Sovereignty and the Aesthetics of Horror: A Pro-seminar

Course Description

The pro-seminar has a special focus on professionalization. In literary studies, professionalization is specialization—that is, learning how to map “a field” and place oneself within it. Our course will model this process in two ways, one prosaic and one a bit more experimental. The first is the way all graduate courses model professionalization: by examining a set of texts through a set of questions, here about political theology, aesthetics, and horror. At a more meta-level, I propose that these questions also prompt us to reflect on the profession itself. “Literature” is a distinctly modern disciplinary formation, just as aesthetics is a distinctly modern branch of philosophy. I say “distinctly” because they were both born from the ruptures and problems that characterize modernity as modern (the loss of certainty, the sense of a menacing rather than orderly cosmos, the mechanization of life, etc.). They also both claimed to offer a new kind of salvation from these horrors—horrors that, of course, drove the appeal of the distinctly modern genre of horror. In other words, and by a kind of mad algebra, I propose that the question of the profession is also the question of horror—a connection perhaps more relevant than ever, as the discipline confronts hostile market conditions and its own decay.

If English literary studies, aesthetics, and horror are all modern phenomena, why turn to the early modern? Prosaically, I am an early modernist; this is “the field” about which I know a modest amount. But more to the point, the early modern poses interesting questions to us as members of a profession born of modernity. Can we talk about aesthetics before aesthetics? Horror before horror? The grandest claim of the course is that we can, because the ruptures and problems that constitute the modern have their roots in divisions, transgressions, and violations of the 16th and 17th centuries. This will bring us to our third major theme, besides aesthetics and horror: sovereignty and political theology. Along the way we will consider other topics, such as affect, abjection, cannibalism, body horror, monstrosity, demonology, race, plague, temporality, disability, and gender. 

El 68A Syllabus

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