences of "neo-naturalist" tropes and descriptions?
What are the different conceptions of "the human" that are at play here?
What are the cultural contexts of the shift toward medical/materialist explanations?
We will read three literary texts, each of which negotiates these issues in different ways: Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (in excerpts). These readings will be complemented by short theoretical texts that shed light on the philosophical and ethical problems raised by the literary examples. In this way, we will be able to both do close readings of the primary texts and discuss key theoretical concepts like the self, embodiment, and agency, all of which are of crucial importance for literary and cultural studies. close