Contact a Humanities Office or Academic unit.
Find your course outlines.

ENGLISH 3QQ3 Contemporary Critcal Theory

Academic Year: Fall 2017

Term: Fall

Day/Evening: E

Instructor: Dr. David Clark


Office: Chester New Hall 321

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23737


Office Hours: Friday 9:30-10:30am

Course Objectives:

Course Description:

Emerging in the aftermath of social science models of scholarly investigation, and often highly critical of certain forms of empirically based cultural criticism, contemporary critical theory is a mixed and still unfolding project whose borders are--by design--difficult to determine. Yet contemporary theory is characterized by several distinguishing features, each of which shapes the concerns of this course.  These features include: 

a complex relationship with Continental philosophy (i.e., a strand of philosophy going back to early nineteenth-century Germany and efflorescing in twentieth-century France), especially its focus on the question of representation and the limits of knowledge;

a robust concern with our responsibilities and obligations towards others, both human and non-human;

a long-standing interest in the forces that produce and police subjects, cultures, and histories;

a commitment to honouring the irrepressibility of justice, and to the difficult task of doing justice to others;

a thoughtful concern with the precariousness (or “precarity”) of life on the planet--the vulnerability, exposure, dependency, and radical singularity or uniqueness of each living creature;

an abiding pre-occupation with what it means to be loved and lost, grievable or ungrievable, legible or illegible;

a deep suspicion of concepts that otherwise often seem fixed and foundational, including “history,” “education,” “politics,” “nature,” “the human,” “the animal,” and “the social;”

a promise to preserve, affirm and complicate the space of the political, and the possibilities of a more democratic future;

an emphasis on teaching and learning, and on the role that education—understood in the broadest senses of the term--plays the creation of a just polity;

                a critical respect for the histories and genealogies in whose wake we struggle, coupled with a scepticism about politics, educations, and knowledges that forget the past, or that deny its complicated presence in the present;

                a self-reflexive impetus, i.e., an insistence on making how we know things—our presuppositions, critical frameworks, cultural and historical circumstances, and interpretive strategies—a central part of what we know.

Contemporary critical theory draws on a wide range of disciplines and bodies of knowledge, ranging from psychoanalysis to linguistics, and from cultural theory to philosophy. It is sometimes said to be what political philosophy looks like from outside the scholarly discipline of “philosophy.”  Contemporary theory is unrelentingly counter-intuitive:  i.e., its difficulties lie in its capacity to make the familiar unfamiliar, and to throw into question what goes without saying and what passes itself off as “common-sense.”  Contemporary theory is suspicious of the idea that what is “real” or “true” should be transparently available to thought, or too easily understood.  If there were a motto for contemporary theory it might well come in the form of the words of Socrates when he was on trial for encouraging his students to think dangerously and to think for themselves:  “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  That’s why we begin this course with Astra Taylor’s documentary and collection of interviews with contemporary theorists, An Examined Life.

Contemporary theory is difficult because the world is a difficult place, and calls for arduous questions and laborious work.  An undergraduate course in contemporary theory is therefore by nature a challenging course---but not an impossible course, not if you are an intellectually courageous and curious student . . . and a well-organized one. 

Our course falls into two movements:

  1. Examined Life:  Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers
  2. Exemplary theorists:  Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Primo Levi, Audra Simpson.

The first move in this course is briefly to consider an overview of some of the questions and problems that are dear to contemporary critical theory.  We do this through a particular lens:  Astra Taylor’s extemporaneous interviews with eight contemporary theorists, which she conducts in different city streetscapes.  Taylor emphasizes a crucially important feature of contemporary theory, namely the different ways in which it speaks to “the search for meaning and our responsibilities towards others in a world rife with iniquity, persecution, and suffering” (xi).  We will consider both her documentary and the book of interviews that accompanies her documentary.  In the second part of this course, we briefly survey the definitional problems quickening some of the work of several of the most significant contemporary critical theorists (Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Primo Levi), focussing on the transgressive questions that contemporary theory raises about knowledge, power, and precarity.  Judith Butler is well-known as a queer theorist, but we turn to other, more recent elements of her research which focus on the politics and the vulnerabilities of what she calls “precarious life.”  Michel Foucault is the thinker who teaches us that sexuality has a history, but that is not the work which we address in this course. Instead, we examine influential lectures that he gave exploring the history and pervasiveness of what he calls “biopower” in modern life. We also look at the work of Jacques Derrida, exploring his writing about the particular question of “hospitality”—i.e., about the politics and ethics of the encounter with the mortal and imperilled stranger. We also read selected essays by Derrida’s friend and teacher, Emmanuel Levinas, who affirms the unsettling power of the needs of the other. Levinas writes in the wake of the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of the European Jews; Primo Levi’s testament to surviving that horror provides important coordinates for critical theories that attend to the question of suffering and violence. The course concludes with a consideration of the work of Audra Simpson, who explores how the Mohawks of Kahnawake create a sovereign identity through acts of refusal.

In summary, then, the objective of this course is to provide students with a good working knowledge of a broad range of contemporary critical theories. Attention is also given to writing effective essays, i.e., essays that i) have a discernible thesis, ii) make a detailed case for that thesis and iii) are written with elegance, economy, and correct grammar.

Students are warmly encouraged to liberate this course from the confines of the formal classroom, and to form independent study groups to discuss and debate the course materials and questions.  For example, students in previous iterations of this course have created Facebook pages to co-ordinate study groups and to discuss the course materials.


Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

Required Texts:

Assigned materials by Levinas, Butler, and Foucault are posted on the coursepage on Avenue. Supporting materials and study notes will be posted from time to time to help students consolidate their knowledge of the course. These materials also form part of the assigned texts.

Assigned materials to be purchased in the bookstore are:

Jacques Derrida.  Of Hospitality.  Trans. Rachel Bowlby.  Stanford:  Stanford UP, 2000.

Levi, Primo.  The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Taylor, Astra.  Examined Life:  Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers.  New York:  The New Press, 2009.

Simpson, Audra, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke UP, 2014.

Examined Life:  Philosophy is in the Streets.  Dir.  Astra Taylor.  Sphinx Productions and the National Film Board of Canada, 2008. OR  [Documentary screened in class; 88 minutes]

Method of Assessment:

Course Assignments and Weighting:

Midterm examination:                          20%

Essay (10 pages / 2500 words):         45%

Final Examination:                              35%

Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Essay Due Date and Late Submission Policy:

There are two due dates for your essay. Essays are due in class, at start of class, 9 November 2017.  Essays submitted at this point will receive a full marking commentary.  Essays handed in after 9 November 2017 will be graded the same but without comment.  Essays may be handed in up to start of the last class, in class, 30 November 2017.  No essays will be accepted after start of class, 30 November 2017.  A grade of zero/F will therefore be assigned to essays not submitted by start of class, in class, 30 November 2017. 

Since the essay is weighted heavily in this course, students are encouraged not to leave working on this assignment until late in the term.  Suggested essay topics will be posted on the coursepage.  You are encouraged to discuss your essay topic with the course T.A., Kaitlin Blanchard, or Dr. Clark, prior to writing your essay.

If you are a smoker, please ensure that you print your essay in a smoke-free environment.

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

Provisional Lecture Schedule

Sept          7              Prefatory Remarks

                14           Examined Life: Philosophy is in the Streets (documentary screening + discussion)

                21           Astra Taylor, Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers

                28           Astra Taylor, Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers


Oct            5              Michel Foucault (selections from Society Must Be Defended posted on Avenue)

                 12           Mid-term recess

                 19           Midterm Examination (no class after midterm examination)

                 26           Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved


Nov          2              Emmanuel Levinas (selections posted on Avenue)

                9              Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality [Essay due.]

               16           Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality + Judith Butler (selections from Precarious Life posted on Avenue)

               23           Judith Butler (selections from Precarious Life posted on Avenue)

               30           Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. [Last day to                                            submit essay.]


Other Course Information:

Important Notes About the Course

1. Class cancellations:

In the unlikely event of a class cancellation, students will be notified via email through Avenue.

2. E-mail policy and protocols:

McMaster University policy requires email communication between students, instructors and T.A’s to be conducted using McMaster email accounts. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.

Since we are in a professional working environment, all e-mails to your instructor or T.A. must be written in full sentences (i.e. no point form, no text-messaging short form), and must contain a subject line that includes the course designation, “3QQ3E."  All e-mails must contain some form of salutation and valediction (i.e., “Dear Dr. Clark,” “Dear Kaitlin and “Yours sincerely,” respectively, or equivalents).  Receipt of all e-mails from your instructor or your TA must be acknowledged.  For example, a simple “Thank you for getting back to me” will suffice. Be professional, courteous, and respectful in all communications. 

Be assured that your instructor or T.A. will respond to your e-mail in a timely manner. Do not assume that you will hear back immediately. 

3.  Contacting the course Teaching Assistant:

Students are free and encouraged to contact Dr. Clark with all questions regarding the course. But questions should first be directed towards Kaitlin Blanchard, the course Teaching Assistant, who will happy to assist you. (See Kaitlin’s contact information and office hours on the first page of this course outline.)

 McMaster University Grading Scale:


Equivalent Grade Point

Equivalent Percentages







































0-49 -- Failure