Monday, September 24, 2007

Mid-Term Exam

Here is the mid-term exam due in a few weeks. We have not yet read together all the texts described in this exam, but I recommend that you pick at least one of the questions early, so that you only have to deal with one question the last week before it's due. We'll be screening a film on the day the exam is to be handed in and so there won't be any preparation for you to worry about that last weekend before the exam's due. Start work now and please don't expect to wiggle out of this deadline without very good reasons -- you should have ample time to complete the exam on time with this kind of advance notice.

Pick two of the following Four Questions. For each of the two Questions you have chosen, produce a short essay (4-5 pp.) that substantiates your claim through a close reading of the relevant text under discussion in a way that responds to the that Question.

Question One:

How might one make a good case that despite what appears to be a rampant and relentless megalomania in his Ecce Homo, Nietzsche is actually rather modest in the claims he makes in the book? Substantiate this claim with material from the text. What insights might this modesty provide us as we try to determine what Nietzsche’s ambitions are for the interpretive method of “affirmation” he offers up in Ecce Homo?

Question Two:

In his 1888 Preface to The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels attributes to Marx a “proposition which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology[.]” This proposition is as follows:

“[I]n every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiters and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class -– the proletariat –- cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class –- the bourgeoisie -– without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.”

First, describe simply and in your own words the basic propositions that characterize Marx’s unique contribution to the interpretation of history from this viewpoint. And second, describe the status of these propositions in Barthes' Mythologies and propose how any change in their status for Barthes might have an impact on his own interpretive project as a Marxist or post-marxist critical theorist.

Question Three:

In his essay “Psychological Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia,” Freud offers up an interpretation of the autobiography of Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber. Near the conclusion of his reading of Schreber’s story, Freud makes the last of a series of curious claims on a similar theme: “It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to believe.” How and why does the figure of Schreber seem to pose such a challenge to Freud’s larger effort to portray the project of psychoanalytic interpretation as a scientific practice? Are there other places in the text in which Freud seems to play out this ambivalence to Schreber’s own interpretation of the world and of his own place in it? Why might this matter so much Freud in the first place?

Question Four:

In the Preface to the 1970 edition of his Mythologies Roland Barthes says that his ambition for the book was to “account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.” In the extended theoretical essay “Myth Today,” at the end of the volume, Barthes spells out this transformation in greater detail. In a key section of that culminating essay, “Myth as Depoliticized Speech,” Barthes writes:

[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology… [M]yth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society… [:] What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined… by the way in which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality… The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature[.]

In the series of shorter essays that make up the bulk of the volume, Barthes offers up interpretations of a host of phenomena, popular icons, events, attitudes, and so forth. In each essay he exposes the way something that is actually a contingent and specific product of historical circumstances (which might therefore be open to contestation and reform in the ongoing social struggle of history) has come to assume the status of the natural, the inevitable, the taken-for-granted, the best of all possible worlds, the best workable solution, and so on. But although each short essay testifies in its own way to the ideological accomplishment of naturalization, the fact is that the force of “nature” for each of the objects of his interpretations is a bit different in the specific work it seems to do, and in the specific forms it seems to take.

Pick two of the objects Barthes interprets in his shorter essays. First, show how these essays both illustrate the more general thesis that myth is naturalization, and then point to some significant differences in the way “the natural” seems to function more specifically in each of your chosen examples.


Michelle said...

Hi everyone,
I was just curious if anyone else was struggling with writing these essays? I don't even feel that I have a strong enough grip on the writings to even begin to write about them. The more I try to write the more I am lost in understanding how to decode these ideas.

Anonymous said...

I second this

Dale Carrico said...

People, people, for heaven's sake don't freak out. Let the texts guide you, confine your arguments to what you know, don't try to capture everything. The exam is an occasion for you to explore these ideas not to master them utterly. Make a claim, support it with the text itself. The exam questions are a guide.

Ian said...

And I third that.

So if the questions are a guide, are we free to deviate from them if need be?

Dale Carrico said...

So if the questions are a guide, are we free to deviate from them if need be?

It depends on what you mean by "deviate." You still have to write about the actual topics and texts suggested by the exam. The mid-term is due tomorrow, so it makes me a little nervous people are thinking about them in this general way this late in the game. But as I said in class the questions are general because I like to provide you the space to get at these texts in a way that actually makes sense to you. Pick the two questions that cover texts you feel most interested in and confident about, answer the aspect of the question that you feel you understand best, then make your case in a way that is supported by quotations from the text itself. Get on it.