English 250/2: Idols and Ideology

Instructor: Professor Victoria Kahn

The history of Western literary theory is often told in terms of the concept of mimesis. But there is another, equally powerful, anti-mimetic strand to this history, and that is the critique of mimesis as a form of idolatry. In this course, we will explore this critique from the prohibition against images in the Hebrew bible up through modern attacks on mimesis and aesthetics as inherently ideological. One premise of this course, then, is that iconoclasm is part of the pre-history of the critique of ideology.

Our main literary texts in the first half of the semester will be taken from Reformation England, when there was a fierce debate about the harmful power of images and the necessity of iconoclasm. We will focus on works by Marlowe, Shakespeare, Bacon, and Milton. In the second half of the semester, we will discuss the afterlife of iconoclasm in Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Adorno, Terry Eagleton, Isobel Armstrong, and Bruno Latour. Students whose interests lie primarily in national literatures other than English are welcome, and may write their final papers on primary texts and literatures not discussed in class, though they must engage the theoretical texts assigned for the seminar.

Required Texts:

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays (Oxford) ISBN 978-0-19-953706-8 [also in pdf]

Milton, Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey (Longman) ISBN  13: 978-0582019850 (or any other edition that includes Samson Agonistes)

Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale (any edition with line numbers)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness