Course Guidelines

“All that once was directly lived has become mere representation”–so opens Guy Debord’s influential 1967 tract, The Society of the Spectacle. In the intervening forty years, the phrase “society of the spectacle” has been invoked (along with its affiliates, like “simulacra,” “late capitalism,” “postmodernism,” “culture industry” and so on) to describe the modern media-saturated world. But as Susan Sontag notes in her final work, Regarding the Pain of Others, “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle… assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world.” What accounts for this divide between Debord and Sontag? In what ways are these critics talking at cross purposes? And what role might literature play in negotiating the differences between these (and many other) critics of mass media and mass culture?

At the heart of these questions lurks a fundamental anxiety about representation, power, and control in the postmodern age. In this advanced literary theory course we will adopt a three-pronged approach to these concerns, as articulated by a wide range of thinkers and scholars. We will study the “classic” critiques of the society of the spectacle (reading Plato, Adorno, Debord, Baudrillard); we will investigate critiques that offer alternative interpretations of spectacular society (Bakhtin, Benjamin, Scarry, Sontag); finally, we will engage with several novels that theorize and dramatize their own approaches to spectacle and mass culture (such as Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Don DeLillo’s Mao II). Along the way, we’ll consider representative works of painting, photography, and film that treat spectacle as both a symptom and a threat, and we’ll explore the intersection of spectacle with crowds, celebrity, disaster, terrorism, torture, and war. Ultimately, we aim to develop our own strategies of interpretation for these spectacles, informed by critical theory.


  • Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (ISBN 0942299795)
  • Susan Sontag, On Photography (ISBN 0312420099)
  • Roland Barthes, Mythologies (ISBN 0374521506)
  • Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ISBN 0805202412)
  • Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Day of the Locust (ISBN 0811202151)
  • Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (ISBN 0452282195)
  • Annette Michelson, ed., Andy Warhol (ISBN 026263242X)
  • Don DeLillo, Mao II (ISBN 0140152741)
  • Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (ISBN 0312422199)
  • Assorted handouts, e-reserve, and online readings


Class discussion (10%), blogging (20%), presentation (20%), mid-semester essay (20%), and final paper (30%)

I expect everyone to have read and considered the daily reading. Most of our class time will be given to discussion, and it is essential that everyone attends and participate.

Every week you will contribute to the class blog, posting an approximately 500-word response to the week’s readings. There are a number of ways to approach the blog: write about an aspect of the day’s reading that you don’t understand, or something that jars you; formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions; or respond to another student’s post, building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it. In any case, strive for thoughtfulness and nuance. To ensure that everyone has a chance to read the blog before class, post your response by 10 AM the morning of class.

Every student will also prepare a class presentation, which introduces some aspect of the day’s reading. The presentation should go well beyond mere summary of the reading. This is your chance to lead class discussion, essentially “teaching” the reading, offering your interpretation of the theory at hand, and situating it within the context of our overall consideration of spectacular society. The presentation should be pedagogical, insightful, lively, provocative, even playful. I encourage you to incorporate multimedia into your presentation when appropriate. The presentation should last roughly fifteen minutes and at the end, invite further discussion.

There will also be a mid-semester essay of 6-8 pages, which will be structured around questions or prompts that I provide. The semester will close with a final research paper of 15-20 pages, which engages with and applies critical theory. I will hand out detailed descriptions of these assignments later in the semester.


Remember that all written assignments must follow MLA research guidelines. Never take credit for someone else’s ideas or words and always document your sources. If you do not own a style guide that covers MLA format, I recommend getting one. I also encourage you to use EndNote, a reference manager for Windows and Mac, which is offered free to all GMU students. You can download EndNote here:


If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC) at 703-993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through that office.