Making and Unmaking Worlds: Genre Fiction and Theory

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
Singularity & Co
18 Bridge St
Brooklyn, NY 11201

“Genre fiction” – a catch-all term encompassing science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and romance – dominates the contemporary popular media landscape in an unprecedented way, even as many authors and literary critics have come to question the boundaries between “genre” and “literary” fiction. In what often amounts to a confusing debate between a sometimes naïve “poptimism” and a moribund defense of “high” culture, both the power of genre and its relationship to criticism have become illegible.

Yet, as even Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – not exactly enthusiastic defenders of the popular culture of their day – note in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, our faculty for the “fantastic” feeds our desire and potential for emancipation while “the continuance of domination demands the fixation of instincts.” In short, human emancipation, critical theory’s raison d’être, requires fantasy. As the march toward totalitarianism continues, “fantasy withers.” Of course, Adorno probably had in mind the “quasi una fantasia” that marks Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” more than Tolkien’s elves or Frank Herbert’s sandworms. But it should come as no surprise that, from the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe to the wild science fictions of Paul Scheerbert, one finds a wide array of fantastic references in critical theory, comparative literature, and media studies. Indeed, as Lauren Berlant writes, the making and unmaking of worlds, both real and imagined, “requires fantasy to motor programs of action, to distort the present on behalf of what the present can become.” Thus, fantasy, and by extension genre, is not only central to the act of criticism itself, but also vital to the development of a vivid political imagination capable of instigating change in the world. How, then, does the fantastic inform the critical? Inversely, what can critique and criticism bring to genre fiction? How must our critical engagements shift? Does the political power of fantasy also ‘wither’ with its cultural dominance? How and why do our circumstances produce and promote these stories? How does the ubiquity of contemporary genre fiction in literature, cinema, television, and comic books complicate such a relation? In short, what is the relationship between the critical, the fantastic, and the political?

In this class, we will explore genre fiction over several decades and across several media forms (including film, television, and animation) while addressing the questions of the fantastic and political imagination. Special attention will be paid to science fiction and fantasy that probes the limits of political and representational boundaries, as well as to works that flourish by strict adherence to genre “rules” alongside those that explore the blurry demarcation between “genre” and the “literary.” Readings may include selections – predominantly excerpts, short stories, and short novels – from Edgar Allen Poe, Paul Scheerbert, Stanislav Lem, Shirley Jackson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Junot Díaz, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R Tolkien, Phillip K. Dick and Frank Herbert, as well as excerpts from canonical and genre specific critical theoretical, aesthetic, and comparative literature sources including but not limited to Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Auerbach, Ernst Bloch, J.R.R Tolkien, Fredric Jameson, Alondra Nelson, and Lauren Berlant. Additional screening sessions will be included in the course.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-8:30pm
May 05 — June 09, 2016
6 weeks


Registration Closed

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