UCL English


Options 2017

Options 2017

Afrofuturism: Race, Utopia and Science Fiction

A defining image of pulp science fiction is the moment when a fleet of unfamiliar ships arrive, seemingly from nowhere, pale, questionably human forms disembark, and abduct the locals. As a symbolic map of the traumas of abduction, the middle passage, and the experience of slavery, science fiction is a form that has much to say to African American cultural history. Why is it then, that in the minds of many, the genre is “white as driven snow” or “a Ku Klux Klan rally”, in the words of Charles R. Saunders? When Samuel Delany submitted excerpts from Nova (1968) for serial publication, he was explicitly rejected for transgressing this colour line: “For heaven’s sakes,” the editor wrote to his agent, “he’s got a Negro for a protagonist! It’s a good book, but our reader’s aren’t going to be able to identify with that…”

This Option explores these marginalised works, reading Delany alongside radical poets, novelists, filmmakers and musicians, all of whom explore the experience of being caught “on the wrong side of the strange-looking ship that appears out of nowhere” (Nalo Hopkinson, 2004). Starting out with the historical literature of the middle passage, the five seminars will range through counterfactual histories of Sub-Saharan Africa, cinematic fantasies of Egyptian interstellar technology, and the poetics of contemporary hip hop. In so doing, we shall join Kodwo Eshun and others in the task of assembling a host of “countermemories that contest the colonial archive.”

Modern Sex: Eroticism and Literary Writing

‘The Faustian pact, whose temptation has been instilled in us by the deployment of sexuality, is now as follows: to exchange life in its entirety for sex itself, for the truth and the sovereignty of sex. Sex is worth dying for. It is in this (strictly historical) sense that sex is indeed imbued with the death instinct. When a long while ago the West discovered love, it bestowed on it a value high enough to make death acceptable: nowadays it is sex that claims this equivalence, the highest of all.’ – Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction

This course begins with an introduction to the study of ‘sexuality’, and asks why the late nineteenth century is so important to the construction of modern sexual identities. The following four seminars will consider the representation of sexuality in a wide range of modern fiction.

Contemporary British Poetry

This module – led by three of the department’s own published poets – is designed to allow students to engage with a selection of poetry from our contemporaries, looking in detail at a deliberately small number of texts, but also allowing us to range widely across the current poetry scene. The module opens with the oldest of our texts, J. H. Prynne’s High Pink on Chrome, an early long-form poem from an avant-garde poet who has been variously celebrated and castigated for his provocative output, leading some to style him ‘the most important living poet’ while others describe his work as simply ‘not poetry.’ The session on Mick Imlah and Kei Miller will explore depictions of history, the use of literary traditions, and figurations of national identity in the work of these two poets. In Week 3, we will focus on recent volumes by Vahni Capildeo and Vidyan Ravinthiran. Like Miller, Capildeo is Caribbean writer now based in the UK. Her hard-to-categorise poems reach out to her native Trinidad, sitting alongside experimental modes in recent British poetry while not exactly being of them. British-born Ravinthiran grew up in Leeds to Sri Lankan parents. In Grun-tu-molani, he has crafted a first book that delights in wrong-footing the unwary reader, from its title onwards. Beginning with questions of poetic form – what is the significance of ‘prose’ or the ‘prosaic’ for these two poets? – our discussion will roam into matters such as voice, race, migration, cultural hybridity, violence and the political role of the poet. In Week 4, we will discuss the latest collection by the philosopher Denise Riley – who by then may have won this year’s Forward Prize, following both Imlah and Miller – described as ‘a deeply moving document of maternal grief and loss by one of our finest writers.’ In the final week, students will be asked to present to the group their own choice of contemporary poem, hopefully thereby introducing all of us to a wide range of the most interesting recent writing.

Inventions of Cinema

This option will cover nearly 120 years of cinema, from its origins to two recent films which show that exciting work is still possible in the medium – and will examine some of the ways cinema has found to reinvent itself.

Week One: The Invention of Cinema: Lumières, Méliès & Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926)                         

Week Two: Old and New: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) & Powell & Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) 

Week Three: Experimental LA Noir: John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) & Roman Polanski’s Chinatown   (1974)     

 Week Four: Inside Celebrity: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) & Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982)

Beginnings and Endings: Boyhood (2014) & Amour (2012)  

Cultures of Offence: Literature in a Liberal Age

In an age in which much of the discourse about universities – and especially about the teaching of humanities subjects – revolves around ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’, this Option will consider the various meanings of ‘offence’ as it is now routinely invoked and explore its use as a repressive force against the freedoms of speech and art. In a spirit of straight-talking enquiry, it will ask whether the liberalism upon which ‘Western’ civilization so prides itself has not led to the imposition of momentous restrictions on the very liberties for which it had originally stood. We will discuss the importance of ‘offensive’ literature – its role in the disarming of taboos, the shifting of values, and the recognition of difference. In so doing, we will reflect on the fluctuating criteria by which the worth of literature is measured.

After an initial session devoted to the meanings of ‘offence’ in history, examination of these complex issues will be carried out through the study of literary texts. We will analyze the ways in which certain pre-eminent writers, such as Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and Michel Houellebecq, interrogate some of the paradoxical contemporary consequences of liberalism – its role, specifically, in the promotion of certain kinds of censorship and self-censorship.

Global Anglophone Fiction

The years since the mid-twentieth century have witnessed a remarkable flourishing of English-language writing from nations that were formerly British colonies. This course offers the opportunity to study a selection of major fictional works by authors from Anglophone Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean, and to examine the contemporary phenomenon of the global English novel. We will consider questions such as: How can critical frameworks from postcolonial and transnational studies inform our reading of these works? How are themes such as the city, sexuality and historical trauma treated in these works, and how does this differ from earlier works of British and American modernism? How far are these works united by their common language and/or distinguished by their disparate contexts and localities? And how is world writing in English packaged for and marketed to a literary readership?