American Literature and the New Materialism (syllabus draft – UPDATED)



It is only a slight exaggeration to say that no intellectual development in the humanities in the past half century has been the cause of as much controversy as the culture turn, and its closely allied philosophical movement often known as the linguistic turn.  The former is the argument, as Nancy Armstrong summarizes, which holds that “no form of cultural representation ever simply reproduces what it represents; it always produces that person, place, or thing, as such.”  While this argument has always had its vocal critics, what is remarkable is that in the last decade or so many critical theorists who have been deeply immersed in the intellectual projects behind the culture turn have pushed against this founding premise.  They have been motivated by a wide range of reasons, reflect a wide variety of approaches, and often disagree vehemently about what it would mean to practice a more “material”-centered thinking.  What they have in common, however, is an abiding sense that the many urgent and interlocked crises of the present—such as global warming, neoliberalism, and disruptive advances in technology—demand critical retooling that foregrounds our relationship to what Heidegger calls “things themselves.”

This seminar considers some prominent contemporary examples, shows their grounding in long-running intellectual discussions, and considers how works of American literature contribute to what is potentially a significant shift in contemporary thought.  Our time will be organized to move between different concepts of the material, zigzagging between them to show both how they are distinct and how much they overlap: current-day Marxism, affect theory, speculative realism, cognitive theory, and posthumanism.  Commodities, things, and ecology are three keywords that will guide this seminar’s exploration of questions such as: Can we make a post-culture (and post-linguistic) turn without losing many of the insights afforded by our insistence that we pay close attention to the mediation of reality?  What are the political ramifications of trying to think of a material world that exists independently of our apprehension of it?  How can we ever know that what we posit as exterior to us is not itself a projection of our own thinking?  Or, to put this in slightly more technical terms, how can we differentiate between ontology and epistemology?

This course is going to be challenging, but I hope it will provide a solid entryway into fast emerging debates within critical theory and the study of literature.


participation (20%); co-facilitation (10%); labs (15%); blog (15%); research paper (40%) 

1 / participation.  It should go without saying that regular attendance, appearance on time, contributing to discussions, and doing all of the required reading are essential to this course, especially as it will be discussion based.  You will be learning as much from each other as you will be from me, so it is especially important that you participate actively.   Please be sure to maintain all absences to a minimum and appear on time.  The creation of a safe classroom environment where everyone feels encouraged to speak as openly as possible is all of our responsibility.

2 / co-facilitation.   Each of you will act as a co-facilitator for one class meeting during weeks two through ten.  This means you and I will work together to think about how best to organize a specific meeting around its readings and topic.  We will meet at least once before the class, and can also trade ideas and thoughts via email or on canvas.  In this way, we will work together to think self-consciously and creatively about how we lead discussion, ask pertinent questions, and encourage greater group involvement.  It will also give you a sense of the invisible but crucial work that goes into the planning of a class meeting.

3/ labs.  Four class meetings near the end of the semester are being left blank.  For these meetings, we will decide in groups how to fill them, with an eye toward making sure the course connects to your particular research interests.  The groups will consist of two students and myself for each meeting.  Should we read more of a particular school of thought?  Is there a way of thinking about the material that we’ve left out but shouldn’t?  How can we connect what we’ve been studying to areas of interest outside American literary study?  Is there a work of literature, or a film, or a piece of art, or a digital project that seems to us perfect for providing an occasion for further reflection?  Do we want to spend a day work-shopping our writing?  How will we divide up the class period?  What are our pedagogical goals?  Like co-facilitation, we’ll meet early as a group and discuss what we’d like to do.

I am calling these periods “labs” to foreground how I’d like us to treat these meetings: as an opportunity for experimentation and openness to original ways of learning together.  If the digital humanities teaches us anything, it is the importance of thinking about how the new platforms it focuses on require novel design choices (as opposed to a research paper, where these choices have already largely been made for us).  This means that they also encourage different processes of work.  That is, rather than the lone scholar developing his or her thinking in relative isolation, new technologies seem to push us to work collaboratively, to be project-based, and to experiment with relatively flat command structures.  I’d like to think of these lab days as a chance to experiment with such alternative processes.

4/ blogs.  Each of you will write a blog post about your experiences co-facilitating a class with me and about working to prepare a lab day.  You should also write comments on each other’s blog posts.  Finally, you are welcome to write posts to the class blog when you feel you have something substantial to add to our discussion in class.  The blog thus provides opportunities for you to continue the work of the seminar through writing, performs this work in a way that a broader public is welcome to access, and encourages further reflection on the ways in which the widespread availability of technologies like a blog (can we say it’s new anymore?) affects how we do intellectual labor.  <>

5/ research paper.  While it is becoming increasingly important for humanities students to experiment with other forms of doing work, communicating ideas, and reaching broader audiences, the skills enabled by the writing of a research paper remains essential.  The course thus culminates with a research paper of about 15-20 pages in length that will seek to think in a disciplined way about a question raised by our work together through an in-depth, scholarly investigation of a specific text, or texts.  Its aim is to offer an original way to address this question, raise new questions, and build on the work of relevant extant scholarship.  It also seeks to demonstrate why the question and the approach chosen to address it should matter to the reader.  Finally, it will show self-consciousness about the craft of scholarly writing — the ability to provide precision, concretion, extended thought, provocative speculation, and vivid illustration while remaining as accessible as possible to the broadest possible readership.  The paper can be a theoretical meditation on one of the problems we’ve discussed in class or a reading of a primary text informed by our focus on materialism.

All written assignments must reflect your own thinking, and anyone caught cheating or plagiarizing will face stiff university-wide reprimand.  For official university guidelines, definitions of terms, and procedures regarding academic integrity, visit

If you are a student with a documented disability seeking reasonable accommodations in this course, please contact Kathy Duggan, (617) 552-8093, at the Connors Family Learning Center regarding learning disabilities, or Paulette Durrett, (617) 552-3470, in the Disability Services Office regarding all other types of disabilities.

REQUIRED BOOKS (alphabetical)

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003)

Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)

John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)

Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010; available online:

N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (2012)

Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brains? (2008).

Ann Petry, The Street (1946)

H.D. Thoreau, Walden (1854)

Recommended: Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (2010)

Other required and supplemental readings will be available at Canvas ( or online.  Please note: we are one of the first courses at BC to switch from Blackboard to Canvas; everyone else will be switching the following year.


Date Content
Jan 14 Should we rethink the culture turn?  Welcome and introduction.  Discussion of readings.  Required:

  • Nancy Armstrong, “Who’s Afraid of the Culture Turn?”
  • Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms”


  • Michel Foucault, “Discourse on Language”
  • Michael Omi and Howard Winant, “Racial Formation” (from Racial Formation and the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s)
  • Bruce Baum, “Power, Knowledge, and ‘Race’: Notes on Method” (short excerpt from introduction to The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race)
Jan 21 Why Materialism Now? We start with a novel to make sure we understand literature and theory as being partners in dialogue about what the stakes are of a turn to materialism for reading literature and for thinking about the present. Required:

  • Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake


  • Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Democracy”
  • Laura Tanner, “Holding onto 9/11: The Shifting Ground of Materiality” 
Jan 28 Is the “old” materialism of Marx still relevant? In trying to answer this question, it helps to have some familiarity with Marx’s writings.  Required:

  • Marx, “Commodities and Money,” chapters 1-3 of Capital
  • Richard Dienst, “The Magic of Debt; or, Reading Marx Like a Child,” from The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good.


  • Frederic Jameson, “The Play of Categories,” from Representing Capital: A Commentary on Volume One
  • “Wall Street Is a Way of Organizing Nature,” interview with Jason Moore
Feb 4 Seeing and commodities.  We going to pair an extraordinarily influential book about visual culture with a recent example of work on the aesthetic qualities of commodities.  Required:

  • John Berge, Ways of Seeing
  • Sianne Ngai, “Cuteness,” from Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Interesting, Zany


  • Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmer,” introduction to The Affect Theory Reader
  • Brian Massumi, “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat,” from The Affect Theory Reader
Feb 11 Everyday encounters with the world.  Set in mid-twentieth century Harlem, this novel does more than provide an example of our theorizing so far.  It also offers us theories of its own about how to relate to things outside us.  Required:

  • Ann Petry, The Street


  • Lauran Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” Affect Reader
  • Kathleen Stewart, “Afterword: Worlding Refrains,” Affect Reader
Feb 18 Are we too critical?  Speculative realism is a broad category, but draws largely from philosophy to think about the independent existence of the material world and our relationship to it.  Bennett, I think, provides the most promising example of this kind of work.  Required:

  • Jane Bennett, “The Wonder of Minor Experiences,” introduction to The Enchantment of Everyday Life
  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter


  • Spinoza, “Part I: Of the Mind,” from Ethics
  • Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”
Feb 25 Can phenomenology provide us with a way back to “things themselves”? Both Husserl and Heidegger have become important philosophical touchstones for those who are trying to do the kind of work that the speculative realists are up to.  Reading them also demonstrates how much their work is indebted to phenomenology.  Required:

  • Edmund Husserl, “Perception, Spatiality, and the Body”
  • Martin Heidegger, “Introduction: The Exposition of the Question of the Meaning of Being,” from Being and Time


Spring Break  
Mar 1 Can we still talk about nature?  The inevitable conclusion that the culture turn leads us to is that there is nothing natural about nature, so does a turn away from the culture turn allow us a different insight about this concept.   Required:

  • Henry D. Thoreau, Walden
  • Henry D. Thoreau, “Walking”


  • Wai-Chee Dimock, “Global Civil Society: Thoreau on Three Continents,” from Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time
  • Alan Richardson, “Defaulting to Fiction: Neuroscience Discovers the Romantic Imagination”
Mar 18 Can the natural sciences provide a model for new kinds of politics?  We will continue talking about neuroscience by pairing a short work of speculative philosophy that sees it as a potential model for political action with a short work of speculative fiction (read online!) that explores our ideas of artificial intelligence. Required:

  • Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brains?
  • Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects


Mar 25 What does a healthy relationship to technology look like?  Digital Humanities offers us a way to think about this question, especially when it is in dialogue with the study of the brain.  Required:

  • N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis


  • Cathy N. Davison, TBA
  • Patricia Clough, “The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia, and Bodies,” Affective Reader
Apr 1 Lab 1
Apr 8 Lab 2
Apr 15 Lab 3
Apr 22 Lab 4
Apr 29 Field Trip  We are going to organize a trip to Walden Pond so that we can treat it as a kind of outdoor laboratory to test out some of the ideas we’ve been thinking about throughout this course.  What have we learned?  Where might it lead us?  We will obviously have to work out the logistics for this trip, but please do look ahead at your schedule and see if you can free up this day as much as possible.  
May 6 research paper due

© 2013 Min Hyoung Song