Walter Benjamin and Critical Theory in Latin America. (Co-taught with Prof. Willy Thayer, UMCE, Chile). How does European critical theory redistribute itself and depart from itself in a Latin American context? Taking one exemplary critical theorist, Walter Benjamin, and one exemplary Latin American intellectual, cultural, and political milieu, Chile, we survey the eccentric conjunctures between them, focusing especially on Chilean filmmaker, Raúl Ruiz. Critical theory names a cluster of intellectual methods and goals in early 20th-century Germany, which sees philosophy as too theoretical and Marxism as not theoretical enough, and tries to fix the one with the other and visa versa. Later in the century, critical theory travels outward, occupying other discourses, other media, becoming occupied by other histories, contributing to political occupations in systems not foreseen in the original movement. We trace two Benjaminian motifs—Violence and the Image—as these motifs migrate out of texts by Benjamin into artworks, films, and theoretical texts by Spanish-language thinkers and makers, against the singular backdrop of 20th-century Chilean political history. What interests us are the readings and misreadings, correspondences and responses, citations and fantastical reconstructions, turn arounds and cul-de-sacs of a reception and repurposing of critical theory.
Reports from Nonhuman Worlds. Does a tick have a world? Does an atom? A frequent criticism of the humanities is that its perspective is limited to the human world. Natural sciences and technical fields such as Engineering see a world that is bigger and weirder and more fundamental. Yet, scientific perspectives are also in important ways human-centric. At a minimum, they see the world through the eyes of a scientist. What does the world look like through radically different eyes? Can we even know this? This course is an introduction to a new field that claims we can: nonhuman studies. Classically speaking, the one valid nonhuman perspective was God’s perspective. In this class we will ask what the universe looks like from the perspective of a quark, from the perspective of a tick, from the perspective of deep history, and from the perspective of complex semiotic systems. We will study contemporary and historical concepts of that nonhuman milieu, nature, reading philosophical texts by Lucretius, Spinoza, and Schelling; literary texts by Wordsworth, Kafka, and Philip K. Dick; scientific texts by Galileo, Lyell, Darwin; and texts in the new science of the nonhuman by Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, and Timothy Morton.
How to Change the World. In order to work in the financial sector, students get trained in economics and the theory of finance. In order to become engineers, they study mathematics and the applied sciences. Many students, however, both while they are in college and after they graduate, plan to do good work in the world for the benefit of the world itself, with the aim of helping it onto a better path. What constitutes change? What counts as “the world” or “our world”? Which are legitimate methods and strategies for effecting change to the world? This course will provide historical and critical answers for such questions. We will read through the modern history of the desire to “change the world,” beginning with the revolutionary period and transiting through the 19th century. We will also look back at proto-world-changing guides from antiquity and other historical moments. You may see this class as a primer in political thought, as an introduction to Marx’s thought and the alternatives, or as a toolbox for future world-changing endeavors. In all our conversations we will take as a given that changing the world is an activity that involves three moments: a realist moment, seeing with unblinkered eyes the horrors of the present; a historical moment, listening to how the world got to be the way it is; and an idealist moment: imagining other worlds. Because of these givens, we will read philosophical texts and political pamphlets, novels and plays, revolutionary charters, poems, and films. (undergrad)
Fear, with Francesco Casetti. We tend to think that the world reaches us through our senses to our intellect. Yet passions are also modes of receptivity. Anger, love, sadness, and more specialized passions such as competition, or even indifference—passions are receptive in different ways to different aspects of the world. While philosophers and political theorists in the 17th and 18th centuries tended to emphasize the benefits of the “calm” passions, more and more the “perturbing” passions have become prominent in experience and in discourse about it. The hypothesis of this seminar is that “fear” has became the pivotal passion in late ‘modernity,’ from the 19th century to the present. A corollary of this hypothesis is that fear of images, and especially the fear of moving pictures—cinema—has become the paradigmatic fear for our technological-scientific-mediatic epoch. We will track the shift to fear and theories of the frightening, terrible, and monstrous, and we will try to understand two sides of this fear. Firstly, we think fear always involves images—you make an image of what frightens you before it arrives. And so images were the main medium of fear even before the age of technical image making. In this age, however, European society was forced to confront a key aspect of all fear, that technically reproduced images have their own type of power, and they are highly mobile, that is: they are very hard to control. (undergrad)
Mimesis in Art and Nature. Influential theories have postulated that visual art and literature imitate nature. Recent scientific theories have postulated that nature also imitates. We will investigate what it means for anything to "look like" anything else, in readings of literature, art, and criticism. Authors and topics include but are not limited to Edgar Allen Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Oscar Wilde, and Gerhard Richter on portraiture; Emmanuel Swedenborg, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and Rene Magritte on correspondences; Aristotle, Erich Auerbach, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe on mimesis; Goethe, Darwin, Kafka, and Günter Wagner on natural similarities and homology. Pierce, Warburg, and Walker Evans on iconicity. (grad)
Nietzsche and his Readers. “How One Becomes What One Is” is the subtitle of Friedrich Nietzsche's book Ecce Homo, which consists in his self-reception and auto-critiques of his works up to 1888. This motto and the problem it indicates will guide us in this course. We will ask: “How did Nietzsche become himself?” And its corollary: “What has he continued to become?” In short, we will examine the complex web of polemics, innovations, translations, critiques, and interpretations that he was, in the late 19th century, and that persisted long afterward under the name “Nietzsche.” (grad/undergrad)
Nothing. No description. (grad)
Satire, Irony, Parody. These three literary modes, despite their humor, claim to produce some of the most serious social critique. Each takes what is held dear in a culture or an epoch and diminishes it, putatively for the good of that culture or epoch. This class will discuss the uses and abuses of these highly developed forms of political speech. We will read and watch classics and lesser known texts and films from various traditions, German, Ancient Greek, Roman, English, Spanish, and American. Along the way we will test the historical claim that antiquity uses satire, the romantic period uses irony, and the modernist period uses parody for the purposes of critique. (undergrad)
Walter Benjamin's Critical Modernity, Heidegger Being and Time, Faith and Knowledge, Franz Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption, Nietzsche and Emerson, The Logic of Dreams, Theories of History: Benjamin to Kluge, The Concept of Time, Jews and Germans, Small Literature, Artificial Paradises.