Culture Wars: Literature and the Politics of Culture Since the Late-19th Century

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The current controversies over multiculturalism and the attacks on the literary canon and on the idea of high culture itself suggest that this may be a good moment to examine how the ideologies of culture currently in question have been shaped over the last century. We will begin with the late-19th century, when what we think of as modernist conceptions of the unique social role of imaginative writing and of aesthetic experience generally begin to take shape, and continue through to the “culture wars” of the 1980s. Some of the course reading will be in fiction, poetry, and drama that can be read as offering, in themselves, theories of cultural politics; these writers will include Flaubert, James, Mann, Brecht, Yeats, Eliot, Pynchon, and Morrison. Theorists of the relations among art, society, and politics will range from the Victorians and “Decadents” (Arnold, Wilde) to late Romanticism (Nietzsche, Wagner) to Marxist cultural theory (Benjamin, Adorno) to poststructuralism (Barthes, Derrida) to recent American theorists of gender and ethnicity. Some previous work in literature or philosophy is desirable.