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semester number title subtitle instructor email
Fall 2016
CLEN 6xxx
Topics in Literary Theory: Course Proposal
Form, Formula, Format
Dennis Tenen
Semester: Fall 2016
Title: Topics in Literary Theory
Theme: Form, Formula, Format
Course Number: CLEN 6xxx
Instructor: Dennis Tenen
Office Hours: TBA

Course Description

Topics in Literary Theory is a course meant to address a range of key concepts related to the contemporary study of literature and textuality, including ideas about form, figure, trope, narrative, discourse, interpretation, genre, period, value, canon, archive, influence, authorship, readership, and reception of literary texts.

In this semester's seminar we will cover the major literary, philosophical, and theoretical works related to the long history of formalism. Canonical texts in aesthetic theory from Plato, Hegel, Herder, Lessing, Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Leon Trotsky, Percy Lubbock, W.M. Wimsatt, Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Claude Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Susan Sontag will lead us to a more recent body of work from media theorists, literary scholars, and computer scientists including Jean Baudrillard, Alexander Galloway, Sharon Marcus, Caroline Levine, Kathleen McKeown, Donald Knuth, Marjorie Levinson, Franco Moretti, and Johanna Drucker.

Two rich intellectual histories will collide in these readings: one, the intellectual history of form in literary theory and the other, the material history of formats as a concept in textual criticism, book history, and software design. Format will emerge as a concept that mediates between form understood as internal "rules for construction" and form understood as "external shape." The formatting layer transforms one type of structure, a series of bits arranged into tracks and sectors, into another, letters arranged into sentences and paragraphs. We will draw a history of text formats that commences with several "control characters" limited in function to actions like "carriage return" or "stop transmission." With time, the formatting layer will encompass all manner of machine instruction, including structures of governance like "digital rights management" and "copy protection." A manufacturer's ability to censor or to surveil electronic books is contained within the formatting layer. The concept of formatting developed in this course is critical therefore to our understanding the capabilities of digital texts: from electronic books that modify themselves to suit the reader's geographic location, gender, or socio-economic status to "smart" contracts that contain the rules of their own execution.

Course Requirements & Grading

Students will be expected to read the approximate equivalent of three scholarly articles per week, to attend the seminar weekly, to participate in the class discussion both in person and online, and to develop a research project that will culminate in a paper. Advanced students will have the option to integrate the course's themes with the subject matter of their expertise.

Class participation 25%
Informal weekly response online forum 25%
Midterm project proposal 20%
Final paper 30%

University Policies

When in doubt, cite! Plagiarism is insulting to your fellow students, your instructors, and to the research community at large. It wastes my time and yours, and is, ultimately, not worth the risk. Consult Culumbia’s guidelines at or ask me for help early in the writing process.


The syllabus will be continually updated to match the pace of the course at:

Provisional Schedule & Reading List

Week 1

Introduction. Structure of the course. Policies, grading, requirements.

Week 2: Ideal

Readings from Plato's Timaeus and Phaedrus.

I recommend that you procure a conventional copy of these texts. Augment with Perseus critical edition for Greek originals.

Week 3: Shape

Week 4: Concrete Universal

  • Hegel, G. W. F. “The Philosophy of Plato.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 4, no. 3 (January 1, 1870): 225–68.

  • Vol I, Part II "Development of the Ideal into Particular Forms of Art," Introduction & Section I "The Symbolic Form of Art" "Introduction: The Symbol in General." Pages 299-322 in the linked edition.

  • Vol I, Part II, Section III "The Romantic Form of Art," "Introduction" in Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Pages 517-530 in the linked edition.

Week 5: Construction

  • "Art as Device" in Viktor Shklovsky's Theory of Prose. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press: 1-14.

  • Eichenbaum, Boris. “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made.” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays, edited by Robert A. Maguire, 267–92. Princeton University Press, 1995.

  • Jakobson, Roman. “Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by Thomas A Sebeok, 350–77. [Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1960.

  • Chapters I-II (pp. 1-25) and XVIII (pp. 265-74) from Lubbock, Percy. The Craft of Fiction. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1921.

Week 6: Formula

Week 7: Machine

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Blue and Brown Books. First Paperback Edition. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965. Pages 1-17, 45-50, 117-125. Please read selectively around these passages as well. On reserve at the Edward Said Reading Rm, 616 Butler. The originals are here for Blue and here for Brown, but you will have to correlate the page numbers with the assigned.

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Grammar. Edited by Rush Rhees. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Pages 5, 10, 41-45, 69-70, 187-190, 197. Expand on the selections as needed. I will send a link to the .pdf, but the book is also widely available from the library.

  • Turing, A. M. “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society s2-42, no. 1 (January 1, 1937): 230–65.

Week 8: Matter

### Week 9: Pattern

  • Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London; New York: Verso, 2005.

  • "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel" in Bakhtin, M. M, and Michael Holquist. The dialogic imagination: four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

  • Selections from Jockers, Matthew L. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

  • Helfman, Jonathan. “Dotplot Patterns: A Literal Look at Pattern Languages.” Theory and Practice of Object Systems 2, no. 1 (January 1, 1996): 31–41.

Week 10: Format

  • Tanselle, G. Thomas. “The Concept of Format.” Studies in Bibliography 53 (2000): 67–115.

  • Sterne, Jonathan. “Format Theory.” In MP3: The Meaning of a Format, 1–31. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. (Go to Files & Resources in Courseworks if the link is not working for you.)

  • Berns, Gerald M. “The Format Program.” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Writing and Speech 11, no. 2 (August 1968): 85–91.

  • Kimura, Gary D., and Alan C. Shaw. "The Structure of Abstract Document Objects." In Proceedings of the Second ACM-SIGOA Conference on Office Information Systems, 161–69. COCS ’84. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 1984.

Week 11: Affordance

  • Selections from Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006.

  • Selections from Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. The MIT Press, 2008.

  • Hutchby, Ian. “Technologies, Texts and Affordances.” Sociology 35, no. 2 (2001): 441–56.

Week 12: Text

  • Ch. 7 & 8 in Bringhurst, Robert. "The Elements of Typographic Style". Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, Publishers, 2004.

  • King, James C. “A Format Design Case Study: PDF.” In Proceedings of the Fifteenth ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, 95–97. HYPERTEXT ’04. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2004.

  • “Unicode 1.0.0,” n.d.

  • Selections from Drucker, Johanna. “Digital Ontologies: The Ideality of Form In/and Code Storage: Or: Can Graphesis Challenge Mathesis?” Leonardo 34, no. 2 (January 1, 2001): 141–45.

Week 13: Depth and Surface

  • Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108, no. 1 (November 1, 2009): 1–21.

  • Selections from Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, 2015.

  • Sontag, Susan. "Against Interpretation" in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.

  • Selections from Knuth, Donald E. Digital Typography. Stanford, CA, USA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1999.

Week 14: Code

  • Baudrillard, Jean. "Symbolic Exchange and Death." In Selected Writings, translated by Mark Poster, 119–47. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

  • Ch. 1 "Alan Kay's Universal Media Machine" in Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

  • McKeown, Kathleen. Text Generation. Cambridge University Press, 1992.


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