The Modern and the Postmodern - WesFiles

M. S. Roth
[email protected]
The Modern and the Postmodern
HIST, CHUM and COL 214: Spring 2014
MW, 11:00 am – 12:20 pm
In this course we shall examine how the idea of "the modern" develops at the end of the
18th century, and how being modern (or progressive, or hip) became one of the crucial
criteria for understanding and evaluating cultural change during the last two hundred
years. We shall be concerned with the relations between culture and historical change, and
our materials shall be drawn from a variety of areas: philosophy, the novel, and critical
theory (with possible forays into music, painting, and photography). Finally, we shall try to
determine what it means to be modern today, and whether it makes sense to go beyond the
modern to the postmodern.
The Modern and the Postmodern traces the intertwining of the idea of modernity with the
idea of art or culture from the late 18th century until the present. Beginning with the
Enlightenment, Western cultures have invested heavily in the notion that the world can be
made more of a home for human beings through the development of culture (and
technology). Throughout this period there has also developed a strong, sophisticated
counter-movement that sees the Enlightenment effort as a disaster – destructive of both art
and of the world.
The Western idea of modernity is linked to but not the same as the idea of modernism. We
will examine both in this class and then consider postmodernism in relation both to the
philosophical idea of modernity and to the aesthetic considerations of modernism.
This course covers a lot of ground, historically, conceptually and aesthetically. There is
much to read, and very different kinds of reading: from philosophy to novels, from theory to
poetry. Not all students will like all the reading, but if you digest it all, you should have a
clearer sense of the cultural history of our present. There will also be musical and visual
material presented in class or in special sessions.
There are five books for sale at Broad Street Books: Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary,
Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen, Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse, Sigmund Freud,
Civilization and its Discontents, and Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The
other readings are available on the library’s electronic reserve or on the Moodle site for this
course. There are links to several of the texts online, and we provide some of those on
Learning Goals
Students should develop a historical, literary and philosophical understanding of some of
the key themes of modernity and modernism in the West. They should learn to read classic
and contemporary texts for their arguments, beauty and pertinence. They should see why
these texts are “good to think with,” and, it is hoped, they will develop an appetite for
further study in the areas covered by the course.
Class Responsibilities:
Students are expected to come to class having read carefully the material for that day. They
must arrive in class on time, and (except under extraordinary circumstances) they should
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not exit the room before the end of class. Students will often find it helpful to bring copies of
the text to class, since many of the lectures build on quotations from the assignments.
Students will also be responsible for helping to direct class discussion by posting, every
week, a response to the reading via the Moodle site for the course. These responses may be
in the form of questions about the reading or as a personal reaction to the reading that
would be useful or provocative for class discussion. They should begin with a short
quotation from the reading that prompts your response and be approximately 100 words
long. The class will be divided into “blog groups” of about 10 students each. After you have
posted a comment or question to the group, you will be able to comment on the posts of
other students.
You should also register for the online version of this class, which is offered in conjunction
with Coursera. In addition to posting your comment on the Moodle page for the on-campus
class, you should post to the discussion boards in the Coursera class every week. You may
use the same post.
There will be three exams in this class. The exams will have two parts: the first will be short
answers to be completed in class, and the second will be essays to be written at home.
Grades will be based on the following: Exam 1: 20%; Exam 2: 25%; Final Exam: 40%;
Moodle-Coursera posts/class participation: 15%. Kate Brackney will be the grader for this
course, and she will distribute a guide to grading early in the semester. Prof. Roth will read
and re-grade any exam upon the request of the student.
In addition to the exams, you have the choice of developing a research paper for the course.
This is optional (recommended for students using this course in their major). If you choose
to do a research paper, you should plan for it to be about 12 pages long, and you should
discuss the topic with Prof. Roth in advance. Proposals for the papers should be submitted
before Spring break. Research papers will be due at the end of the semester. For those who
write the paper, the grades will be composed of the following components: Exam 1: 10%;
Exam 2: 20%; Final Exam: 30%; Paper: 30%, and Moodle posts/class Participation: 10%.
Late papers or exams will have their grades reduced by one letter grade for each day they
are late. The only exception is for medical reasons (requested in advance with
Honor Code: All work handed in for this course must comply with the Wesleyan honor
code. You must take responsibility for your own work and cite the work of others. If you
have any questions about plagiarism or about how the honor code applies to your work,
please see either Profs. Roth or Brackney, or consult the Student Handbook.
Students with Disabilities: It is the policy of Wesleyan University to provide reasonable
accommodations to students with documented disabilities. Students, however, are responsible for
registering with Disabilities Services, in addition to making requests known to me in a timely
manner. If you require accommodations in this class, please make an appointment with Prof.
Roth as soon as possible, so that appropriate arrangements can be made. The procedures for
registering with Disabilities Services can be found at
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Week I: January 27, 29 — Introduction: Modernity and its Discontents
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” (1750)
Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” (1784)
Week II: Feb 3, Feb 5 — What is Enlightenment?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality” (1755)
Week III: Feb 10, 12 — From Enlightenment to Revolution
Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor” from 1844 Manuscripts:
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)
Begin reading Madame Bovary (Modern Library, trans. Lydia Davis)
Week IV: Feb 17th and 19th — Modernism and Art for Art’s Sake
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1856)
Review Session: Tuesday, Feb 18th, 8:30 pm
First Part of Exam and Take Home Due: Friday, Feb 21
Week V: Feb 24 and Feb 26 — Re-Imagining the World
Charles Darwin, “Struggle for Existence,” “Natural Selection” and “Sexual Selection” from
The Origin of Species (6th edition). (1st ed 1859)
Darwin, “Conclusion” from The Descent of Man. 1871
Week VI: March 3 and March 5 — From Struggle to Intensity
Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen (1857-1867)
Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, essay 2. (1887)
Week VII: March 24, March 26 — Intensity and the Ordinary: Sex, Death, Aggression
and Guilt
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (1930)
Week IX: March 31 and April 2 — Intensity and the Ordinary: Art, Loss, Forgiveness
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
First Part of Exam and Take Home Due: April 7
Week X: April 7 — The Postmodern Everyday
EMERSON, “Experience” or “Self-Reliance” (1844, 1841)
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Selections from Philosophical Investigations (1953)
EVENING CLASS this week to substitute for April 9
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Week XI: April 14, 16 — From Critical Theory to Postmodernism
Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Concept of Enlightenment” (1947)
Michel Foucault, selections from Madness and Civilization (1964)
“What is Enlightenment?,” Foucault Reader (1984)
Week XII: April 21, 23 — Fictions of the Future and the Past
Review and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982).
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home 2006
Jennifer Egan “Ask Me if I Care,” The New Yorker (March 8, 2010):
Jennifer Egan, “Out of Body” from A Visit from the Goon Squad
_____, “Black Box,”
Week XIII: April 28 and 30 — Postmodern Identities
Judith Butler, "Introduction" from Undoing Gender (2004)
Slavoj Žižek, “You May!” London Review of Books, vol. 21 (March 1999)
Week XIV: May 5 and 7 — Postmodern Pragmatisms
Rorty, “Postmodern Bourgeois Liberalism” (1983) and Cornel West, “Prophetic
Pragmatism” (1999) from Pragmatism: A Reader.
Anthony Appiah, “Cosmopolitan Contamination” from Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a
World of Strangers (2006), 101-113.
Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of
Concern,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter, 2004), pp. 225-248.
FINAL EXAMINATION: Friday, May 16th.