Syllabus Depression

The time is nigh, says the gentle bookstore manager. If I want books in time for fall classes, I have to order them this week. I know, I know. All of you probably ordered books in April, when bookstores request this kind of information. But choosing texts for a class always sends me into a tizzy, even when I’ve taught the course before. There is a beautiful moment before the books are ordered, when the course is ephemeral and perfect; it can be anything and it has a million possibilities. Putting in a book order always feels like foreclosing on those possibilities—like locking in the destiny of the class.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching a course to the English majors on Postmodernism. Cripes, but I love this course. In the past, I’ve taught it as an introduction to the various definitions of the era. (In point of fact, I’ve always wanted to call it “What the hell is Postmodernism?”, but have always been discouraged by the idea of that appearing on the students’ transcripts.) I like to play the Jameson definition off of Lyotard, Hutcheon off of Baudrillard, and wrap up with the move toward cultural studies. I also have experimented with using a variety of texts, so in the past we’ve done a fair number of novels (DeLillo’s White Noise, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama), as well as photography (Cindy Sherman and Nikki Lee), as well as film (Cronenberg’s Existenz and Fincher’s Fight Club), as well as architecture (Learning from Las Vegas), and a graphic novel (Watchmen, my old pal). Strangely enough, the students often find themselves leaving the course without a clear handle on the postmodern. Jeez, I can’t imagine why!! [That last part was sarcastic, yes?]

So, this time around, I think I’ve got to stop with the freewheeling ride through the postmodern amusement park and create some handholds. Hello, mixed metaphor! But how do you choose? Because the handholds you pick determine the definition, and the texts you end up teaching. So, I could go with the old favorites: epistemological and ontological uncertainty. That would encompass a great deal, and I could do some old favorites (historiographic metafiction, for instance) and some new favorites (Memento, anyone?). That’s a bit broad, however. So how about a thematic handful of ideas: subjectivity, aesthetics, politics. All three can be found together in any number of texts (for the record, Watchmen is the perfect piece here–it’s a triple whammy. At least 6 of the students registered for the class have already read it, however, so I just can’t make myself do it. Rats.). But then how do you structure the course? Chronologically? Randomly?

The real biter here is that the thing I’m really interested in is the idea of postmodern love. I found this the last time I taught the class—it’s everywhere. It’s in the graphic novel (which I won’t name here again); it’s in Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse”; it’s a major player in the DeLillo novel; in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; in Barnes’ History of the World… Essentially, it’s in all the texts that I want to spend a working on with students. What happens to love in the postmodern era?

In an essay from the 80’s (“Reflections on The Name of the Rose“?), Umberto Eco wrote:

The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ”I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ”As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.”

Are we still here? Can we only articulate love via irony? My instinct says no. If anything, I suspect that authors, filmmakers, etc. are becoming more and more invested in a rhetoric of love as salvation (Barnes) or damnation (Memento), or something else altogether (the new Sundance fave Crazy Love). Laura Kipnis is writing Against Love. Hell, there could well be a nice tie in to Leslie Fiedler’s seminal Love and Death in the American Novel. I’m so excited about this idea that I could spit. Sadly, I don’t have the wherewithal to pull this all together by fall semester, and I certainly can’t put off the book order any longer.

Alas, poor Postmodernism class. I don’t know it, though it seems like an infinite jest and excellent fancy.

[Just thought I’d do a little Shakespeare mangling there at the end for kicks…]

6 thoughts on “Syllabus Depression

  1. Hey there, Kim.

    A class called “What the hell is Postmodernism?” on MY transcripts would be thrilling. JUST DO IT.

    Cheers to all your ideas, even if in the larval stage. Of course, the handholds sound particularly “prudent,” but the freewheeling ride through the amusement park? THAT sounds like a scream. If you combine both, is that anything like a roller coaster with training wheels?

    Whatever you decide, I can’t wait! (Well, you know… once summer is over. I’m not ready to give that up yet.)

  2. If only y’all could choose whether you wanted it on the transcript or not…

    We’ll see what I can do about the amusement park with handholds…would a racing bike with training wheels be a better metaphor?

  3. Are you familiar with Lester Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality. I think it tends to be a rhet/comp-type read, but/therefore, you might have read or perused it. Anyway, it probably doesn’t fit into your class in any way (it’s more for the What the Hell is Postmodernism in Relation to Student Writing class), but his section in chapter 7 (“Student Writers at the End of History?”) on Jameson and Baudrillard is super-readable and easy to understand. I’m thinking about this for student reading. I mean, you obviously want them to read from the source, but Faigley breaks it down so well (IMO) and he goes on to compare students and their writing to Baudrillard. You could then see if your students agree with his argument about them (and their writing). Of course, I guess this is more along the lines of something I would teach as it has nothing to do with ideas of postmodern love, but while I was thinking of it, I thought I’d throw it out there. Hope your planning is moving right along:) (mine’s not!)

  4. Pingback: So Many Teen Films, So Little Time « Blog en Abyme

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