Introduction to Critical Theory

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Spring 2. 2021

Course Title: “Introduction to Critical Theory”
Duration: Six Weeks
Course: Spring 2 of 2021
Dates: March 5-April 9, 2021
Time: Fridays 3:00pm-4:45pm

Course Description:
Often seen as institutionally beginning with the Frankfurt School after the end of the Second World War, Critical Theory names the set of methodologies that come from scholars in order to understand social, political and historical phenomena of the modern world. Mostly inspired by Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud, the writers of the ‘first generation’ of critical theorists sought to re-assess critical theory given the horrors of totalitarianism during WWII and the Stalinist reign of terror. By the 1980s, critical theory had become the preeminent mode of academic writing for disciplines as varied as anthropology, sociology, literature, and political science. After the founding of the Centre for Critical Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, UK, a new form of critical theory arose, what is called today cultural studies. This course follows the trajectory of critical theory from Marx to contemporary cultural studies. Students will be introduced to theoretical and methodological approaches to history, science, politics, and literature that have for many decades seized the academy. No previous knowledge is required for enjoyment of this course.

Suggested purchases (in order of importance):

  1. Global Literary Theory edited by Richard J. Lane / $26 (used) from Amazon
    [definitely make sure to get a used copy or else you will end up paying a pretty hefty price]
  1. Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton / $18 from Amazon
    Luckily, I was able to find the PDF version of this text online. So, if you don’t mind having the digital version of the book as opposed to the physical book itself, then don’t buy this one. I’ve emailed the full text as a PDF.

Schedule (readings are meant to be done before the class during which they will be discussed)

March 5 – The Object of Critical Theory: Society in Hegel, Marx, Weber, & Freud

Reading: Introduction from both Global Literary Theory and Literary Theory: An Introduction

March 12 – The Frankfurt School: Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin, Habermas


  • Introduction to The Essential Marcuse
  • Ch. 3 of the Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, which is on Horkheimer and Adorno’s book The Dialectic of Enlightenment.
  • Horkheimer’s essay “Traditional and Critical Theory”
  • “Critical Theory and Postmodern Theory” in Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations
  • “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production” by Walter Benjamin

March 19 – Structuralism and Post-Structuralism: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault

Blackwell Anthology of Literary Theory–

  • Intro to Structuralism
  • Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure (Structuralism)
  • Intro to Post-Structuralism
  • Difference by Jacques Derrida (Post-Structuralism)

Eagleton book Ch. 3-4

Global Literary Theory (You may be able to find some of these essays online if you don’t have the textbook).

  • Ferdinand de Saussure, “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” (Structuralism)
  • Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (Post-Structuralism)
  • Julia Kristeva, “Genotext and Phenotext” (Post-Structuralism)
  • Jean-François Lyotard, “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?” (Post-Modernism)
  • Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra” (Post-Modernism)

March 26 – Cultural Studies: Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall


  • Wiley-Blackwell Introduction to Cultural Studies (2 pgs)
  • Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (14 pgs)
  • Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity” (31 pgs)
  • Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (8 pgs)
  • Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, Ch 1 of Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order 

April 2 – After the 1960s: Critical Black Studies and Native American Studies


  • The University and the Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stephano Harney
  • What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture? by Stuart Hall
  • Nationalism Indigenism and Cosmopolitanism (from Native American Studies Reader)
  • Introduction and Literary Aesthetics chapter from the Kidwell-Velie Native American Studies Reader
  • Black Studies Reader ch. 1-2, which describe the way Black Studies became a part of the academy
  • Angela Davis’s essay “Black Women and the University” 
  • Hazel V. Carby’s “Multicultural Wars” essay

April 9 – Gender and Sexuality Studies, Affect Studies, Performance Studies


Post Structuralism and Sexuality

  • Michel Foucault, “We ‘Other’ Victorians” and (especially) “The Repressive Hypothesis” from The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 (1976)
  • Judith Butler, “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions” from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)

Queer Studies

  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Epistemology of the Closet” from Epistemology of the Closet (1990)
  • Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinities (selections) (1998)

Performance Studies

  • José Esteban Muñoz, “Performing Disidentifications” from Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999)

Affect Studies

  • Sara Ahmed, “Find Your Way” from Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006)
  • Lauren Berlant, “Affect in the Present” from Cruel Optimism (2011)

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