Category Archives: classes

Social Media/Literature

I’m very happy to take suggestions and feedback on this course proposal as it is very much a work in progress! If anyone has experience teaching a similar course, I’d be curious to hear how it went. I’m envisioning here five units of 2-3 weeks each, depending on the length of the semester, so certain units could be expanded to include more critical theories of social media, knowledge work and/or digital humanities.

Social Media and Contemporary Literature

Social media is the first “new media” to imagine not merely new forms of representation but also new forms of sociality—reworked relations between producer and consumer, individual and community, self and other. As a result, modern literature’s central thematics of alienation and commodification have been reinvigorated in social media’s wake. Literary realism now approaches science fiction in its response to the culture of new technologies, and has thus reenergized a variety of genres and subgenres, including experimental and confessional forms. Contemporary authors from Margaret Atwood to Salman Rushdie have adopted blogging and microblogging platforms, the new technologies of cultural capital, in order to shore up access to global circuits of literary culture.

This course provides an opportunity to take up the challenges and possibilities posed by social media for contemporary literature. We will pay careful attention to new concepts of intellectual property and immaterial labor inasmuch as these pose challenges to the analysis of the “author” or “work” of literature. We will read literary works by established authors from Zadie Smith to Tom McCarthy, as well as emerging voices. In addition, we will examine the theory and practice of blogging and microblogging in the context of world literature: is it possible to do a “close reading” of Margaret Atwood’s tweets? How do we conceptualize the author’s “archive” and “oeuvre” at a moment of intensified archive fever? Finally, we will pay careful attention to the forms of literary expression that have emerged on and are unique to social media platforms themselves such as literary blogs and Twitter poetry.

These texts allow us to interrogate how real-time technologies of aggregation and curation have created new possibilities and forms for literary culture. At the same time, they demonstrate how the resources of literary writing can be of use in exploring the conditions of social life and cultural production after social media.


  • William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
  • Lauren Beukes, Moxyland
  • Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
  • Tom McCarthy, C
  • Ellen Kennedy, Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs

Unit 1: New Realisms

It is perhaps no coincidence that the contemporary novel has turned towards realist styles at precisely the moment when social media has opened up new forms of sociality for the novel to investigate. We begin the course with a unit on the new realisms that have emerged in the novel of the 2000s by way of selections from Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, with their respective treatments of the MP3 revolution. Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” and review of The Social Network will ground our discussion of the novel’s possibilities and limitations after social media.

Unit 2: Science Fiction and the Culture of Cool

Science fiction has long been the genre entrusted with the task of responding to and envisioning changes in the culture of technology. J.G. Ballard’s work provides an introduction to major themes of social media including microcelebrity, media saturation, and the waning of affect. We begin the unit with Ballard’s short story “Intensive Care Unit,” which imagines a family that only meets through video connection. We then read two science fiction novels that explicitly take up social media as a theme: William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, depicting the culture of “cool hunting” and viral video in the aftermath of 9/11, as well as Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland, set in a futuristic South Africa. These speculative depictions of social media may be read in conjunction with theories of knowledge work and immaterial labor, such as selections from Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool and Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude.

Unit 3: Literary Remix

Remix—as collage, pastiche or cut-up—has been a technique of literary writing at least since modernism. William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique, pioneered with Brion Gysin, provides an introduction to our study of literary remix, with selections from Burroughs’s The Soft Machine and Burroughs and Gysin’s The Cut-Cups. We then read Tom McCarthy’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Remix” in order to raise questions about literary remix in the contemporary cultural economy. McCarthy’s novel, C, also treats viral media by way of its depiction of amateur radio at the turn of the 20th century. These texts, in conjunction with selections from critical work on remix and intellectual property such as by Lawrence Lessig, help us to understand the challenges that literary remix poses to our concepts of the “author” and “work” of literature.

Unit 4: Writer as Inventor

Here, we considering the changing role of the writer in relation to new technologies of cultural capital by focusing on an exciting output of literary works from self-described “media inventor” Robin Sloan, including his novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, short stories “Annabel Scheme” and “Last Beautiful,” along with creative apps for smart phone and tablet, such as “Fish.” We then examine the use of blogging and microblogging platforms by “global” authors such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru and others to shore up cultural capital in global circuits of literary production, consumption and distribution. Readings will include Margaret Atwood’s “How I learned to Love Twitter” along with Wai Chee Dimock’s PMLA article, “World Literature on Facebook.”

Unit 5: Self-Fashioning and Literary Blogs

Self-fashioning has constituted a significant function of literary writing, from the sonnet writing of Renaissance courtiers to Romantic and modernist conceptions of genius and contemporary literary celebrity. This unit examines practices of literary self-fashioning in relation to the renegotiated boundaries between private and public on social media platforms, particularly literary blogs. We begin with one of the first novels to take up explicitly themes of social media, Gary Shteyngart’s, Super Sad True Love Story. We then analyze the new confessional genres that have emerged on literary blogs through signature works such as Ellen Kennedy’s book of poetry Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs and Marie Calloway’s short stories “Adrian Brody” and “Jeremy Lin.” Finally, an analysis of Twitter poetry such as, among others, by Patricia Lockwood (Twitter’s so-called “poet laureate”), raises digital humanities question regarding distant reading, data mining and digital archiving of electronic texts.

Public Emotions

This post will be the first in a series of imaginary classes that I have proposed, or would like to propose, for a university English or media studies department. It is my hope that these will be useful resources for other scholars and teachers.  They are inspired by the syllabi collected at the Atlantic Tech blog, especially C.W Anderson’s Print Culture 101, and Kio Stark’s Stranger Studies 101.  Feel free to get in touch if you have suggestions on any of my imaginary classes.

Public Emotions

The choreography of public emotions frequently underlies global media spectacles, whether the dramatic rescue of Chilean miners, or the sex-scandals of world leaders from the royal family to Berlusconi. These media spectacles put on display a number of affective responses to daily life under globalization: from shock and disgust to pity and relief. Ever since modern individuals learned to adopt a “blase attitude” to block out the shock-effects of urban existence, the sane management of emotion seemed to be a core bedrock of the public sphere. But the rational public life imagined by modernity was never able to expel feelings of shame, anxiety, resentment and attachment as communal tensions, war, “obscene” sexualities and political agitation continued to disrupt the projected surface of liberal consensus.

This class will address a series of affects that contribute to what cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has identified as the “ugly feelings” that underlie psychic life at the moment of neoliberal globalization. We will take as our source texts global/postcolonial novels by authors ranging from Marguerite Duras to J.M. Coetzee that raise the question of the role of affect in public life, especially as saturated with media images providing common points of identification for private fantasies and resentments. These texts interrogate conditions ranging from atrocity, violence, service, shame, anger, and beauty in order to map out the uneven circuits of global exchange underlying daily life in the metropolitan centers of globalization.

New York, London or Tokyo, as portrayed in these texts, are underwritten by past histories of atrocity and exploitation that linger in states of melancholic agitation. So too, the depictions of everyday violence such as the car crash raise the question of the constitution of contemporary subjectivity at the limits of forgiveness: how are modern individuals to act given the knowledge of the suffering and inequality on which their lifestyles are based? Finally, theories of the multitude and affective labor allow us to understand the central role of the production of affect in postindustrial capitalism. In an information society, the production of affective states becomes more and more the primary goal of all labor, whether through creative endeavors or the work of a domestic servant.

Through these texts, we will trace the intersection of the affective lives of contemporary knowledge workers in their cubicles with the production of affects through global media spectacles of war and politics.


  • Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour
  • J. G. Ballard, Crash
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
  • Salman Rushdie, Fury
  • J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
  • Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Unit 1: Love and Atrocity

The course will begin with Marguerite Duras’s classic screenplay (and the film directed by Alain Resnais) Hiroshima Mon Amour in order to probe the limits of love, intimacy and sexuality against the backdrop of atrocity and global crisis. We will read Duras’s work along with selections from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas in order to think about how the discourse of love and intimacy grounds our understanding of war and atrocity. This unit will introduce students to affect theory with selections from Rei Terada and Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects.

Unit 2: The Waning of Affect

J.G. Ballard’s Crash provides an ideal text to test Fredric Jameson’s thesis regarding the “waning of affect” in contemporary culture. Are the characters in Ballard’s novels affectless automatons, or has emotional life simply been reimagined as intensity and speed through global media and consumer culture?  The unit will push the limits of affect theory through thinking about the limits of the body, capitalism and sexuality with selections from Teresa Brennan’s Exhausting Modernity, Nigel Thrift’s Non-Representational Theory, and Deleuze’s Francis Bacon.

Unit 3: Affect and Labor

Here, we will use Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day to theorize affective labor— the intersection of service work (the labor traditionally done by servants and other caretakers) and knowledge work (including aesthetic labor). We will read theories of affective labor such as in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, as well as Teresa Brennan’s work in affect studies, The Transmission of Affect.

Unit 4: Community

Salman Rushdie’s Fury, set at the moment of New York just before 9/11, depicts the affect of fury provoked by metropolitan life under neoliberal globalization. In order to understand this condition, we will read recent theorists who address the transformation of the public sphere in an era of privatization and the effects of media saturation on private life in this context: selections from Paul Virilio’s The Original Accident, Zygmunt Bauman’s Community, and Brian Massumi’s “The Bleed: Where Body Meets Image” from Parables for the Virtual.

Unit 5: Violence and Forgiveness

In this unit, we continue to use affect theory to think about community and the politics of violence after globalization through a South African text, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. This novel probes a range of difficult to acknowledge emotions while testing the limits of forgiveness in the new South Africa.  We will read selections from Agamben’s Coming Community along with work on the political dimensions of affect, from Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

Unit 6: Aesthetics and Sympathy

We will conclude the course with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a text that returns, through the influence of E.M. Forster, to the context of Bloomsbury, where we began thinking about Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. We will complement our reading with the recent turn to neuroscience in Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do with Our Brain?