Philosophy

At Sarah Lawrence College, the study of philosophy retains a centrality, helping students synthesize their educational experience with the discipline’s many connections to other humanities and to social science. Through conference work, students also find numerous ways to connect the study of philosophy with their interests in the arts and natural sciences. Stressing the great tradition of classical and contemporary philosophy, the College offers three types of philosophy courses: those organized around thematic topics, such as Philosophy of Science, Aesthetics, and Philosophy and Literature; those organized historically, such as Moral Philosophy, Political Philosophy, and 20th-Century Philosophy; and those that study the “systems” of philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.

Philosophy faculty use the latest technology in their teaching, including Web boards for posting course material and promoting discussion. Yearlong courses make extensive textual work possible, enabling students to establish in-depth relationships with the thought of the great philosophers and to “do philosophy” to some degree—particularly valuable to students preparing for graduate work in philosophy. Conference work often consists of students thinking through and writing on single philosophic and literary works, ranging from Greek tragedy, comedy, or epic to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Descartes, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger.

2020-2021 Courses

Philosophy

Philosophy Through Film

Open , Lecture—Fall

You care about movies (I presume). Why do you care about movies? Because they entertain you? Because they are beautiful? Because they are informative? Because they make you feel things? The guiding thought of this class is that we care about movies because they participate in the practice of philosophy (or at least they have that potential). Of course, this also presumes that we care about philosophy (this claim will take some time to defend). To test that hypothesis—that films have the potential to participate in the practice of philosophy—we first need to consider what the practice of philosophy is, then we will need to say something about what film is, and then we can examine whether film can do philosophy. In the first part of the course, we will analyze the medium of film in order to clarify the characteristics of it that would allow it to be philosophical. In the second part of the class, we will explore how those characteristics of film contribute to how we think philosophically about our lives. In particular, we will explore problems pertaining to subjectivity (What it is to be a human being?) and to ethics (How do I know the right thing to do?). Each week we will watch a film (including Jeanne Dielman, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Get Out, and Spring Breakers) and read a philosophical text (including Aristotle, Cavell, Merleau-Ponty, Parfit, and Adorno) with the aim of placing the two in conversation.

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The First Philosophers

Open , Lecture—Fall

What is being? What is time? What is justice? What is truth? What is the best way to live, and should we fear death? More than 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, a tradition of asking this sort of questions developed under the name “philosophy,” which is Greek for “love of wisdom.” Veering away from the mythological and religious traditions that were dominant at the time, the first of the writers whom we now recognize as “philosophers” broke radically new ground for self-understanding and set the stage for modern scientific, political, and theological ideas. We will read the earliest surviving texts of this tradition, written by a group of authors who are now known collectively as the “Pre-Socratics.” (These include Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Ancient Atomists, to name a few.) These texts are fragmentary, as the full texts are lost. The ideas that we find in them are creative, inspiring, and often funny. Studying them is an opportunity to reflect about what “philosophy” means and an invitation, for us, to philosophize. This survey course is designed both for beginners in philosophy, for whom it would serve as an introduction, and for those more experienced in philosophy, who want to enrich their knowledge of its roots. We will accompany our readings of the first philosophers, with commentaries by later thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, and occasionally by reference to non-Greek or non-philosophical sources. Group conferences will meet once every other week to engage later and contemporary commentaries on the Pre-Socratics and will involve a final paper project of the student’s choice.

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Spinoza’s Ethics: A Philosopher’s Guide to Life

Open , Lecture—Spring

In this lecture course, we will study the Ethics: the magnum opus of the great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1633-1672). German philosopher Jacobi once wrote that “Spinoza is the only philosopher who had the courage to take philosophy seriously; if we want to be philosophers, we can only be Spinozists.” Even if Jacobi’s statement is exaggerated, it is certainly true that studying Spinoza will make us better philosophers. But Spinoza promises much more. He claims that those who follow the guide of the Ethics become freer, wiser and, above all, happier. The Ethics is a notoriously difficult and enigmatic text, which consists entirely of geometrical proofs, even concerning psychological, moral, and theological matters. Yet, it has become famous among philosophers and poets alike for its exceptional beauty. Among the questions the book tackles are: What determines our desires, and in what ways can, or should, we control them? In what ways can we be free, and in what ways are our behaviors and desires predetermined? In what ways can we be unique, and in what ways are we an inherent part of a greater whole? As we will learn, Spinoza argued that God and Nature are synonyms and that, to achieve an eternal and blissful life, we do not need to die and go to heaven. We do not even need to change the world or ourselves. All we need is to understand the way things are. There are two options for taking this course: three- or five-credits. The three-credit option means attending the lectures and doing the relevant readings and assignments. This five-credit option includes, in addition to the lectures, a group conference component in which we will discuss films and literary works that help illustrate and apply Spinoza’s Ethics

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The Philosophy of Tragedy: Electras

Open , Seminar—Fall

There is only one story about which tragedies exist by all three of the great Greek tragic poets: the murder of Clytemnestra to avenge her murder of Agamemnon. We will read all three plays: Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Sophocles' Electra, and Euripides' Electra—with special attention to the relation between Electra and Orestes as co-conspirators in the plot against Clytemnestra. Each play is concerned with the question of justice in its relation to a political life. Insofar as its principle is justice, political life points toward universality. Insofar as its existence depends on excluding some from its borders, it must assert its particularity. Political life involves treating fellow citizens according to universal principles because they are like family. We want our polis to be good, but we want it to be good because it is ours. In Greek tragedy, this problematic togetherness of the good and one's own is repeatedly represented as the tension between the polis and the family—which is, in turn, expressed as a tension between male and female principles. All of these issues are present in all three plays but in quite different ways. We will read them with a view to understanding the importance of those differences.

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Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Fall

We can ask the question—What is the right thing to do?—because we take our reasons to influence our actions. But what does it mean to be free? And how do our reasons affect what we do? This course will investigate two central issues in moral philosophy: freedom and moral reasons. In the first half of the course, we will ask: What qualifies us as responsible for our actions? To answer this question, we must think about what it means to be a human agent. Some thinkers believe that we are born agents, while others believe that we must develop our agency. If agency is developed, then the society that we are born into is crucial for this development—which means that, to understand responsibility, we must consider how sociality shapes who we are and, thus, what we do. In the second half of the class, we will turn to critically reflect on the ethical questions that arise, inasmuch as we exist in a social world with other human beings. We will discuss pressing social issues such as wealth inequality, women’s health issues, climate change, animal rights, race- and gender- based discrimination, the death penalty, and mass incarceration. Beyond thinking through specific issues, we will be interested in the nature of moral reason and moral arguments. What makes a good moral argument? And does a good moral argument change our minds on an issue? Our discussions will prompt us to doubt our deeply-held beliefs that inform our thoughts and actions, questioning their validity and goodness.

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Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art

Open , Seminar—Spring

Art seems to be an inextricable part of human life. The question that guides this class is seemingly simple: What is art? As will soon become clear, answering this question proves to be exceedingly difficult. For example: Are trees works of art? Is an iPhone a work of art? Is a movie a work of art? Are all movies works of art? Is a doodle in your notebook a work of art? It may turn out that no definitive answer to our guiding question is possible; however, without demarcating between what counts as art and what doesn’t, art refers to everything and, consequently, to nothing special. This class investigates how works of art become meaningful. The narrative of the class traces the different frameworks that philosophers over the last 2,500 years have used to pursue this question. We will follow a historical narrative, learning how these frameworks have responded both to each other and to the artworks of their time. We will read texts by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Danto, Benjamin, and others, as well as analyze artworks from Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Kara Walker, Jordan Peele, and many others. At the end of the semester, our aim will be to articulate what is so special about art and why we care about it.

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Discipline and Sexuality: Reading Michel Foucault

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

In this reading seminar, we will focus on two of Michael Foucault’s books: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: The Will to Knowledge (1976). Foucault is one of the most influential philosophers and historians of the second half of the 20th century, famous for developing Nietzsche’s thesis that knowledge is not a progressive quest for objective truth but, rather, a historical construct produced in the service of sociopolitical power structures. The texts that we will read mark a transition in Foucault’s conception of power, from seeing it as a mechanism of control (incarceration and punishment but also disciplining, education, and surveillance) to seeing it as a mechanism of producing pleasure (through practices, regulation, and inhibitions of sexuality, as well as its transgressions). Foucault’s is an extremely original mind, which has the capacity to change our understanding of our history, our culture, our upbringing, and ourselves in the deepest and least-expected ways. When it works (and much of it depends on our own commitment to the reading process), his writing can liberate us from bonds and preconceptions that we never even knew we had. This will be a guided reading and discussion-centered seminar, with weekly reading responses. It is reserved for sophomores and above, with preference to those who’ve had experience reading philosophy in class, in conference, or independently. The reason for this is not that we need much background in philosophy to understand Foucault but, instead, that we need the capacity and enthusiasm for actively and independently participating in a rigorous process of reading and discussing a philosophical text. For the conference component of the class—unless you have a well-defined and executable alternative in mind, which we agree upon in advance—each student will conduct an independent study with me of one philosophical text of their choice from a list of options.

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Nietzsche: The Philosophical Personality

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

What is my personality? What kind of personality is it? Do I have control over my personality? Is it something I am, or is it something I do? We will reflect on these questions with philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche as our guide. In one of his aphorisms, Nietzsche argued that the most important thing one can do is “give style” to his/her character. But what is “style” in this sense, and how does one “give” or develop it? In this course, Nietzsche will be our guide not only in terms of his ideas but also in terms of his example: his own “personality.” This does not simply mean his biography but, rather, his personality as it comes across and develops through his writing and his art. The course is, therefore, titled “philosophical personality”—the personality of a thinker and author. To this end, we will begin from Nietzsche’s earliest forays as a writer: his studies of Homer and Pre-Socratic philosophy and his groundbreaking theses on Greek tragedy. We will conclude by reading one of Nietzsche’s latest texts, his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. Conference work should engage the guiding question of the course—What is personality, and how does it develop?—through a prism of the student’s choice: work/s of literature, art, psychology, or philosophy.

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Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of one text. The goal of the course is twofold. First, it is designed to acquaint students with perhaps the seminal figure in the philosophical tradition in more than a superficial way. (The 20th-century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once remarked that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.) This will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding Plato as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a historical development. The second part of the goal of the course will be to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for spring 2021 will be Plato’s Protagoras.

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Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Written in 1807, G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is arguably the most important book one could read to understand our modern world. The book was so pathbreaking that subsequent philosophers were compelled to contend with its claims; and it is no stretch to say that without Hegel there would be no Marx, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Foucault, or even Feminist theory. A book about the nature of knowledge, our relation to others, what makes an action right, the influence of culture, the value of art, and the role of religion in our lives, Phenomenology of Spirit offers a comprehensive theory of what makes life meaningful. During the course of the semester, we will read significant portions of the text as we work to comprehend Hegel’s expansive philosophical thought. Central to that thought is the contention that we achieve self-knowledge not through introspection but by looking outward to the world and to the entirety of human history. Accordingly, Phenomenology of Spirit weaves a narrative through a panoply of frameworks and practices that people have inhabited in making sense of their lives (skepticism, stoicism, science, art, religion, and philosophy). This unique narrative progresses dialectically, demonstrating how the contradictions that inhere in one framework or practice generate a new framework or practice, which ultimately gives way to “Absolute Knowing.”

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Histories of Modern and Contemporary Art, 1860–1955

Open , Lecture—Year

This course is an introduction to modern and contemporary art from 1860 to 1955 and the first of two sequential surveys offered this year. (Students may take either or both.) What was modernism; and how did artists respond to a world ravaged by war, fascism, and imperialism? How did they engage or escape from industrial forms of life and explore shifting national, ethnic, and gendered identities? A central topic of the course is how the history of the Western avant-garde was also the history of colonization and cultural appropriation. And even as the course serves as an introduction to canonical historical avant-gardes in the United States, Mexico, and Europe (Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, Vorticism, Dada, Surrealism, Muralism, the Harlem Renaissance, and Abstract Expressionism), we will also explore alternative modernisms—including so-called “outsider” art, queer modernisms, and modernisms in India, Japan, and Latin America. This course is an introduction to the discipline of art history, so students will gain a vocabulary for slow looking, learn the values of different kinds of writing about art (manifestos, letters, statements, poems, and art historical and theoretical accounts), and consider art in its social and political contexts. Lectures will offer a broad overview, and 90-minute weekly group conferences will closely investigate artworks by a single, underrepresented artist. Assignments will include visual analysis essays, weekly informal worksheets, brief reading responses, short Zoom presentations, and research essays on underrepresented artists: Students will have the chance to work with librarians to research and write new pages on modernist artists across the globe who are not represented on Wikipedia and upload them to that site. Throughout, we will be thinking about the kinds of assumptions and value judgments that go into deciding a modernist canon and how we can create and contribute alternative histories to the discipline.

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Art and Ecology

Open , Seminar—Spring

This seminar introduces students to the relationships of art, science, and the environment from the 19th century to the present, along with what it means to look closely at visual representation. We will consider the European tradition of landscape painting as a cultural formation, telegraphing ideologies about industry and Western expansionism, and also look closely at indigenous representations of the land as a counterhistory. We will consider 19th-century discourses on ecology, pollution, and urbanization and painting and also take up sculptural Biomorphism in the early 20th century as a critique of industrialization. Readings will look closely at earthworks, site-specific sculpture, and body art in the 1970s, along with discourses on ecology and systems theory that were central to artists. And we will engage contemporary discourses across the globe on eco-aesthetics, eco-criticism, and artistic responses to climate change and globalization. How have artists and curators enacted ecological modes of thinking in visual form? What do those projects tell us about changing definitions of nature and human, of sustainability, climate change, and Anthropocene? Readings will cull from art history, ecology, geography, political theory, and environmental politics. This course will entail several field trips to area collections and include visiting speakers.

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The History of the Museum, Institutional Critique, and the Artist as Curator

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

This course looks closely at the art museum as a site of contest and critique: How are museums not neutral spaces but, rather, powerful institutions that shape narratives about the objects they collect and display? Readings will consider the origins of the modern art museum in Europe in the 17th century and explore how the histories and conventions of display impacted art’s reception and meaning. We will analyze the history of Institutional Critique in the West in the 1970s to look at how artists have taken aim at the museum as a site of discursive power, raising questions about the kinds of value judgments that go into determining what counts as art. We will also explore recent trends in curatorial practice toward the artist as curator: What happens when the museum becomes a medium for contemporary artists? Lastly, we will investigate recent protests at museums around issues of representation, patronage, and power. We will use the opportunities opened by remote learning to engage with and interview curators and activists across the globe in our Zoom seminars. And we will investigate what access and protest looks like in this virtual age, as museums take their collections online and activism takes different shapes. Because this course considers the historiography of art, some previous course work in art history is expected; but with its broad historical and topical coverage, this course will have something for everyone—regardless of their background in art history.

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Taoist Philosophy: Laozi and Zhuangzi

Open , Seminar—Fall

This seminar centers on the two foundational texts in the classical Taoist tradition, Lao-tzu’s Tao-te ching (Daode jing) and the Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi). The Tao-te-ching, an anthology of poetry, asks us to contemplate the nature of the Dao and the possibility of the individual’s attainment of it, the role of the government and rulers in making the Dao prevail in the world, and a rudimentary cosmology that proposes an ideal relationship of the individual to society, nature, and the cosmos. By contrast, the Chuang-tzu defies all categorization and, instead, invites readers to probe through its layers of myth, fantasy, jokes, short stories, and philosophical argumentation. Along the way, Chuang-tzu plunges us into an examination of some of the core questions of moral philosophy and epistemology: What is being? What is the nature of human nature? What does it mean to be virtuous? What is knowledge? How does one know that one knows? And, what does it mean to attain true knowledge and the Dao? To explore these topics and answer these questions, our seminar sessions will revolve around the close, detailed reading and interpretation of the texts.

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Artificial Intelligence and Society

Open , Seminar—Fall

In recent years, the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has made astonishing technical progress and has begun to assume an increasingly widespread and important role in society. AI systems can now (at least to some extent) drive cars; recognize human faces, speech, and gestures; diagnose diseases; control autonomous robots; instantly translate text from one language to another; beat world-champion human players at chess, Go, and other games; and perform many other amazing feats that just a few decades ago were only possible within the realm of science fiction. This progress has led to extravagant expectations, claims, hopes, and fears about the future of AI technology and its potential impact on society. In this course, we will attempt to peer beyond the hype and to come to grips with both the promise and the peril of AI. We will consider AI from many angles, including historical, philosophical, ethical, and public-policy perspectives. We will also examine many of the technical concepts and achievements of the field in detail, as well as its many failures and setbacks. Throughout the course, students will be asked to read texts, write responses, do follow-up research, and participate in classroom discussions. This is not a programming course, and no background in computer programming is expected or required.

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Choreographic Thinking: Sensing, Rupture, and Change

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course is open to students with a broad range of interests and can function either as a component of a performing arts third (in dance, music or theatre), as a two-credit stand-alone course, or as a 5-credit seminar with an accompanying conference project in the form of a research paper or an artistic project.

A broad definition of choreography might be the organization of beings (animate and inanimate) in time and space. But what exactly is choreographic thinking? With what aptitudes does it engage? Choreographer Susan Rethorst has described the mind of a choreographer as having “a kind of spatial emotional map of a situation, the emotional psychological reading of place and of people in relation to that place and each other…in which sensitivity to phenomena leads to an engagement with the affect of movement, shape, relation, and space.” So choreographic thinking is a practice of heightened perception that, in turn, informs a practice of organization. Nevertheless, all perceptual senses are not commonly deemed of equal importance. While vision and hearing are typically held in high regard, proprioception (the sense of where one is in space) and kinesthesia (the sense of motion) are often misunderstood or disregarded altogether. At the same time, everyday metaphors across a range of fields evoke the choreographic. We speak of political movements, economic precarity, climate change, population migrations and displacements, crop rotations, life journeys, cultural exchanges, etc., etc. Through a selection of readings by theorists and artists, both in and outside of dance, we will examine the concept of choreographic thinking, how the sensorial and affective self is engaged in this embodied practice, and how we might apply these types of aptitudes to a myriad of endeavors and areas of study.

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How Art Works

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course is open to students with a broad range of interests and can function either as a component of a performing arts Third (in dance, music or theatre), as a two-credit stand-alone course, or as a 5-credit seminar with an accompanying conference project in the form of a research paper or an artistic project.

What is art? Since human beings have been engaging in creative endeavors in various ways for millennia, it shouldn’t be difficult to say what art is or, for that matter, how it functions. Yet the difficulty of agreeing on any one definition of art becomes quickly evident. The historically siloed nature of the disciplines of poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, performance, music, dance, theatre, film, etc.— each with its own particular attributes—might present certain obstacles to answering the question in a unified fashion. But perhaps the problem lies elsewhere. Perhaps creative endeavors have functioned in many different ways and served many different purposes, in different cultures, and at different times. This course is, admittedly, an incomplete but, nevertheless, broad survey of some of the ways in which art has been conceived of, how it has been made, how it has functioned, and how people have thought about its changing nature and purpose. Assigned readings will include texts from various fields, including the philosophy of art and aesthetics, literary theory, performance studies, gender studies, cultural theory, anthropology, and psychology, as well as texts from artists themselves. Our readings will range from accessible to challenging. Throughout, I will be teaching from the perspective of a dance artist. These readings will be accompanied by our own experience and discussion of artworks in various media.

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Introduction to Property: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Perhaps few issues are more contentious in the environmental arena than those surrounding struggles over rights to private, as well as common, property resources. What is property, and how is it made? Who makes property? How are property rights performed, publicized, and enforced? What is a commons, and what is common property? Debates over the “commons” implicate ideas of citizenship, community, the public good, justice, and governance. Controversies over public space and community gardens, genetic recombinant research and rights to the genome, and North-South disputes over rights to biodiversity in the geographic South—as well as debates over property in the Middle East—form some of the hotly contested terrain of property rights and the commons use and ownership. Property rights on a variety of scales—from the biomolecular to whole organs and organisms, from individual trees to whole ecosystems—are examined in varied geographic, biological, cultural, and historical contexts. This course is an introduction to ideas and cultures of property (private, public, and collective); debates, claims, and arguments over the commons; and the environmental and social consequences of different property regimes.

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Landscapes in Translation

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Spring

This course investigates the multiple ways in which landscapes have been imagined, interpreted, physically shaped, and controlled in a variety of historical and contemporary sites. The literatures of environmental humanities, landscape design, and political ecology provide theory and cases. The first section, Cartographies, explores ideas of landscape in Euro-America, Southeast Asia, and colonial-era Africa. We examine how landscapes on a variety of scales, from “bioregions” to nations, are imagined, codified, and transformed through representational processes and material moves ranging from mapping to making walls. The second section, Visions, investigates how landscapes are imagined and embodied in fine arts and literature, as well as in garden and urban design. Readings draw on examples of landscape making and design in colonial New England, Indonesia, and other sites. We examine contemporary examples of landscape design in response to climate change, especially sea-level rise in the Netherlands, United States, Indonesia, and China. We also study reworkings of the urban landscape to integrate more productive, biologically diverse “fringes,” as well as rooftop farms and apiaries. The third section, Security-Scapes: Landscape Imaginaries and Embodiments, investigates the rise of “security-scapes” or “surveillance-scapes,” dating from slavery in the United States to the Department of Homeland Security in the post-9/11 era. Contemporary urban-design imaginaries and plans for “resilience” and “smart cities” are investigated. We draw upon websites, advertisements, and new scholarship in security studies, landscape design, and critical political theory. This course is open to students with developed skills in critical thinking and the analysis of texts and other representational forms.

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Intermediate French II: The Writing of Everyday Life in French 20th-Century Literature

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

Course conducted in French. Admission by placement test to be taken during interview week at the beginning of the fall semester or by completion of Intermediate French I (possibly Advanced Beginning for outstanding students).

This French course is designed for students who already have a strong understanding of the major aspects of French grammar and language but wish to develop their vocabulary and their grasp of more complex aspects of the language. Students are expected to be able to easily read more complex texts and to express themselves more abstractly. A major part of the course will be devoted to the study and discussion of literary texts in French. “Question your soupspoons.” In this challenge to his readers, Georges Perec summed up, in his unique manner, a particular strain of 20th-century French letters, one that seeks to turn literature’s attention away from the extraordinary, the scandalous, and the strange toward an examination of the ordinary makeup of everyday life. This course will examine some of the aesthetic and theoretical challenges that the representation of the quotidian entails. Does the everyday hide infinite depths of discovery, or does its value lie precisely in its superficiality? How do spaces influence our experience of everyday life? How can (and should) literature give voice to experiences and objects that normally appear undeserving of attention? How does one live one’s gender on an everyday basis? Can one ever escape from everyday life? We will review fundamentals of French grammar and speaking and develop tools for analysis through close readings of literary texts. Students will be encouraged to develop tools for the examination and representation of their own everyday lives in order to take up Perec’s call to interrogate the habitual. Readings will include texts by Proust, Breton, Aragon, Leiris, Perec, Queneau, Barthes, the Situationists, Ernaux, and Calle. The Intermediate I and II French courses are specially designed to help prepare students for studying in Paris with Sarah Lawrence College during their junior year.

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Food, Agriculture, Environment, and Development

Open , Lecture—Year

Where does the food that we eat come from? Why do some people have enough food to eat and others do not? Are there too many people for the world to feed? Who controls the world’s food? Will global food prices continue their recent rapid rise? And if so, what will be the consequences? What are the environmental impacts of our food production systems? How do answers to these questions differ by place or the person asking the question? How have they changed over time? This course will explore the following fundamental issue: the relationship between development and the environment, focusing in particular on agriculture and the production and consumption of food. The questions above often hinge on the contentious debate concerning population, natural resources, and the environment. Thus, we will begin by critically assessing the fundamental ideological positions and philosophical paradigms of “modernization,” as well as critical counterpoints, that lie at the heart of this debate. Within this context of competing sets of philosophical assumptions concerning the population-resource debate, we will investigate the concept of “poverty” and the making of the “Third World,” access to food, hunger, grain production and food aid, agricultural productivity (the Green and Gene revolutions), biofuels, the role of transnational corporations (TNCs), the international division of labor, migration, globalization and global commodity chains, and the different strategies adopted by nation-states to “develop” natural resources and agricultural production. Through a historical investigation of environmental change and the biogeography of plant domestication and dispersal, we will look at the creation of indigenous, subsistence, peasant, plantation, collective, and commercial forms of agriculture. We will analyze the physical environment and ecology that help shape but rarely determine the organization of resource use and agriculture. Rather, through the dialectical rise of various political-economic systems—such as feudalism, slavery, mercantilism, colonialism, capitalism, and socialism—we will study how humans have transformed the world’s environments. We will follow with studies of specific issues: technological change in food production; commercialization and industrialization of agriculture and the decline of the family farm; food and public health, culture, and family; land grabbing and food security; the role of markets and transnational corporations in transforming the environment; and the global environmental changes stemming from modern agriculture, dams, deforestation, grassland destruction, desertification, biodiversity loss, and the interrelationship with climate change. Case studies of particular regions and issues will be drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States. The final part of the course examines the restructuring of the global economy and its relation to emergent international laws and institutions regulating trade, the environment, agriculture, resource extraction treaties, the changing role of the state, and competing conceptualizations of territoriality and control. We will end with discussions of emergent local, regional, and transnational coalitions for food self-reliance and food sovereignty, alternative and community supported agriculture, community-based resource management systems, sustainable development, and grassroots movements for social and environmental justice. Films, multimedia materials, and distinguished guest lectures will be interspersed throughout the course. One farm/factory field trip is possible in each semester if funding permits. The lecture participants may also take a leading role in a campus-wide event on “food and hunger,” tentatively planned for the spring. Please mark your calendars when the dates are announced, as attendance for all of the above is required. Attendance and participation are also required at special guest lectures and film viewings in the Social Science Colloquium Series, which are held approximately once per month. The Web Board is an important part of the course. Regular postings of short essays will be made there, as well as followup commentaries with your colleagues. There will be in-class essays, a midterm quiz, and a final exam each semester. Group conferences will focus on in-depth analysis of certain course topics and will include debates and small-group discussions. You will prepare a poster project each semester on a topic of your choice that is related to the course and which will be presented at the end of each semester in group conference, as well as a potential public session.

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Intermediate Greek: The Perils of Passion: Ancient Greek Wisdom for Today’s Troubled Times

Intermediate , Lecture—Year

See course description under Literature.

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Readings in Intermediate Greek: Herodotus and Thucydides

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

This course will review grammar concepts, as necessary, while reading—in Greek—selected passages of Herodotus and Thucydides.

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The Enlightenment

Open , Seminar—Year

The 18th-century Enlightenment was arguably the most important single episode in the last thousand years of European intellectual history—an upsurge of new ideas and attitudes that ushered in the “modern” climate of opinion. Dozens of our own society’s most characteristic beliefs about the structure of the universe, human nature, the foundations of political community, and the principles of morality were first put into circulation by Enlightenment thinkers. This course will examine the development of the Enlightenment from its origins in the age of the Baroque to its demise in the era of the French Revolution and Romanticism. While the course’s central focus will be doctrines, values, and sensibilities as expressed in works of philosophy, literature, and art, we will also consider 18th-century political and social history and the role of the Enlightenment in inspiring the revolutionary upheavals that brought the Old Regime in Europe to an end. Students may pursue conference projects examining almost any aspect of life or culture in early modern Europe.

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Realisms: Currents and Crosscurrents in 19th-Century European Thought

Open , Seminar—Fall

The term “realism” enjoyed an unprecedented vogue in 19th-century Europe. All manner of doctrines and ideologies prided themselves on their “realistic” understanding of the human predicament and the structure of the universe while disdaining rival doctrines as captive to illusions and prejudices. Students in this course will read and discuss texts illustrating influential forms of 19th-century European realism in philosophy, ethics, and politics. They will also consider realism in literature and painting. We will try to identify what exactly “realism” meant to each of these philosophical and artistic tendencies and to discover why 19th-century Europeans found the concept of “realism” so irresistible. Since the schools of thought to be investigated often conceived “reality” in diametrically opposed ways, the course will provide an introduction to a number of the most significant intellectual debates of the 19th century. Thinkers to be discussed include Malthus, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Weber, and Freud; creative artists include Turgenev, Strindberg, Courbet, Manet, and Degas.

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First-Year Studies: Mythology in Literature

Open , FYS—Year

In this course, we will define myths, broadly, as recurring narrative energy fields of great intensity and durability that supply cultures and persons with universal patterns by which to reflect on their origins and destinies. We will consider ways in which writers, primarily in Western literary traditions, have used certain mythic patterns—odysseys in the first term and metamorphoses in the second term—to explore their questions and concerns about the operations of the cosmos and the psyche, history, and morality. Those patterns provide both archetypal structures for the articulation of plot, and tropes for the implication of meaning, in literary texts. We will proceed chronologically through texts from ancient, through medieval and Renaissance, to Romantic and contemporary periods. Tracking the same narrative pattern through this sequence of literary periods will provide us with insights into the way literature represents changing understandings of the way the world is structured and the way that human mind and human culture engage with it. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

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Shakespeare and the Semiotics of Performance

Open , Lecture—Year

The performance of a play is a complex cultural event that involves far more than the literary text upon which it is grounded. First, there is the theatre itself, a building of a certain shape and utility within a certain neighborhood of a certain city. On stage, we have actors and their training, gesture, staging, music, dance, costumes, possibly scenery and lighting. Offstage, we have the audience, its makeup, and its reactions; the people who run the theatre and the reasons why they do it; and finally the social milieu in which the theatre exists. In this course, we study all of these elements as a system of signs that convey meaning (semiotics)—a world of meaning whose lifespan is a few hours but whose significances are ageless. The plays of Shakespeare are our texts. Reconstructing the performances of those plays in the England of Elizabeth I and James I is our starting place. Seeing how those plays have been approached and re-envisioned over the centuries is our journey. Tracing their elusive meanings—from within Shakespeare’s Wooden O to their adaptation in contemporary film—is our work.

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The Perils of Passion: Ancient Greek Wisdom for Today’s Troubled Times

Open , Lecture—Year

With the permission of the instructor, qualified students may opt to take this course as Intermediate Greek and read selected portions of the text in Greek.

Are we unwittingly reliving the past? Authoritarianism, magical thinking, and tribalism are beginning to characterize the 21st century as they characterized archaic Greece. Over centuries, however, the ancient Greeks experienced a movement in the opposite direction: They began to prioritize reality, condemn tyranny, and experiment with broader forms of political participation. During the late sixth through fifth centuries BCE, ancient Athenians devised, simultaneously, the concepts of democracy and history. As the Athenians were experimenting with the world’s first-ever democratic political institutions, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides distinguished history from myth and offered examples of behaviors to emulate or to avoid. Today, those early historians can help us analyze facts, identify causes and consequences, and avoid the pitfalls of the past. Students will read, in English translation, Herodotus’ Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, as well as selected works by Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristotle, and Ps.-Xenophon.

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Reading High Romantic Poetry (Blake to Keats)

Open , Small Lecture—Fall

This course focuses on the interpretation and appreciation of the most influential lyric poetry written in English in the tumultuous decades between the French Revolution and the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Over the course of two generations, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats invented a new kind of autobiographical poem that largely internalized the myths that they had inherited from literary and religious traditions. The poet’s inward, subjective experience became the inescapable subject of the poem—a legacy that continues to this day. We will be exploring ways in which the English Romantic poets responded to the political impasse of their historical moment and created poems out of their arguments with themselves, as well as their arguments with one another. Our preeminent goal will be to appreciate each poem’s unique contribution to the language.

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Studies in Ecocriticism: The Idea of Nature in the Western Tradition

Open , Small Lecture—Spring

As the capitalistic and predatory model aggressively promoted by the United States continues to reveal itself as a major threat for biodiversity and the environment in general, it is vital to explore and understand the concept of “nature” at the core of the Western tradition and how it was shaped over the course of more than 2,000 years. This course will create a series of bridges between and among the history of literature, philosophy, and science, with implications for many other disciplines. Most importantly, we will discuss the Western and Judeo-Christian concept of nature in the context of race and ethnicity in America today by confronting it with works and arguments developed by Black, Indigenous, Latine, and Asian American authors. Among many themes, we will study how antiquity came to develop a concept of “physis,” so different from our modern understanding of physics, but also shaped our aesthetic eye with the creation of the pastoral genre and the idea of agreeable and tamed landscapes or set a model for a utilitarian relationship to nature with Hesiod and Virgil’s agricultural treaties. We will also analyze specific places, such as the forest in Medieval chivalric romances and American “wilderness” fictions, or chaotic landscapes admired and imagined by the Romantics, or the sea as depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick. The 17th-century scientific revolution and its mathematical and mechanistic approach to nature will lead us to discuss with Descartes the concept of animality in parallel with contemporary philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari, who make use of models like the burrow or territoriality imported from the animal realm. Going into a completely different direction, we will question the characteristics of a Judeo-Christian conception of the world organized around a remote and immaterial god in direct opposition to a more organic understanding of nature as a “motherly” and immanent figure, with all of the reservations that such a figure implies. These are some of the questions that we will explore, and the focus of our discussions will be to bring new voices in order to deconstruct the Eurocentric concept of “nature.”

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Epic Vision and Tradition

Open , Seminar—Year

The epic is a monumental literary form that is an index to the depth and richness of a culture and the ultimate test of a tale-teller’s creative power. Encyclopedic in its inclusiveness, epic reflects a culture’s origins and projects its destiny, giving definitive form to its vital mythology and problematically asserting and questioning its formative values. This course on the emergence and development of the epic genre, from its oral origins to its modern and postmodern manifestations, will be organized around four central purposes. First, we will study the major structural, stylistic, and thematic features of each epic. Second, we will consider the cultural significance of the epic as the collective or heroic memory of a people. Third, we will examine how each bard weaves an inspired, yet troubled, image of visionary selfhood into the cultural and historical themes of the poem. Fourth, we will notice how the epic form changes shape under changing cultural and historical circumstances and measure the degree to which the influence of epic tradition becomes a resource for literary and cultural power.

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Forms and Logic of Comedy

Open , Seminar—Year

Comedy is a startlingly various form that operates with a variety of logics. Comedy can be politically conservative or starkly radical, savage or gentle, optimistic or despairing. In this course, we will explore some comic modes—from philosophical comedy to modern film—and examine a few theories of comedy. A tentative reading list for the first semester includes a Platonic dialogue (the Protagoras), Aristophanes, Plautus, Juvenal, Lucian, Shakespeare, Molière, some Restoration comedy, and Fielding. In the second semester, we may read Jane Austen, Stendhal, Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Kingsley Amis, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard. We will also look at film and cartoons. Both semesters’ reading lists are subject to revision.

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Imagining War

Open , Seminar—Year

War is one of the great themes in European literature. The greatest works of Greco-Roman antiquity are meditations on war; and as an organizing metaphor, war pervades our attempts to represent politics, economics and sexuality. Efforts to comprehend war were the genesis of the disciplines of history and political science; and the disaster of the Peloponnesian War forms the critical, if concealed, background to first great works of Western philosophy. We'll begin the first semester with readings from the Iliad, Thucydides, Plato, and Augustine and go on to study the Aeneid, Machiavelli, Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy and Hobbes. In the second semester, we'll look at the origins of political economy, among other things a discipline that sought to transcend the military metaphor; at Marxism, which remilitarized the language of political economy; at Byron's mock epic, Don Juan; and at two 19th-century novelists, Stendhal and Tolstoy—one of whom described war directly, and the other used it as an organizing metaphor for erotic, economic, and political life. We'll conclude with a look at some 20th-century literary, artistic, historical, and critical attempts to represent war with an allegedly unprecedented accuracy. This is an interdisciplinary course.

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Interrogating God: Tragedy and Divinity

Open , Seminar—Fall

The Greek gods attended the performances at the ancient theater of Dionysos, which both recognized and challenged their participation in human affairs. The immediacy of divine presence enabled a civic body, the city, to enter into conversation with a cosmic one, a conversation whose subject was a shared story about the nature of experience and its possible significance: tragedy. Divinity is less congenial about playgoing in later periods, but it seems to have lent tragedy both a power to be reborn and a determination to address the universe even as Christianity, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Industrial Age reimagine it. In this course, we shall read essential Western texts in which the constant of human suffering is confronted and the gods are called into question even as they shift their shape. Among our authors are Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Ibsen, Beckett, Susan Glaspell, and August Wilson.

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Theory for Reading

Open , Large seminar—Fall

In this introductory class, we will deepen our understanding of how the acts of writing and reading have been understood in the Western tradition since antiquity and what they mean for us today. Each week, we will pair a piece of fiction or poetry with a philosophical or theoretical commentary. We will thus read Homer in the context of Plato and Aristotle’s understanding of poetry and fiction but with also in mind Nietzsche’s criticism of Platonism in The Birth of Tragedy. In the same spirit, Walter Benjamin’s use of Marxist theory will help us read E. A. Poe’s fiction and Baudelaire’s poetry in the context of mid-19th century Paris. We will also discuss Shakespeare’s Hamlet in light of its psychoanalytical readings by Freud and Lacan and analyze Kafka’s Metamorphosis alongside Deleuze and Guattari’s theorization of marginal forms of writing. Feminist and gender theory with Beauvoir and Butler, linguistics with Barthes, works by Foucault and Baldwin will also be discussed. Students will be encouraged to apply the material of this course to other texts of their choice. There are no conferences associated with this seminar, but students will have the option of developing a small personal research project.

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Wilde and Shaw

Open , Seminar—Spring

Toward the end of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde stated repeatedly that he was "an Irishman" and, therefore, beyond good and evil as defined by gentlemanly codes while George Bernard Shaw deemed nationalistic allegiances absurd and (prophetically, given the wars of the 20th century) lethal. In their stances, we can begin to see how the complexities and paradoxes of Irish identity—ethnic marginalization, religious zeal (secularized), linguistic play, knowing laughter—informed their ultimate self-definition as citizens of the world and thereby enabled them to fashion distinctively challenging art. It is also no exaggeration to say that each left the English language not as he found it. Wilde's life was short, and we shall read a good deal of his oeuvre: his fairy tales, his plays, his novel, much of his poetry, many of his essays. Shaw’s life was long, and we shall focus on his plays written before World War I, along with two brilliantly painful postwar works: Heartbreak House and Saint Joan. And, in both, we shall see how revolution can come disguised in conventional forms, as both playwrights transform drawing-room comedy into political commentary whose implications have yet to be resolved.

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Emersonian Quartet: Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

In an 1842 lecture, titled “The Poet,” Emerson complained that no American had yet emerged who could answer the legacy of Western literary tradition with original energy and native genius. Whitman would later remark that he had been “simmering, simmering, simmering” until Emerson’s injunctions brought him “to a boil.” The outcome was his sublime, democratic, homoerotic poetic sequence, “Song of Myself” (the “greatest piece of wit and wisdom yet produced by an American,” as Emerson immediately recognized). In unique but related ways, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens also answered Emerson’s call. Like Whitman at the end of “Song of Myself,” their most inventive poems seem always out in front of us, waiting for us to arrive. We will do our best to catch up: to conceptualize and paraphrase their tropes while acknowledging the inevitable failure of merely discursive language to transmit a poem. Our central task will be to interpret and appreciate the poetry we encounter through close, imaginative reading, informed speculation, and an understanding of historical contexts.

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Visionary Spaces: Light Information Reflexivity

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

This course offers an unusual take on contemporary culture (digital media, cybernetics, networked society) by starting from the reference points of Eastern philosophy (Taoist, Buddhist). Rather than the focal point of the individual subject (whether in affirmative or critical mode), it is a different notion of the self, or rather processes of interaction, transmutation, and ecology, that provide ground for our investigations. In the end, we arrive at a different formulation of the problems of reification, spectacle and power. The question of subjectivity will not be deconstructed so much as redesigned and repurposed within the context of what I call Eastern praxis—practices of mind, rather than analyses of discourse—and brought to bear on the perennial question of critical thought: how do we live (well) under contemporary conditions of labor and communication? Sidestepping the dialectic of utopia/dystopia, we will explore the problem of social life under the auspices of an Eastern vital materialism. Primary materials for this course are drawn from film, multimedia and performance art, Internet-based projects and environmental design, as well as extensive readings in criticism, theory and philosophy.

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First-Year Studies: FYS in Music

Open , FYS 1C—Year

In this class we will study the major styles and techniques of Western classical music. No prior knowledge of music or music theory is required. Technical and analytical terms will be introduced as we go, but students who have had some background in music theory will be able to do more advanced work in conferences. The material will range from the music of the Middle Ages to the present day. Musical works will be examined in detail, as well as in the context of various other issues: What was the role of art in society? How did music relate to the other arts? What social and economic issues affected the dissemination of music? What role does history and interpretation play in our understanding of music? Students will meet for weekly conferences during the first six weeks of the semester and every two weeks thereafter.

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The Music of Russia

Open , 3-credit seminar—Spring

This course may also be taken as a semester-long component.

This course will survey the great contributions of Russian composers to Western music from the first half of the 19th century to the end of the Soviet era and beyond. We will study those works in the context of the important historical events and intellectual movements that galvanized Russian artists: the desire to find the appropriate expression of Russian identity, the ambivalence toward the achievements of Western Europe, the ideals of civic responsibility, the aestheticism of the later 19th century, the Russian Revolution, and the repressions of Soviet society. The music of Russia is in a constant dialogue with literature, politics, religion, and philosophy—and we will attempt to follow the threads that link the music to those subjects. Composers to be studied include Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Gubaidulina. We will end the course with a look at emigré composers such as Stravinsky, who composed his most Russian works for non-Russian audiences.

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The First Philosophers

Open , Lecture—Fall

What is being? What is time? What is justice? What is truth? What is the best way to live, and should we fear death? More than 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, a tradition of asking this sort of questions developed under the name “philosophy,” which is Greek for “love of wisdom.” Veering away from the mythological and religious traditions that were dominant at the time, the first of the writers whom we now recognize as “philosophers” broke radically new ground for self-understanding and set the stage for modern scientific, political, and theological ideas. We will read the earliest surviving texts of this tradition, written by a group of authors who are now known collectively as the “Pre-Socratics.” (These include Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Ancient Atomists, to name a few.) These texts are fragmentary, as the full texts are lost. The ideas that we find in them are creative, inspiring, and often funny. Studying them is an opportunity to reflect about what “philosophy” means and an invitation, for us, to philosophize. This survey course is designed both for beginners in philosophy, for whom it would serve as an introduction, and for those more experienced in philosophy, who want to enrich their knowledge of its roots. We will accompany our readings of the first philosophers, with commentaries by later thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, and occasionally by reference to non-Greek or non-philosophical sources. Group conferences will meet once every other week to engage later and contemporary commentaries on the Pre-Socratics and will involve a final paper project of the student’s choice.

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Deformed Democracy: Structural Roots of Democratic Dysfunction

Open , Lecture—Year

Modern democracy, as defended by its most progressive advocates and pursued by a succession of social movements, promised to resurrect an ancient form of popular self-rule on a newly inclusive and egalitarian foundation. At certain points in recent history, it seemed credible to believe that the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice”; i.e., that there was a long-term trend in modern democracy that more fully institutionalized meaningful self-government, increasingly treated all members with equal concern and respect, and better realized fair equality of opportunity for all while limiting social inequality and facing up to the daunting task of repairing historical injustices. Over the course of your lifetimes, however, this claim has appeared far less credible; instead, modern democratic politics seem increasingly less equal, inclusive, just, responsive, functional, and democratic. Is 21st-century democracy, increasingly an instrument of unjust politics, impotent in the face of the social and environmental changes that globalization and galloping technological innovation produce or perhaps simply doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of global interconnection and deeper diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? To address these questions, this course surveys the development and defense of modern conceptions of democracy through the history of political thought; examines mature democracy by looking at its practice, successes, and failures from the mid-20th century to the present; and contemplates proposals for reform that seek to eliminate deformations while realizing the normative potential of modern democracy. The first semester concentrates on the history of modern democracy, looking both to develop a strong, critical account of democracy as a normative ideal, by studying its theoretic roots in seminal texts of modern political thought from Locke to Tocqueville, and to gain a critical historical overview of its cultural and institutional genesis, evolution, and decay (Fukuyama and Habermas). We will then turn, mainly in the second semester, to examine some main aspects of the forces troubling democracy in the United States and elsewhere, surveying, in turn: the decline of the legislative process; the decline of political parties and voluntary associations and the consequent “hollowing out” of civil society; important changes in the political economy that have rendered democratic capitalism more prone to economic inequality and crisis, oligarchic capture, and cultural distortion; the role of (new and old) mass media in successively structuring and disrupting the public sphere of democratic politics; the question of whether constitutional democracy is intrinsically valuable or inherently contradictory, in general, and whether the American constitution is [anti-]democratic; the way in which different aspects of an electoral system, from districting to how winners and losers are determined, structure different forms of democracy; and whether the politics of identity is, at once, redressing historical injustice while also fracturing democratic solidarity. The course will conclude by considering proposals to strengthen, reform, or refound modern democracy as we move into the middle of the 21st century. The course will draw on a wide range of disciplines and texts, drawing on political science and economy, history, sociology, and philosophy; but the central focus will be on historical and contemporary political theory.

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Modern Political Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Year

Political philosophy consists in a discourse of thinking about the nature of political power; the conditions for its just and unjust use; the rights of individuals, minorities and majorities; the nature and bounds of political community; the relations between politics and the truth or the good; etc. Rather than tackling pressing political problems one at a time, political theorists seek systematic solutions in overall visions of just societies or comprehensive diagnoses of the roots of oppression and domination in political orders. While this discourse stretches back over 2,500 years in our history, in this course we focus on modern writers who shaped the terms and concepts that increasingly populate political imaginations the world over; that is, the conscious and unconscious ideas about rights, power, class, democracy, community, and the like that we use to make sense of our political lives. Thinkers to be considered include: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and Nietzsche. By studying their work, we will be better positioned to answer the following range of questions. What is the nature of political power? What is the content of social justice? Does democracy threaten basic individual rights? Is it more important to respect the individual or the community when the interests of the two conflict? Is a market economy required by, or incompatible, with democracy? What aspects of human potential and social worlds do different grand theories of political life illuminate and occlude? Finally, this course will also pose the issue of the worth and legitimacy of European modernity; that is, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the ideas that jostle for prominence within this tradition are worth defending? Which should be rejected? Or should we reject them all and, instead, embrace a new, postmodern political epoch? In answering these questions, we will be forced to test both the internal coherence and the continuing relevance of the political visions that shape modern politics. The approach we take in class will focus on close textual analysis as we seek to unpack the details of the many strands of arguments that cross-cut these texts, passage by passage.

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Art and Visual Perception

Open , Lecture—Spring

Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. —John Berger

Psychologists and neuroscientists have long been interested in measuring and explaining the phenomena of visual perception. In this course, we will study how the visual brain encodes basic aspects of perception—such as color, form, depth, motion, shape, and space—and how they are organized into coherent percepts or gestalts. Our main goal will be to explore how the study of visual neuroscience and art can inform each other. One of our guides in these explorations will be the groundbreaking gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who was a pioneer in the psychology of art. The more recent and equally innovative text by the neuroscientist Eric Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, will provide our entry into the subject of neuroaesthetics. Throughout our visual journey, we will seek connections between perceptual phenomena and what is known about brain processing of visual information. This is a course for people who enjoy reflecting on why we see things as we do. It should hold particular interest for students of the visual arts who are curious about scientific explanations of the phenomena that they explore in their art, as well as for students of the brain who want to study an application of visual neuroscience.

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The Senses: Art and Science

Open , Seminar—Spring

The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind. —Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1964

Sensory perception is a vital component of the creation and experience of artistic works of all types. In psychology and neuroscience, the investigation of sensory systems has been foundational for our developing understanding of brains, minds, and bodies. Recent work in brain science has moved us beyond the Aristotelian notion of five discrete senses to a view of the senses as more various and interconnected, with each other—and with the fundamental psychological processes of perception, attention, emotion, memory, imagination, and judgment. What we call “taste” is a multisensory construction of “flavor” that relies heavily on smell, vision, and touch (mouth feel); “vision” refers to a set of semi-independent streams that specialize in the processing of color, object identity, or spatial layout and movement; “touch” encompasses a complex system of responses to different types of contact with the largest sensory organ—the skin;, and “hearing” includes aspects of perception that are thought to be quintessentially human—music and language. Many other sensations are not covered by the standard five: the sense of balance, of body position (proprioception), feelings of pain arising from within the body, and feelings of heat or cold. Perceptual psychologists have suggested that the total count is closer to 17 than five. We will investigate all of these senses, their interactions with each other, and their intimate relationships with human emotion, memory, and imagination. Some of the questions we will address are: Why are smells such potent memory triggers? What can visual art tell us about how the brain works, and vice versa? Why is a caregiver’s touch so vital for psychological development? Why do foods that taste sublime to some people evoke feelings of disgust in others? Do humans have a poor sense of smell? Why does the word “feeling” refer to both bodily sensations and emotions? What makes a song “catchy” or “sticky”? Can humans learn to echolocate like bats? What is the role of body perception in mindfulness meditation? This is a good course for artists who like to think about science and for scientists with a feeling for art.

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Mindfulness: Science and Practice

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Mindfulness can be described as nonjudgmental attention to experiences in the present moment. For thousands of years, mindfulness has been cultivated through the practice of meditation. More recently, developments in neuroimaging technologies have allowed scientists to explore the brain changes that result from the pursuit of this ancient practice, laying the foundations of the new field of contemplative neuroscience. Study of the neurology of mindfulness meditation provides a useful lens for study of the brain in general, because so many aspects of psychological functioning are affected by the practice. Some of the topics that we will address are attention, perception, emotion and its regulation, mental imaging, habit, and consciousness. This is a good course for those interested in scientific study of the mind. One of our two weekly meetings will be devoted to a mindful yoga practice.

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First-Year Studies: The Emergence of Christianity

Open , FYS—Year

There is perhaps no one who has not heard of the name of a seemingly obscure carpenter's son executed by the Romans around 33 CE. Why? The religion that we call Christianity shaped the Western world for at least 1,500 years. In this course, we will study the origins of this tradition. As we study those origins, we will explore Judaism in the strange and fertile Second Temple period (515 BCE–70 CE). We will encounter the learned societies of holy men like the Pharisees and the Qumran sectarians, as well as the freedom fighter/terrorists called the Zealots. Our main source will be the New Testament of the Christian Bible, though these sources will be supplemented by other primary materials. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, as well as other Hellenistic texts from that period provide the cultural backdrop in which Christianity has its roots. We will learn about the spread of the new movement of “Christians,” as they were called by their detractors in Antioch, from its roots in the Holy Land into the greater Greco-Roman world. How did that movement, which began among the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean, come to be wholly associated with Gentiles by the end of the second century? Who became Christian? Why were they hated so much by the greater Greco-Roman society? What did they believe? How did they behave? What are the origins of Christian anti-Semitism? What kind of social world, with its senses of hierarchy and gender relations, did these people envision for themselves?

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Chan and Zen Buddhism

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course is an in-depth, historical examination of the philosophy, mythology, literature, institutional arrangements, religious practices, art, and architecture associated with this most famous and widely misunderstood school of East Asian Buddhism. The Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism arose in China as the result of a cross-cultural exchange of epic proportions: the gradual intrusion into China of an alien set of religious ideas, values, and practices—those belonging to Indian Buddhism—between the first and the eighth centuries of the Common Era and the subsequent efforts of some 20 generations of Chinese Buddhists to defend, adapt, domesticate, and finally make the foreign religion entirely their own. Chan became the most “Chinese” school of Buddhism by defining itself in terms of indigenous concepts of clan genealogy; by exalting members of its spiritual lineage as native-born buddhas; and by allowing those buddhas to speak in the vernacular, using a mode of rhetoric that was heavily influenced by the Confucian and Daoist traditions. The course begins by outlining Indian Buddhist doctrines and practices that were imported into China and by summarizing the indigenous cultural milieu that was initially quite hostile to the alien religion. We will then explore the various compromises and adaptations of Indian Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that took shape within the Chan tradition and enabled it to emerge in the Song dynasty (960-1278) as the predominant school of Chinese Buddhism. Background knowledge of East Asian history, languages, or religions is desirable but not required.

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Advanced Interdisciplinary Studio: Our Nine Senses

Advanced , Seminar—Year

This course is intended for advanced visual-arts students interested in working across disciplines and in more deelply pursuing their own art-making processes. Students making work in and across painting, drawing, sculpture, video, photography, sound, new genres, and performance are supported. Students will maintain their own studio spaces and will be expected to work independently and creatively and to challenge themselves and their peers to explore new ways of thinking and making. During the fall semester, students will be given open-ended, exploratory prompts based on nine human senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, balance, temperature, proprioception, and pain) from which they will be asked to experiment with how they make work and will be encouraged to work within new mediums. In the spring semester, students will focus exclusively on their own interests and will be expected to develop a sophisticated, cohesive body of independent work accompanied by two group exhibitions. We will have regular critiques, readings, image discussions, and trips to galleries and artists' studios and will participate integrally within the Visual Arts Lecture Series. This will be an immersive studio course for disciplined art students interested in making work in an interdisciplinary environment.

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The Episode: A Course in Connections

Open , Seminar—Spring

This will be a course in the episode, a flexible way of putting content—fictional or nonfictional—in this world or another, together. The episodes that we know best are streamed online. We also read them, often without noticing their form. They are different from chapters or short stories. We will start by introducing each other to our favorites. Then we will do enough exercises to catch ourselves doing something right and continue until we have six episodes that connect, not necessarily conventionally. These will be supported and critiqued in small groups, while weekly exercises get presented to everyone. The course is a sneaky way to get people to write and revise something long over time. People can write fiction or nonfiction, for adults or children, and include poetry, songs, or drawings in their work. 

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Ecopoetry

Open , Seminar—Year

In this poetry class—a yearlong school of poetry and the living world—we will consider the great organism Gaia, of which we are a part. We will read and write poems every week. We will ask questions: When did we begin to think of nature as apart from us? Why did we begin to speak of the animals as if we are not also animals? What are the stories and myths that have determined out attitude toward what we are and what we believe? We will read some of these stories and myths (myths of creation, Eden, the lost garden). We will read the long and rich tradition of poetry addressing itself to this subject, from the early indigenous peoples through the Zen monks and Wordsworth and right up through Gary Snyder and to utterly contemporary poets writing right now. We will read books and articles that teach us about the other animals and living entities that we call plants and trees and planets and galaxies. Each student will research an aspect of the living world and teach the rest of us what they have learned. And we will write poems that incorporate that knowledge. We will read books of poems but also watch films, take field trips, and meet with each other outside of class in weekly poetry dates. By the end of the class, my hope is that each of us will have a greater understanding of the great organism that we call Earth and will create a collection of poems that engage the questions that our class raises: What is time? What is death? What is Eden? Where is the garden now? Who are the other organisms? How have we, as a species, affected the other organisms? How have we affected the oceans, the earth, the air? How can poetry address the planetary emergency? Required for this class: intellectual curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to observe the world, to pay attention, and to write poetry that matters. This is a class for experienced writers, as well as for those who want to give writing poetry a try. All are welcome.

Faculty