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ENG 660: Fictions of Extremity

Professor Naomi Mandel

Course Description

"The contemporary extreme" has been defined as the confrontation of irreconcilable differences, most notably the difference between reality and art.  "The extreme contemporary" has been characterized by the relation of narrative practices to a contemporary moment increasingly informed by technologies of the visual.  Both recognize that we live in a world informed by images, permeated with technology, and dominated by violence. In this world, the truth is as urgent as it is elusive; reality is as irrelevant as it is indispensable.

This course explores the nature of extremity in fiction. After examining the concept of fiction (in its various definitions of fashioning, fabricating, and molding, as well as illusion and delusion), we will turn to extremity as narrative technique and social critique, as content and as form. We will focus on its relation to the sublime, its location in the body, and its operations in politics and law. We will look at extremists and extreme situations. And we will address fiction and extremity as characteristics of contemporary reality and as the locus of our increasingly mediated access to this reality. What does it mean to live in a world in which "the truth" is indissociable from the fact of its fabrication, and in which reality is produced by visual regimes? What are the implications for aesthetics, ethics, activism and critique?

Required Texts

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception
Beigbeder, Frédéric. Windows on the World.
Cleave, Chris. Incendiary.
Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho
Fincher, David, dir. Fight Club.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Houllebecq, Michel. The Elementary Particles
Wilkomirski, Binjamin. Fragments
Additional readings on e-reserve

NOTE: Wilkomirski's Fragments is out of print. However, there are many inexpensive copies available online. Please purchase Fragments online early on in order to ensure that you will be able to have read it before February 6.

Course Requirements
In addition to the obvious, that you read the texts scheduled for class discussion and be present at each class armed with questions and comments, the requirements of this course are as follows:

1.    300-word abstract: 15%
2.    15-minute presentation: 20%
3.    Annotated bibliography (minimum 15 items): 25%
4.    15-20 page paper: 40%

I've developed these requirements because each gives you an opportunity to master an important aspect of the profession: generating an abstract, delivering a conference-length presentation, and transforming this initial thinking into an article-length essay.

If you have a documented disability and wish to discuss academic accommodations, please contact me within the first two weeks of class. For further assistance, please contact the staff at:
Disabilities Services for Students (in the Office of Student Life) 330 Memorial Union
 874-2098; Web:


Note: Readings marked with an asterisk (*) are available on e-reserve.

Jan 23 Introduction

Jan 30  Definitions: extremity, fiction
Des Pres, from The Survivor*
Bettelheim, "Behavior in Extreme Situations" (from The Informed Heart)*
Agamben, "The Muselmann" (from Remnents of Auschwitz)*
Cohn, from "Focus on Fiction" (from The Distinction of Fiction)*
McHale, "Some Ontologies of Fiction" (from Postmodernist Fiction)*
Perniola, "Feeling the Difference"*

Feb 6  Extremity and experience: trauma
Wilkomirski, Fragments
Caruth, from Unclaimed Experience: "Introduction: The Wound and the Voice"*
Leys, from Trauma: A Geneology: "Freud and Trauma," "The Pathos of the Literal"*
Hartman, "On Traumatic Knowledge"*
Rothberg, "The Demands of Holocaust Representation"* (from Traumatic Realism)

Feb 13 Extremity and truth: testimony
Blanchot/Derrida, The Instant of my Death/Demeure: Fiction and Testimony*

Feb 20 Seeing the Extreme
Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Lyotard, "Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable" (from The Inhuman)*
Greenberg, ed. Trauma at Home. "Photographing" (essays by Hirsch, Kaplan)*
Lentricchia and McAuliffe, "Groundzeroland" (from Crimes of Art + Terror)*
Yaeger, "Rubble as Archive"*
**300-word abstract due**

Feb 27 Fiction and Fidelity
Beigbeder, Windows on the World.
Baudrillard, "Spirit of Terrorism"*
Durand, "Beyond the Extreme" (essay will be sent to seminar participants as .pdf attachment)

Mar 5 Houllebecq and l'extreme contemporain.
GUEST LECTURER: Prof. Alain-Philippe Durand
Houllebecq, The Elementary Particles
Abecassis, "The Eclipse of Desire: L'Affaire Houellebecq" MLN 115.4 (2000): 801-26. (Available through JSTOR)

Mar 12  Extremists, or realizing fiction
Fincher, dir. Fight Club.
Benjamin, "Critique of Violence"*
Žižek, "The Ambiguity of the Masochist Social Link"*
Žižek, "Passions of the Real" (from Welcome to the Desert of the Real)*

Mar 26 Extremity as narrative technique and social critique
Ellis, American Psycho
Freccero, "Historical Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer: The Case of American Psycho." Diacritics 27.2 (1997): 44-58. (Available through JSTOR)
Eberly, "Publicity, Artistry, and American Psycho." (From Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres.*)
Sade, from Philosophy in the Bedroom*

Apr 2 Feeling the extreme
GUEST LECTURER: Prof. Marco Abel (Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Abel, "The Violence of Sensation," "Judgment Is Not an Exit," "Are We All Arnoldians?" (from Violent Affect: literature, cinema, and critique after representation*)

Apr 9 Extremity in politics and in law
Agamben, State of Exception
Schmitt, from The Concept of the Political; from Political Theology*
Arendt, "Decline of Nation-State; End of Rights of Man" (from Origins of

Apr 16 GUEST LECTURER: Chris Cleave, novelist
Cleave, Incendiary.

Apr 23 Catch-up and Conclusions



This page last updated:12/25/2008 by: Naomi Mandel

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