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Unit information: Modern Critical Theory in 2017/18

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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 Professor. Marianne Ailes
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of French
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit will be taught by Dr Paul Earlie.

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 gender studies and queer theory. They will also engage with some of the latest developments in critical theory, such as ecocriticism and affect 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

1 x weekly Lecture

1 x Weekly Seminar

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

Roland Barthes, ‘La Mort de l’auteur’, Le Bruissement de la langue (Paris: Le Seuil, 1984).

Jacques Lacan, ‘Le Stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je’, Ecrits (Paris: Le Seuil, 1966)

Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature événement contexte’, Marges—de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972).

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

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

Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité, Vol. 1, Parts 1 & 2 (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).