“Tristram Shandy was a post-modern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about…” blusters actor Steve Coogan, as he tries to explain the enduring appeal—and confusion—of Lawrence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel that twists its own narrative at every opportunity. Coogan is playing a comic version of himself in Michael Winterbottom’s clever, meta adaptation of what would seem to be an unadaptable book about learning in the eighteenth century; Lawrence Sterne’s novel famously lifts passages from other books from the period without acknowledgement and then loops back on itself to comment on its collage qualities. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is all about the impossibility of filming such an intertextual, digressive story, and thus in its meta-reflection, it illuminates larger themes of originality, textuality, adaptation, performance, and narrative. “Postmodern Enlightenment” takes Coogan’s anachronism as a starting place to consider 20th- and 21st-century pieces of art (novels, films, and other media events) that revise or adapt texts from the Enlightenment period as a means of exploring major concerns of postmodern culture: mediation, intertextuality, technology, authorial presence or erasure, cooptation, and strategies of critique.
We will read such novels as John Barth's The Sot-weed Factor, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, J.M. Coetzee's Foe, John Edgar Wideman's Cattle Killing, Allen Kurzweil's A Case of Curiosities, James Morrow’s The Last Witchfinder, Erica Jong’s Fanny, Jenny Davidson’s Heredity, and Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary; short stories by Angela Barrett, Shelley Jackson, and Lydia Davis; and such films as Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy and Milos Forman’s Amadeus. We will be reading some theoretical works by Immanuel Kant, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, and Donna Haraway in conjunction with these texts—with the main goal of considering how theoretical texts themselves function as stories about the Enlightenment that have their own intertextual and performative qualities. Students do not need to have read this theoretical material in other classes; anyone interested should bring a sense of curiosity about how we know what we know, and how we can play with those questions of learning and creating as readers and literary critics.
Course requirements: Two 4-5pp. short essays, a midterm exam (passage identifications and three brief responses), a 10-minute dialogue class presentation with another student, and an 8-10pp. final essay.