ENGLISH 821 - Seminar: Critical Theory
Fall 2021, Section 001 - Readings in the Non-Human Sciences: or, Critical Theory by Other Means
Instruction Mode: Section 001 is  In Person (see other Sections below)
Subject: English Language and Literature (ENGLISH)
Department: LSA English Language & Literature
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Waitlist Capacity:
Advisory Prerequisites:
Graduate standing in English, Women's Studies, or English and Education Program. Permission of instructor.
May not be repeated for credit.
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I offer this course as a stand-alone (welcome first-years!) that might also be of interest to those who have taken my own and others’ courses in critical theory. The roster of texts I’ve assembled—by practitioners and theorists of the so-called “postclassical” sciences—offers to humanities students a repertoire of models for rethinking some of the basic ideas and methods of our trade. By “basic ideas,” I mean deep (as it were, intuitive or cognitively hardwired) category perspectives on such dyads as mind and matter, subject and object, thinking and doing, history and structure, entity and environment, animate and inanimate, human and animal, singularity and multiplicity, and so forth. “Basic methods” refers to our standard ways of explaining and connecting the items belonging to each half of those dyads, and second, to our ways of fashioning causalities that bridge the category gap within each dyad. As for “models,” that term describes intellectual frameworks that are wide enough to give us a purchase on the kinds of topics that students of literature and culture entertain (e.g., language, visuality, sexuality, gender, race, class, power, resistance), and that are deep enough to cast light on the common-sense of both our everyday experience and our scholarly discourse.

Jonathan Culler defines “theory” as “borrowing frameworks from one discipline for use in another.” On that definition, these selections from the postclassical sciences offer a body of theory most of us haven’t yet sampled, although many dates back to the 1960s, the same moment that, in the Anglo- and Francophone worlds saw the emergence of a critical theory proper. By that I mean the systematic application of frameworks from anthropology, linguistics, economics, sociology, political theory, and psychoanalysis (in sum, the human sciences) to the study of literature and culture. In other words, “postclassical” as applied to the sciences is not just a synonym for “poststructuralist”; it was twinborn with it.

My earlier theory courses argued the self-revolutionizing impulse of “critique,” the method invented by Kant in the 1780s. Critique replaces “first-philosophy” (for the modern period, Descartes is the most proximate example) with meta-philosophy. The official meaning of “first-philosophy” is metaphysics or the study of Being, but the phrase enjoys a looser usage: namely, the philosophical study that regards its objects of inquiry as spontaneously available to rational thought. With Kant, that changes. For the first time, an inquiry into XYZ—e.g., beauty, truth, virtue—becomes an inquiry into the conditions of possibility of the experience or phenomenon of XYZ, turning the tables on both skepticism and empiricism. Kant’s reflexive move—his method of “transcendental deduction”—had repercussions unguessed at in his philosophy. Chief among those aftershocks was Hegel’s historical dialectics, his answer to the problem of dualism, a problem that Kant had not so much resolved as kicked upstairs, ruling it and all other “metaphysical” matters out of bounds for critical thought. For many of us, Hegel’s dialectical and historical “overcoming” of the divides between being, knowing, and doing, represents a decisive moment in the history of philosophy, in some ways a “Copernican turn” more dramatic than Kant’s reflexive method. With Kant, first-philosophy gives way to meta-philosophy, while with Hegel, philosophy yields to “theory.” Absent Hegelian dialectics, the signal achievements of 20th- and 21st-c critical and cultural theory (a discourse that plainly acknowledges its debt to Hegel) could not have occurred.

In this new course, we lead with Spinoza (the standard genealogy starts with Descartes and Bacon), and we make a wide detour around Kant. Both those decisions set us upon a road not taken by mainstream critical thought. Our new road, like the main route, leads to and through Hegel, but by starting with Spinoza we angle ourselves toward a Hegel who is closer to the 20th- and 21st- century sciences than he is to the post-structuralist thinkers who are standard fare in a critical theory course. (And, we use Deleuze’s two studies of Spinoza to tease out the kinship and differences between humanistic and scientific theories of roughly the same era.) All those theories are “post-dialectical” (in that special sense where “post” means both “after” and either “enfolding” or “continuous with”), but the vastly different materials and scale of research in the non-human sciences yield pictures of and stories about mind and matter (and their innumerable spawn of binaries) that have an imaginative and analytic force all their own.

There is, at this point, a sizable set of critics who apply these models to literature and culture. I’m thinking of Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, Paul Jaussen, Arkady Plotnitsky, Joan Richardson, Daniel Tiffany, Cary Wolfe, and others, some of whom we will read. The goal of this course, however, is to give you some first-hand acquaintance with work by theoretical biologists, physicists, chemists, and systems theorists, work you are unlikely to read in any other context. Why read them now? Because the ensemble of studies we group under such labels as new materialism, the new ontologies, posthumanism, animal studies, and eco/environmental studies represents the growth industry of our profession. All these studies presume knowledge of paradigms central to today’s basic science understanding of our physical, biological, and cultural worlds. In their different but related ways, these paradigms not only challenge that very distinction (i.e., physical, biological, cultural) but develop conceptual alternatives to that (classical) way of divvying up reality.

Reminder: this is not a science and literature course, the focus of which would be conceptual and textual intersections between historically contemporary bodies work (for instance, 19th-century theories of the organism and Shelley’s poetry). My title phrase “non-human sciences,” gets us to what this course is, in the largest sense. Our readings challenge the self-evidence of the distinction between, on the one hand, the human sciences (sciences of mind, sciences of culture: Geisteswissenschaften) and, on the other, the natural/physical sciences (Naturwissenschaften). I label our readings “non-human sciences” rather than “natural/physical sciences” to signal that these readings refuse the nature/culture binary at a level more foundational (perhaps, thus, more “critical”) than what happens in critical/cultural theory proper. These writings, all of which pursue scales of study (e.g., the microscopic, the cosmic) alien to our modes of inquiry, introduce us to all sorts of inanimate and/or non-intentional entities that are sometimes capable of acting like human and other animals: e.g. chemical reactions, machines, assemblages, digital environments, termite mounds, fungi, operating programs. What new insights, questions, research agendas, and interests might these “lifelike” behaviors suggest to the likes of us, that is, students of “the human sciences”? Have we outgrown (or should we?) our easy assent to “the intentional fallacy” and even, perhaps, “the pathetic fallacy”? If so, what does this mean (this new, disenchanted or perhaps re-enchanted animism) for our ways of talking about writers, works, and contexts? How will it change our protocols for asking and answering the “how” questions (formal questions) and the “why” questions (causality and meaning questions) that spring from our encounters with literature and culture? Throughout the term, we will test out (think, “lab session”) our postclassical frameworks on a selection of literary materials—poems suggested mostly by me, novels suggested by you.

Rough reading list for Eng. 800, Fall 2021: Readings in the Nonhuman Sciences In all cases, we read chapters, articles, and excerpts, not entire books. In


ENGLISH 821 - Seminar: Critical Theory
Schedule Listing
001 (SEM)
 In Person
Th 10:00AM - 1:00PM

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