Critical Theory


In Beyond Good and Evil, as in so many of his works, Nietzsche implores readers and thinkers to embrace the uncertainty of possibility rather than stubbornly sticking to narrow realms of certainty. Likewise, in Madness and Civilization and elsewhere, Foucault urges us to “renounce the convenience of terminal truths” and probe more deeply into the social and historical conditions which work together to construct them. I’d like to approach this exam as an opportunity to establish a solid familiarity with the major figures who developed postmodern critical theory; who, like Nietzsche and Foucault, emphasize that knowledge is an arrangement, not an explanation.

I want to investigate the ways that cultural logic has been shaped by the conditions of late capitalism (Jameson, Deleuze & Guattari, Bhabha) and interrogate the historical and continuing impact of this system on the formation and maintenance of social and personal identities (Fraser, Habermas). I hope to gain a deeper understanding of how institutional power operates to influence and control people (Foucault, Nietzche, Fraser) and how traditional institutional arrangements work to categorize and marginalize certain groups according to a hegemonic agenda of continuing dominance and control (Marx & Engles, Gramsci, Mohanty). I would also like to look into how oppressive pressure to adhere to the status quo has been challenged and, in some instances, overcome.


I have chosen to read mostly primary works from those writers who have shaped and defined postmodern critical theory, along with several more contemporary texts which treat these authors and the impact of these ideas. Additionally, I have selected two anthologies, Adams and Searle’s Critical Theory Since Plato and A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader by Easthope and McGowan to get an overview of some of the most influential writers that they have deemed significant to this tradition of intellectual thought.

In reading these works, I ultimately hope to be able to:

  • articulate the role of power dynamics within the frameworks presented by postmodern social histories;
  • discuss how cultural and societal power structures have been instantiated and maintained;
  • identify and analyze the tools used to advance hegemonic ideologies;
  • investigate the goals of those individuals and institutions who develop and implement such tools;
  • interrogate the impact that narrowly-defined conceptions of agency have had on the way that individuals perceive themselves and others; and
  • examine how these constraints determine the ways that people operate in the world.


I made the decision to focus on these key works in critical theory for this minor exam because the theories and frameworks advanced by postmodernist thought are central to the kind of research I am most passionate about conducting, which often centers around inquiries about human behavior within particular social and cultural constructs. Though many of the writers I include are not classified as rhetoricians per se, most of these these texts are foundational to contemporary rhetorical theory, and I feel an urgency around the need to acquire a fluency in the parlance of postmodern critical theory and develop an intimate familiarity with important and influential works in this genre so that I am able to more confidently draw upon this body of knowledge in my research.



Adams, Hazard, and Leroy Searle. Critical Theory Since Plato. 3rd ed. Wadsworth Publishing, 2004. Print.

  • Plato, from Phaedrus  TEXT
  • Aristotle, from Rhetoric  TEXT
  • Kant, from Critique of Judgment  TEXT
  • Wilde, The Decay of Lying  TEXT
  • Freud, Civilization and its Discontents  TEXT
  • Lacan, The Mirror Stage  TEXT
  • Horkheimer, The Social Function of Philosophy  TEXT
  • Adorno, Cultural Criticism and Society, from Negative Dialectics  TEXT
  • Levi-Strauss, The Structural Study of Myth  TEXT
  • Barthes, The Death of the Author  TEXT
  • Foucault, What is an Author? Truth and Power  TEXT
  • Althusser, from Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus  TEXT
  • Said, from Orientalism  TEXT
  • Lyotard, Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?  TEXT
  • Sedgwick, from the Epistemology of the Closet  TEXT
  • Butler, Imitation and Gender Insubordination  TEXT
  • Spivak, Teaching for the Times  TEXT

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. University of Texas Press, 1982. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

—. The System of Objects. Verso, 2006. Print.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press, 1977. Print.

—. The Field of Cultural Production. Columbia University Press, 1993. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1969. Print.

Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Third Edition). Third Edition. Verso, 2011. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, Felix Guattari, and Brian Massumi. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.

Easthope, Antony, and Kate McGowan. A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. 2nd ed. University of Toronto Press, 2004. Print.

  • Ferdinand de Saussure, from Course in General Linguistics
  • Edward Said, from Orientalism
  • Slavoj Zizek, from The Sublime Object of Ideology
  • Roland Barthes, from The Pleasure of the Text
  • Jacques Derrida Differance
  • Judith Butler, from Gender Trouble
  • Jean-Francois Lyotard, from The Postmodern Condition
  • Slavoj Zizek, from Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage, 1995. Print.

—. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. 1st ed. Vintage, 1988. Print.

—. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Vintage, 1990. Print.

—. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure. Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

—. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Vintage, 1988. Print.

Fraser, Nancy. Unruly Practices: Power, Discorse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. 2nd ed. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Gramsci, Antonio, and Quintin Hoare. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers Co, 1971. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Future of Human Nature. Polity, 2003. Print.

—. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. The MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press Books, 1991. Print.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 1978. Print.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press Books, 2003. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. We Philologists – Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Volume 8. Fili-Quarian Classics, 2010. Print.

  • The Birth of Tragedy (1872)
  • On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)
  • Untimely Meditations (1876)
  • Human, All Too Human (1878; additions in 1879, 1880)
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885)
  • Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
  • On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)
  • Ecce Homo (1888)
  • The Greek State (1871) [92]
  • The Will to Power (unpublished manuscripts edited together by his sister)
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