ENG4438 – Contemporary U.S. Illness Narratives and Biopolitics

Schedule, syllabus and examination date

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Course content

  • What can illness narratives tell us about what it means to be a good citizen in contemporary U.S. culture?
  • How have bodies become the site for what Michel Foucault has called biopolitics?
  • How can the War on Cancer and the War on Terror be seen as mutually constitutive, for example, with significant implications for contemporary U.S. cultural studies?
  • How can terminal illness be linked with what might be called terminal injustice, in which oppressions related to race, class, gender, sexuality, species, and environment seem impossible to overcome?

This course will explore these questions and more in relation to theories of biopolitics, posthumanism, animality studies, disability studies, and American studies, while also focusing on representative memoirs, novels, plays, films, and other cultural texts.

Critical discussions will be organized around issues such as:

  • Foucault’s formulation of biopower and biopolitics
  • animals and animality in relation to biopolitics
  • breast cancer in relation to feminism
  • AIDS in relation to homophobia
  • psychiatric diagnoses in relation to constructions of race
  • the cultural politics of Lance Armstrong and “Live Strong” constructions of humans and nonhumans at the end of life
  • cultural politics related to illnesses as diverse as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, and muscular dystrophy
  • theoretical lines of inquiry, such as  increasingly “radical” interventions against threats to life—whether from rogue cancer or terrorist cells or from diseased and contagious animal bodies--which construct divisions between grievable life and collateral damage

Our primary goal will be to use readings, class discussions, and critical writing assignments to explore the cultural politics and implications of illness narratives in contemporary U.S. culture.

Learning outcome

After completing this course, you:

  • have an overview of key ways illness has been represented in U.S. literary texts, along with the significance and implications of those representations
  • know important recent theoretical developments in the fields of biopolitics, cultural studies of illness, disability studies, animal and animality studies
  • can engage key texts with close reading, while connecting those texts to theoretical debates and issues related to race, class, gender, sexuality, and species
  • can analyze literary texts in relation to dominant discourses and  historical and cultural contexts


Students who are admitted to study programmes at UiO must each semester register which courses and exams they wish to sign up for in Studentweb.

Students enrolled in other Master's Degree Programmes can, on application, be admitted to the course if this is cleared by their own study programme.

If you are not already enrolled as a student at UiO, please see our information about admission requirements and procedures.

The course has a capacity of 15 students.  ILOS will not provide additional capacity if there are more applicants.


Recommended previous knowledge

Introductory knowledge of literary and cultural theory


Seminar, two hours per week for ten weeks, 20 hours in all.

Obligatory activity:

  • Attendance is obligatory at least 8 out of 10 seminars. Additional absences must be justified by documentation given to the exam coordinator.


The assessment of the course is based on a term paper of approximately ten pages (4000 words). This does not include references and bibliography.

The topic for the term paper will be decided by the teacher and the student together. You will be given an opportunity to submit a draft of the term paper and receive individual feedback on both the form and content of the draft.

Submit assignments in Inspera

You submit your assignment in the digital examination system Inspera. Read about how to submit assignments in Inspera.

Use of sources and citation

You should familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to the use of sources and citations. If you violate the rules, you may be suspected of cheating/attempted cheating.

Language of examination

The examination text is given in English, and you submit your response in English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Resit an examination

Withdrawal from an examination

It is possible to take the exam up to 3 times. If you withdraw from the exam after the deadline or during the exam, this will be counted as an examination attempt.

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.


The course is subject to continuous evaluation. At regular intervals we also ask students to participate in a more comprehensive evaluation.

Reports from periodic evaluations (in Norwegian)

Facts about this course






Spring 2019


Spring 2019

Teaching language