In my last academic year (2006-2007), I took a course on aesthetics and politics at UofT, Marxism and Form (VIC401, based on the book of the same title by Fredric Jameson), taught by Eric Cazdyn. Taking the course was one of the more intelligent moves I made while at UofT. It was a graduate seminar and I had absolutely no idea what I was in for: it was probably only long after the full-year course had been completed, when I read Aesthetics & Politics cover-to-cover that I became relatively comfortable with the concepts discussed in the course.
Literature & Theory
I’d taken a course on English literature in the 20th century (ENG140). The emphasis of that course, as I recall (which I don’t recall well because I took it in the summer of 2004 while I was working full-time and taking another course on comparative politics) was not so much on the political or social implications of the texts (and we read some very good texts) as the moves within aesthetics, almost devoid of context — from romanticism to naturalism to … I don’t even remember. I do recall the professor’s analysis of the purple triangle in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a recurring motif, the significance of which flew over my head and probably still would (unless it was related to the politics of queer liberation, which, I can assure you, it wasn’t). I’m probably being unfair to the course, we did read In the Skin of a Lion, as well as Waiting for Godot, and I remember something about postmodernism being discussed (so maybe the course was moving through the major trends of literature?). Though, at the time, in the class I was taking on comparative politics, I learned about the concept of post-materialism which made a lot more sense to me. I should go back to my notes and see if I can actually give a fair and balanced account of the course content. Suffice it to say it bored me, very much.
My next experience with literature was a course on graphic novels (The ‘New Comics’, VIC300) with Luca Somigli. I enjoyed the content of the course, I’d already read most of the comics covered before starting the course anyway; and, judging from the mark I got on my final paper, Prof. Somigli enjoyed my paper very much. I wrote about Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde and his use of stereotypes to advance his political and moral agenda. Still, the discussions of literary theory and aesthetic theory, most of which I don’t recall anyway, probably went flying over my head. From these, and other experiences, I’d reckon that the most difficult thing in taking courses that are entirely outside of one’s academic purview is to acquire and maintain the vocabulary. By vocabulary, I don’t mean just the meanings of new words, but the significances and usages thereof. It took me, for instance, two whole years to wrap my head around the idea of postmodernism.
I suspect a lot of this had to do with the fact that I didn’t really think such terms and courses would be of much use to me — I was focusing on getting into medical school, not graduate school — and no one in life science or the kind of political science I was taking at UofT really cared about such things. That makes me wonder, as an aside, do Straussians bother to acknowledge postmodernism or think it worthy of being addressed? I don’t know of anyone like Harvey Mansfield — whose translations of The Prince and Discourses on Livy are superb — having written on Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Unmanly Liberal Academics.