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This seminar has had a long and distinguished history at Columbia. Originally called Theory of Literature (469), it was revived under its current title in 2006 with a view to pursuing the relations between literature, philosophy, and the politics that pervades our cultural production and its study. For some time now, literary studies has been engaged in wider theoretical approaches to texts and to the very idea of literature and criticism, and the seminar hopes to take philosophical stock of this tendency as well as to try to bring to it, wherever possible, more creative and more rigorous angles. These goals will initially be pursued broadly and ecumenically and should it turn out that one or other theme surfaces, which demands our sustained focus, the seminar will very likely take it up for a whole year, approaching it from different angles. For the most part, one of the members will circulate a paper, introduced for the seminar by another member, but occasionally, we will invite a speaker from outside the membership.

The Columbia University Seminar in Literary Theory meets several times per semester to discuss new work on the relations between literature, philosophy, and politics. A paper is pre-circulated and discussed at the seminar. We invite faculty and graduate students of all institutions to attend. Please contact the rapporteur for a copy of the paper.

Emily Apter

Bruno G. Bosteels

Connor Spencer

Meeting Schedule

10/26/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Contemporary Political Adventures of Meaning: What is Hegemony?
Catherine Malabou, NYU/EGS/UC Irvine


Doubting that the new meaning of hegemony brought to light by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe can really replace the old one, I argue that only an anarchist interrogation of horizontality and a refusal of representation, including the one comprised in the signifier/signified relationship, is able to radically challenge the logic of political and theoretical domination.

Bruno Bosteels, Columbia University

11/09/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Notes on Tone: Three American Poets
Anahid Nersessian , UCLA


This talk explores the use of flat, cool, distant, deadpan, recessive, or otherwise inscrutable affects in a handful of contemporary US poets on the left. Along the way, it contrasts varying receptions of modernism as an emotional as much as a formal regime in the US and the UK, debunks the expectation that lower-key emotional performances are less politically potent than turbulent ones, thinks about tone in relation to comic and tragic models of sociality, and tries to expand the repertoire of lyric performance beyond spectacular, intensive, or heightened feeling. Ideas and authors for discussion include (among others) Juliana Spahr, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Wendy Trevino, Holly Pester on "poet-voice," Tina Post on deadpan, Lauren Berlant on the "sentimental whiteness" of US national culture, and Shonni Enelow on acting's "Great Recession."

Respondent: Jeff Dolven, Princeton University

12/04/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Mass Death/Full Speech/Tobacco and Salt
Ranjana Khanna, Duke University


Freud’s “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death” elaborates on how the experience of mass death shifts one’s understanding of individual death and vice versa. Conceived as a primitive relation between loved ones and enemy combatants (of identifications and cathexes), the fundamental distinction between life and death occurs through the experience of being next to the corpse. This short article examines that article by Freud as a way to understand how the human and the group is configured psychoanalytically through death.

02/06/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Unborn Persons and their Women Containers
Lisa Siraganian, Johns Hopkins University


In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), the U.S. Supreme Court negated nearly fifty years of precedent supporting reproductive justice, health, and women’s autonomy to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973). Simultaneously, the decision gave new life to a strange entity that has been less closely studied: “the unborn.” This essay examines the premises required to make these entities come alive, and outlines the claims that need to be in place to grant these quasi-legal entities a legal standing in active conflict with, even favored over, that of women. In particular, the essay considers what so-called “unborn persons” might have to do with corporate or artificial personhood.

Respondent: Julie Stone Peters, Columbia University

03/27/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Brent Hayes Edwards, Columbia University

04/18/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
“Black Reconstruction”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University

Respondent: Surya Parekh , Binghamton University