The title of this seminar should be presented with a question mark: is there a theory or theoretical impulse that characterizes the 21st century in North American literary and cultural studies? Can we legitimately describe contemporary disparate methodological orientations on a wide array of objects and topics as “Theory 21”? On the one hand, the rhetorical, deconstructive, and ideological analyses that (perhaps misleadingly) characterized “theory” in the last decades of the last century seem to be a thing of the past. But following the subsequent swing in the profession toward detailed historicisms and specific identities, we are again witness to a renewed theoretical impulse, one which animates scholarship in a variety of fields: Ecological Theory including PostHumanism, New Black Studies, Affect Theory, Object Theory, “Post-Futurist” Queer Theory, and Image Studies, to name but a few examples of the profusion of speculative work that marks the first decades of the 21st century.
Though the theorists we will read and discuss in this seminar do not hail from any one school or discursive practice and though they write about quite different topics, the work is often as comparative as it is generously ecumenical; and I hope the constellations that we will generate will be mutually illuminating. And while these are contemporary theorists whose work speaks to what Walter Benjamin called “now-time,” we will also find important references to and revisitings of some disparate theorists of that past century, such as Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, and Giorgio Agamben. But our primary focus will be on the theoretical work taking place in our century; and the theorists we are likely to read and discuss include some of the most distinctive and exciting “voices” in the profession: Claire Colebrook, Lee Edelman, Stephen Best, Lauren Berlant, Sianne Ngai, Brian Massumi, Jane Bennet, Stacy Alaimo, Jacques Khalip, Fred Moten, Daniel Tiffany, Michael Allan, and Nick Davis.