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FREN 590: Structuralism and Negativity

M 3:35-6:05pm, Dey 302, Prof. Sean Matharoo (

            This course is divided into two parts. First, we will survey 20th-century French structuralism, a tremendously influential philosophical method that analyzes structure understood as a “combination and relation of formal elements which reveal their logical coherence within given objects of analysis” (Jacques Ehrmann). After reading excerpts from Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (1916) and Kojève’s EPHE lectures on the Hegelian dialectic from the 1930s, we will study the structuralist philosophies of Claude Lévi-Strauss (anthropology), Roland Barthes (myth), Louis Althusser (Marxism), and Jacques Lacan (psychoanalysis), concluding with Gilles Deleuze’s early solo-authored work on difference-in-itself. In the second part of the course, we will study 20th– and 21st-century French and Francophone literature and media by artists who embrace negativity as a force for positive transformation—e.g., the Surrealists, OuLiPo, the new novelists, Etel Adnan, Claire Denis, Ananda Devi, Julia Ducournau, Abdellah Taïa, and Marie NDiaye—alongside 20th– and 21st-century theories of negativity—e.g., anticolonialism, monstrous feminisms, Afro-pessimism, queer negativity, negative ecology, and speculative realism—concluding with Alain Badiou’s affirmative dialectics. We will alternate weeks on structuralism and negativity, but it will be soon evident that these concepts are mutually necessary.

A primary goal of this course is to learn how to use and adapt philosophy and theory for your own research interests, areas, and periods of specialization. Some questions to guide us: Whither structuralism? What can literature and media of negativity teach us in an age marked by the polycrisis? What is the difference between French philosophy and French theory? What is the new?

This seminar is specialized insofar as its focus will be on reading closely, or explicating. However, no prior familiarity with these thinkers and artists—or even with the critical reading of philosophy, theory, literature, and media—is required, just a willingness to engage fully. Graduate students from departments other than Romance Studies and undergraduate students are welcome, as the seminar will be facilitated in English, and all materials are available in English translation.

May count for the FREN minor / major. Undergraduates wishing to enroll on this course should contact the instructor.

Prerequisites: FREN 300, and 370, 371, or 372. Or permission of the instructor.