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ENGL428B: Seminar in Language and Literature; Autobiographics, or Writing Off the Self

This course will examine self-fashioning strategies in a range of authors beginning with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, both known for writing from, about, of the self in their poetry and other writings.

Critically investigating uses of writing from the first person singular to mark, configure, solicit, and play with identities, we will study a wide range of cultural figures, from those obscure and unknown to historical and contemporary celebrities, and we will examine the production and circulation of “writings” in manuscript, in print, and on the screens of listservs, reflectors, the World Wide Web, television, movie theaters, and on PDAs.  Our study will include scrutiny of some previously unimagined possibilities and constraints afforded by cyber-identities, as well as technologies of theory such as affect theory and its diverse influences on literary interpretation as critics muse upon the human condition. “Writing the Self” or writings from, of, or off “the self” such as those that have been central to British and American literary traditions and the reciprocal relationships between self-fashioning and aesthetic media now permeate the social media we see all around us. This course will examine self-fashioning strategies in a range of authors beginning with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, both known for writing from, about, of the self in their poetry and other writings. They will be contextualized by Frances Harper and other African American writers. We will move from the nineteenth century and will focus most of the semester on twentieth and early twenty-first century. Doing so, our attentions will consider “lyricized” writings such as black gay poet activist Marlon Riggs & Essex Hemphill’s experimental documentary focusing on racism and homophobia, Tongues Untied, and perhaps to reconsiderations of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, kidnapped heiress turned revolutionary Patty Hearst’s Every Secret Thing, activist, philosopher, and academic Angela Davis’s autobiographies, and poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. The course will consider modern and postmodern “confessional” poetry, AIDS memoirs and coming-of-age stories, and autobiographic storytelling in rock & roll by elders Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and others writing and performing now.
Whatever prove to be our choices for our readings’ focus, we will not limit ourselves to “lyricized” expressions and prose narratives but will range widely across genres and media so that music, journalism, film, blogs, and various social media focus our critical inquiry of serious play in representational writing: writing itself as constituting autobiographical identity; discursive contradictions (rather than unity) in representing identity; the name as a site of experimentation in states of being; gendered, racialized, sexualized, classed, and diseased/healthy connections and disconnections of word and body; limitations of critical/theoretical understandings of the terms “public” and “private”; collaborative writings and renegotiations of not only the first person singular but of the finally porous distinctions between and among literature, criticism, and theory; critically extensive reflection on what counts as “writing,” what counts as “literature”; critically extensive reflection on “archives,” what counts as an archive, on archives as remainders reconstituting collective memory. The archives of this course begin with our mutual readings, and course members are encouraged to contact me should they have a particular text they’d like to see on the syllabus.

In other words, suggestions by students taking the course are welcome.

Besides our readings, course work requires keeping a journal, an oral presentation, a short (2-3 pp.) paper, and an article-length autobiographical and/or theoretical paper and/or website or other digital production performance.  Of particular interest will be how writings, readings, and receptions queer and are queered by notions of the self.  Collaborative writing, web-authoring, and other digital media endeavors are welcome.