103B | CCN: 29864

Approaches and Paradigms in the History of Rhetorical Theory II

Texts and Things

Instructor: Pheng Cheah,

4 Units

Modernity can be understood as the epoch in which our confidence in the transparency of language and the ability of signs to reflect and express the reality of things becomes irreparably shattered.  “From the nineteenth century on, beginning with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche the sign is going to become malevolent,” Michel Foucault writes.  “There is in the sign an ambiguous quality and a slight suspicion of ill will and ‘malice’.”  This course explores the complex relationship between texts and things and their ethical and political implications.  We will begin with Marx’s exploration of the mystificatory nature of cultural forms in his theory of ideology.  We will then study Saussure’s account of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign and its influence on Roland Barthes’ structuralist critique of myth.  We will then explore the even bolder claim that language is not merely a mystifying veil that is cast over things, but has a performative force that constitutes and forms objects.  What kind of causality, if any, can texts and discourses exercise on things?  Does the alleged formative power of texts lead to nihilism or does it open up new possibilities for critique and resistance?  Such questions will be addressed through a study of Derrida’s theory of textuality; feminist uses of the psychoanalytical account of the imaginary body; Foucault’s analysis of the links between discourse and power; and Edward Said’s critique of how Western discourse has constructed the Oriental world.  Finally, we will address the impact of techno-mediation on our perception of reality by examining the writings of Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, and also Jean Baudrillard’s provocative claim that simulation has displaced and replaced the real.


Required Texts:

Karl Marx, The German Ideology (International Publishers)

Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin

    (Columbia University Press)

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Hill and Wang, 2012)

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (Vintage)

Edward Said, Orientalism (Random House)

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (MIT Press)

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Univ. of Michigan Press)


Three hours of lecture and one hour of discussion per week. Prerequisites: 10 or consent of instructor. Formerly 101. A broad consideration of the historical relationship between philosophy, literature, and rhetoric, with special emphasis on selected themes within the early modern and modern periods.