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ENGL 3820 The Body in Literature and Culture

Photo of classic greek statue

Catalog Description: Prerequisites: Completion of Blocks A and B4, an additional course from Block B, and at least one course each from Blocks C and D. Analysis of the body and its representation in literary, aesthetic, philosophical, religious, political, and other discourses. UD GE C (cl)

Course Description: This course examines the social construction of the human body in a range of texts, and in contexts ranging from antiquity to modernity.  It explores the various ways in which the human body is made culturally meaningful, by exploring how various technologies of representation – literature, especially, but also photography, painting, film, dance, and architecture – engage in the production of that meaning, and isolate the body as a site of both aesthetic pleasure and social power.  The course will consider the various ways in which texts present the body as dressed and undressed, able and disabled, manipulable and resistant, colonized, fetishized, surveilled and policed, and how it becomes a site of desire.  Such representations, as is clear in the case of legal, political, medical, and architectural discourse about bodies, ultimately not only represent its physicality but also determine and inform it. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the course enables faculty to include course content suiting their particular expertise and interest.  One might imagine a course focusing on specifically modern literary representations of corporeality.  The course might also be broadened in its disciplinary range to explore such issues as the following:  the construction of the body in medical and scientific discourses; the semiotics of fashion and dress; practices of body modification; political positings of race, class, ability, orientation, and gender; the aesthetics of dance, performance, and body art; economic discourses of bodily fatigue and efficiency; and beyond.

English 3820 includes a civic learning/civic engagement component.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • demonstrate familiarity with continuities and discontinuities in literary and cultural representations of the body
  • recognize the political, psychological, and ideological stakes of such representations
  • assess the differences implied between distinct technologies of representation and conventions of genre
  • apply tools of critical thinking and cultural and literary analysis to textual materials from various historical and cultural contexts
  • demonstrate the ability to present questions and ideas in both written and verbal form, and to respond to the ideas of others in discussions

Course Outline

This course may lend itself to various designs, depending on faculty interest and expertise.  An interdisciplinary design is included here to exemplify how the course materials might be organized.

Interdisciplinary Readings of the Body

Part I. Reading the body and its meaning:  Sites, Sights, Signs

Part II. Science, Institutions, and Power
Images from Rembrandt and anatomical illustration by Vesalius and Ruysch
Readings from Schiebinger
(CL component: Identify human rights campaign)

Part III. Discipline and Anatomo-Politics
Architectural analysis of prisons and other institutions
Readings in Kafka, Foucault, Rabinbach
(CL component: Connecting the global human rights campaign to local issues)

Part IV. Fashion, Adornment, Modification
Film:  Pumping Iron
Readings in Barthes, Silverman
(CL component: Engaging the local community in the global human rights campaign)

Part VI. Movement, Gesture, Civilization
Readings in Theweleit, Corbin, Elias

Part V. Representing the Bodies of Others
Paintings from Manet, Titian, Vermeer
Readings in Gilman, Leppert
(CL symposia and workshops for dissemination)

Course assignments include considerable hands-on explication of texts, short in-class writings, two small papers analyzing cultural texts and requiring engagement with the course readings, a final exam, and the civic learning component.  In this particular course example, the latter might be conducted in concert with Amnesty International. Students would undertake research on the body as an object of torture or state discipline, and then write letters and educational materials on specific cases, and help plan and participate in one event (a media outreach event, a teach-in, a symposium presentation) in which their knowledge would be manifested in civic action.

About the Banner: Detail from Laocoön and his sons, Vatican Collection, ca 200 BCE (image from