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Unit information: Modern Critical Theory in 2020/21

Unit name Modern Critical Theory
Unit code FREN20061
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Paul Earlie
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of French
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The rise of ‘French Theory’ in the 1970s and 1980s has had a profound impact on disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, history, sociology, and politics. This unit introduces students to some of the most compelling and controversial texts in modern French critical thought. Beginning with the birth of theory in the early twentieth century, students will look at some of the key texts of structuralism and its aftermath in deconstruction; they will explore Marxist approaches to ideology and mass culture, feminist theories of language, and the continuing relevance of movements such as gender studies and queer theory.

Throughout the unit, students will be encouraged to apply the approaches studied to cultural objects of their choosing (e,g., literature, visual arts, television, film, advertising). They will learn to evaluate the merits of competing approaches and, where appropriate, to synthesise different theoretical frameworks. Particular attention will be paid to the rise of ‘theory’ as a genre of writing, and students will be provided with the tools to conduct close rhetorical analysis of the texts studied and to reflect critically on popular perceptions of French thought as ‘impenetrable’ or ‘jargonistic’.

Weekly lectures provide students with a solid grasp of the main concepts by taking everyday examples to illustrate the relevance and even urgency of different critical approaches. Student-led seminars will provide ample opportunity to grapple with the form and content of each text. Use will also be made of collaborative digital tools, notably via a specially designed wiki, Key Concepts in Critical Theory, where crucial notions such as ‘ideology’, ‘gender’, ‘sexuality’, and ‘repression’ will be tagged, discussed, and illustrated by students. This unit offers students a chance to reflect on the relevance of diverse theoretical approaches to their own practices of reading and writing, as well as providing invaluable theoretical grounding for their future studies.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, a student will be able to demonstrate:

  1. A broad understanding of the origin and development of the key currents in critical theory in French and an ability to articulate this understanding orally and in writing;
  2. The ability to relate the theories studied to their broader cultural, historical, or intellectual contexts;
  3. The ability to apply the theories studied to other cultural, historical, or intellectual contexts and to a variety of cultural objects (broadly construed);
  4. The ability to critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different methodologies and theories and, where appropriate, to synthesise different approaches;
  5. Skill in analysing passages from the texts in the target language which exhibits sensitivity to their rhetorical and formal structure, as appropriate to level I.

Teaching details

Teaching will be delivered through a combination of synchronous sessions and asynchronous activities, including seminars, lectures, and collaborative as well as self-directed learning opportunities supported by tutor consultation.

Assessment Details

One 2,000-word essay (75%), testing ILOs 1-4

One commentary presentation (25%), testing ILOs 1 and 5.

Reading and References

Primary Texts

The precise choice of primary texts will vary from year to year, in line with student interests; the following list is only intended as indicative, therefore, of the type of material that will be explored during this unit:

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Le Seuil, 1957).

Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Le Seuil, 1966). Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967).

Louis Althusser, ‘Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État (Notes pour une recherche)’, La Pensée, no 151 (June 1970)

Hélène Cixous, ‘Le Rire de la Méduse’, L’Arc (1975).

Monique Wittig, ‘The Straight Mind’, in The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1992).

Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité (Paris: Gallimard, 1994).

Secondary Reading

Useful introductions to each thinker can be found in Routledge’s Critical Thinkers series.

The following may also be useful:

François Dosse, Histoire du structuralisme, 2 vols (1991-92)

Alan D. Schrift, Twentieth-Century French Philosophy (2005)

John Sturrock (ed), Structuralism and Since (1979)

There are also two excellent anthologies providing ample material to further explore some of the issues raised in the unit:

Modern Criticism and Theory, 3rd ed., David Lodge and Nigel Wood, eds. (London: Routledge, 2013).

Literary Theory: An Anthology, 3rd ed., Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan eds. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017).