English 383a
T. Tensuan
F 1:30-4

American Autobiography
Life During Wartime

In this course, we will focus on texts that define war not only as situations of state-sponsored violence, but also as ongoing practices of oppression, exploitation, and dispossession. In taking up the work of artists and critics who write in witness to wars ranging from World War II, to U.S. incursions into Vietnam and Iraq, to crises defined in public and political discourses as “the war against AIDS and “the war against terrorism, “ we will consider how cultural discourses ranging from the profession of patriotism to the construction of masculinity to the practices of “good hygiene” work in relation to the conventions of autobiography. Thus, our investigations will cut across the boundaries established around national identity, gendered norms, cultural pieties, and generic formulations.

For example, at the outset of Unbecoming, his account of living with AIDS, Eric Michaels’ asks “For whom do I write? And, worse yet, from what position?…Necessarily a missive (missile) from the grave (which of course solves, or at least hijacks, the question of positioning). And what would be the rules governing the inscriptive practice here? Do I have to impose an orderly chronology? May I revise or not?….What begins here is a process of labeling, a struggle with institutional forms, a possible Foucauldian horror show, which must be resisted, counteracted somehow. I imagine that diary-keeping might serve to keep another set of definitions going against the quite barbaric ones that were inflicted in these last few days, through the rubber gloves, face masks, goggles and an inventory of tropes assumed lately by medical practices to deal not so much with the disease…but…with sin and retribution.” Building upon Michaels’ queries, we will consider the questions of what is at work and at stake for a figure – writer, reader, critic – who takes on the role of witness, what Ross Chambers defines as “the witnessing project, understood as the acknowledgment of trauma, of life’s refractoriness to ordering, narrativizing, and sense-making gestures.”

Assignments will include occasional critical and creative response to the works, two short (5-7 page) papers, and a semester long project that will culminate in an essay of 12-15 pages. You will prepare two presentations to the class: a small group presentation on one of the works on the syllabus, and a presentation based on your semester-long project.

Book list:
Mark Doty, Heaven’s Coast
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality
Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World
Eric Michaels, Unbecoming
Muriel Rukeyser, One Life
Joe Sacco, Safe Area Gorazde
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

A course reader will include essays by Dorothy Allison, Ross Chambers, David Eng, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, David Sedaris, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, Simon Watney, and David Wojnarowicz,

Pre-requisites: Two 200-level courses or consent of instructor.

*Enrollment is limited to 15 students.