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EN2G4/EN3G4 Literature, Theory and Time

Convenor: Liz Barry 

Module Outline

This course, open to second and third year students, introduces students to theories and philosophies of time in relation to some literary and cinematic texts that involve themselves closely with temporality (Woolf's Mrs Dalloway; Ali Smith's novel The Accidental; Marion Coutts' illness memoir The Iceberg; Maggie Nelson's work of 'autotheory' The Argonauts; and Christopher Nolan's film Memento).

We will be thinking about how time is represented in these narratives; about how narrative helps us imagine the historical past and the future; how tenses and other languages of time create affect. We will consider the relatively recent history of standardized time, and the effects of this on patterns of work and leisure and on concepts of the self and the nation. How were ideas of the past and the future invented? We will think about subjective experience of time in relation to emotional states such as anxiety, boredom and desire, and how time is experienced in states of mental disorder. We will think about time in relation to the body, illness, chronic conditions and the temporality of (health) care. The question of media will also be important here as we consider what it means for a book or an image or a poem to be situated in time, and ask whether media themselves are responsible now for our sense of time.

Above all, students taking this module should be interested in engaging deeply and in a sustained way with both literary and philosophical texts.

NB. It will be helpful to you to have read at least the first few chapters of Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway before the start of term. Think too about the reading and watching (and other cultural consumption) you're doing this summer -- are you being made particularly aware of time in any aspect, and if so how? It would be nice to hear about these experiences in our discussions.

A critical 'reading package' will be distributed to you in week 1 with the key theoretical readings for term 1.

A further overview of some of the texts we will be reading can be found here in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia entry on Literary Theory and Time.

Seminar Time:

Monday 2:00-3:30.

Pathway information (for students who enrolled on their course prior to 2019/20)

This is a Pathway Approved Option to the English Pathway and the Theory Pathway. It is a Options Module for all Pathways.


Intermediate Years:

100% assessed: 1 x 2500 word essay (30%); 1 x 4000 word essay (50%); reflective journal (20%)

50/50: 1 x 2500 word essay (30%); 1 x 2hr exam (50%); reflective journal (20%)

Final Years:

100% assessed: 1 x 3000 word essay (30%); 1 x 5000 word essay (50%); reflective journal (20%)

50/50: 1 x 3000 essay (30%); 1 x 3hr exam (50%); reflective journal (20%)

Illustrative syllabus

Term One

Week One: Introduction

Mrs Dalloway, up to page 80.

You may like to read an article in the New Yorker about why people have been reading Mrs Dalloway during the pandemic, for a topical angle: Why Why Anxious Readers Under Quarantine Turn to Mrs. Dalloway

Week Two: Time in Narrative

Mrs Dalloway, to the end.

Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse, "Introduction," "Order," "Duration"

Week Three: Others' Times/Prolepsis

From Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol 2, 100-112

Mark Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time (Edinburgh, Univ. Press, 2007), introduction and chapter 3.

Week Four: Space and Time

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, (UTP, 1981), pg 84-258.

Week Five: Phenomenological Time

Henri Bergson, from Time and Free Will

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone Press, 1989)

Week Six:


Week Seven:

Ali Smith, The Accidental

Week Eight: The Future

Stephen Kern, 'The Future', The Culture of Space and Time: 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983)

Week Nine: Time and Non-Normative Mental States

Eugène Minkowski, from Lived Time [1933], trans. Nancy Metzel (Evanston: Northwestern Press, 1970)

Matthew Broome, 'The Neuroscience, Psychopathology and Philosophy of Time', Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 12: 3 (2005), 187-194

Judith Herman, from Trauma and Recovery (1992)

Week 10: Trauma, History, Time

Hayden White, ‘The Modernist Event’, in The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, ed. Vivian Sobchack (New York: Routledge, 1996)

Suzanna Radstone, ‘The War of the Fathers: Trauma, Fantasy and September 11’, Literature and the Contemporary, 117-123

Term Two

Week One

Marion Coutts, The Iceberg

Week Two: Illness Time

Eric Cazdyn, from The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness. Part 1: The New Chronic, 1-47 (and particularly 44-47: 'Palliative Time').

Sarah Lochlann Jain, 'Living in Prognosis: Toward an Elegiac Politics', Representations, vol. 98. no. 1 (2007), 77-92

Frank, Arthur. The Wounded Storyteller. Body, Illness and Ethics. Second Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Week 3: Grief Time

Denise Riley, from Time Lived without Its Flow; poetry

Lisa Baraitser in Conversation with Denise Riley. Studies in the Maternal (2016), 8(1), p.5 Link to the article

Caroline Pearce, ‘Making Sense of Grief’, in The Public and Private Management of Grief (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 61-101


Week Four: Time and Work

E.P. Thompson, ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism'

Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work (chapters 1&2)

Readings from Ling Ma, Severance; Studs Terkel, Working 


Week 5: Week Without Portfolio

We will decide what to do this week together. We might look at race and time, for instance Christina Sharpe's In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (ch 1), and/or Michael Hanchard, 'Afro-Modernity: Temporality, Politics and the African Diaspora', Public Culture (1999) 11 (1): 245-268. Or we could look at theories of reading and time, e.g. Michel de Certeau's chapter 'Reading as Poaching' in The Practice of Everyday Life, and the introduction to Reading and the Making of Time, by the department's own Tina Lupton. Or something of your own choosing. Perhaps the group can briefly follow separate strands, and then report back. We'll talk about it.



Week 7: Queer Time

Lee Edelman, No Future, ch. 1: 'The Future is Kid Stuff'

Dinshaw et al. ‘Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies(2007) 13(2-3): 177-195


Week 8: (Not) Reproducing Time

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Journal surgery


Week 9: Deep Time

Paul Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind”

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History"

Week 10: Slow and New Time

extracts from:

Jonathan Crary, 24/7

Lynn Segal, Out of Time


Reading list

Required Texts for Purchase*

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, OUP (2009 [1925])

Ali Smith, The Accidental (2005)

Marion Coutts, The Iceberg (2014)

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (2016)

* The Woolf is a recommended edition, but there are no rules about which edition you have, as long as it's the (accurate) full text and useable, so don't be concerned if yours is an edition with a different publication date.

Recommended Extra/Essay Reading

Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidou (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), pp. 68-71

Bergson, Henri, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F.L. Pogson Bergson, Henri Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1988)

Kristeva, Julia, Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature (New York: Columbia, 1996)

Lloyd, Genevieve. Being in Time: Selves and Narrators in Philosophy and Literature (London: Routledge, 1993)

Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1992)

---, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone Press, 1989)

Doan, Mary-Anne, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003)

Kittler, Friedrich, Discourse Networks: 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990)

---, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)

Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal In America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964)

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Berg, 1986)

Solnit, Rebecca, Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge (London: Bloomsbury, 2003) Greenslade, William, Degeneration, Culture and the Novel 1880-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Nicholls, Peter, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995) Schleifer, Ronald, Modernism and Time: The Logic of Abundance in Literature, Science and Culture, 1880-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989)

McQuire, Scott, Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera (London: SAGE, 1998)

Birkerts, Sven, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994)

Douglas, Jane Yellowlees, The End of Books or Books Without End: Reading Interactive Narratives (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000)

Erikson, Thomas Hylland, ‘Speed is Contagious’, in The New Media Theory Reader, ed. by Robert Hassan and Julian Thomas (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006), pp. 272-278

Harpold, Terry, ‘The Contingencies of the Hypertext Link’, in The New Media Reader, ed. by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003)

Hesse, Carla, ‘Books In Time’ in The Future of the Book, ed. by Geoffrey Nunberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 21-36

Lee, Heejin and Liebenau, Jonathan, ‘Time and the Internet’, in The New Media Theory Reader, ed. by Robert Hassan and Julian Thomas (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006), pp. 266-271

Huyssen, Andreas, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 249-260.

King, Nicola, Memory, Narrative, Identity: Remembering the Self (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000)

LaCapra, Dominick, History and Memory after Auschwitz (London: Cornell University Press,1998)

---, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994)

Bender, John, and David E. Wellbery, eds, Chronotypes: The Construction of Time (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991)

Krämer, Sybille, 'The Cultural Techniques of Time Axis Manipulation: On Friedrich Kittler’s Conception of Media' Theory Culture Society Vol. 23 (7–8) 2006: pp 93–109.

Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992)

Gray, John, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (London: Allen Lane, 2007)

Harpold, Terry, and Philip, Kavita, ‘“Party Over, Oops, Out of Time”: Y2K, Technological ‘Risk’and Informational Millenarianism’, in NMEDIAC 1.1 (2002) (available online O’Leary, Stephen, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Thompson, Damian, The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium (Hanover, NH.: University Press of New England, 1997)

Benjamin, Walter ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1992), pp. 246-258

Friedland, Roger, and Deirdre Boden, eds, NowHere: Space, Time and Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Gould, Stephen Jay, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991)

Gallagher, Sean, The Inordinance of Time (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998)

Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London: Bantam Books-Transworld Publishers, 1988)

Kennedy, J. B., Space, Time and Einstein (Chesham: Acumen, 2003)

Kern, Stephen, The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983)

Levinas, Emmanuel, Time and the Other [and additional essays]. Trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987)

Lewis, Wyndham, Time and Western Man (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927)

Minkowski, Eugene, Lived Time: Phenomenological and Psychopathological Studies (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970)

Osborne, Peter, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-garde (London: Verso, 1995)

Poulet, Georges, Studies in Human Time (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956)

White, Hayden, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989)

Essay Questions 2019-20

  1. How do the temporal operations of a narrative relate to the feelings it produces? Discuss in relation to one or more text you have read.


  1. The narrative discourse […] works to subvert, replay, or even pervert the normal passages of time” (Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot). Discuss in relation to one or more literary example.


  1. “One of the functions of narrative is to create one time in another time” (Christian Metz). Discuss.


  1. Critics have a predilection for “condensing evidence into a resonant moment” (Ted Underwood). Discuss one or more novelist (or critic) who focuses on the “resonant moment… leaping over scales of time”.


  1. What role does time play in Woolf’s intention for Mrs Dalloway “to criticise the social system, to show it at work at its most intense” (Diary, June 1923, 248).


  1. How far does Ricoeur’s idea of ‘monumental time’ still pertain today, and if so, how? Discuss in relation to one or more work of contemporary literature.


  1. Discuss the use of anticipation in one or more literary text.


  1. “Fiction reflects projections of [the novelist’s] world superimposed on an inner landscape of need, desire and anxiety” (Ruth Perry). Discuss.


  1. Consider the relationship between time and emerging technologies of a)communication, b) travel, or c) both in the thought and literature of the early twentieth century.


  1. Time, for Bergson, is “the past gnawing into the future” (Matter and Memory). Consider the pressure exerted by the past on the experience of time in texts and/or other cultural artefacts on the module or elsewhere.


  1. “Time is the dimension of change, a fact which distinguishes it from the three dimensions of space” (Ted Honderich). Discuss in relation to one or more work of literature or art.


  1. ‘Time, 'a little time in the pure state‘, rises up to the surface of the screen’ (Deleuze, Cinema 2). Discuss one or more film in the light of Deleuze’s argument that the ‘time-image’ becomes newly prominent in post-war cinema.


  1. Ali Smith’s fictional world is always “contextualized by a history in which the past is always present” (Patrick O’Donnell). Discuss in relation to one or more novels by Smith.


  1. Traumatic temporality is one of belatedness or latency. Discuss in relation to two or more works of literature and/or theory.


  1. ‘Fiction achieves a kind of resolution of problems of time which philosophy cannot solve’ (Genevieve Lloyd). Discuss.


  1. Most mental illnesses bear witness to the significance of temporality to the sense of self. Discuss in relation to one or more work of literature or thought.


  1. “Temporality is structured not by regularly ticking seconds but by memory and fantasy” (Stephen M. Levin). Discuss in relation to The Accidental or any other work(s) of fiction you have encountered.


  1. How has Genette’s treatment of anachrony been useful in understanding the working of one or more literary or cinematic text you have encountered?


  1. Discuss the challenges to the representation of time in relation to desire, death, grief, joy, guilt, or gender.


  1. How does Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘Chronotope’ help us to understand the workings of literary time? Refer to at least one novel in your answer.


  1. “Time has been rendered visible today in ways that would have appeared almost unimaginable even a decade ago” (Carol Watts). Discuss in relation to one or more artistic works you have encountered.


  1. “How can it be the end of anything?” Discuss the theme of ending (human, historical, ecological or any other) in Ali Smith’s The Accidental and/or any other work of fiction you have encountered.


  1. Peter Osborne identifies “dehistoricisation”, the “destruction of ‘lived’ historical narratives by the instantaneity of the image”, as one of the most far-reaching consequences of commodification in late capitalism. Discuss in relation to one or more works you have encountered.


  1. Discuss one or more fictional and/or theoretical works of your choice in relation to a ‘feminist politics of time’ in which, as Carol Watts describes it, the times of “a late capitalist world and those shaping women’s lives” are thought together.