FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—Literature and Automatic Invention
Prof. Cipani (Italian Studies) [Syllabus]
Italian poet and futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti once described the ideal creative process as the unforeseen result of a “seemingly severed hand that writes.” The idea of using automatic procedures for literary purposes is not unique to Marinetti’s era. This course aims at outlining a tradition of text-generating methods across genres and time. We will encounter two broad groups of ‘text machines’. The first works on the assumption that certain mental states lead to a hidden repository of higher content. Psychic automatisms, dreams, trance-like states, inner dictation, and glossolalic runs are all means to explore an unconscious ‘other side’ — and often, a hypothetical superior realm mirrored in the hidden self. This ‘inherited automaton’ relies on the mind’s own automatic action. The second type foregrounds a procedural framework of made-up rules and constraints — the construction of a formal apparatus, sometimes very elaborate, of admissible elements and combinations. By running the wheels of such prosthetic automaton, the author seeks to obtain surprising stylistic and narrative results, all the while putting the text in communication with its countless dynamic possibilities. Along with the various contributions to each of these ideal directions — the inner and the outer automaton — the course explores attempts to articulate connections between them. Readings include: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman, William James The Hidden Self, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Freud’s The Creative Writer and Daydreaming, Henry James’s The Jolly Corner, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, Breton’s Soluble Fish, J.L. Borges’ Library of Babel, Stanislaw Lem’s The First Sally, John Cage’s Composition as Process, Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—Utopias and Dystopias
Prof. Becker (Classics) [Syllabus]
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—Meaning
Prof. Barker (Linguistics) [Syllabus]
What is meaning? What has it, and how do the things that have it get it? How has our conception of meaning developed over the centuries? And how do our attitudes towards meaning shape who we think we are? The creation of meaning is one of the supreme activities of the human race. We study the meaning of texts, primarily, but not always, texts involving language, in two different ways: by engaging with philosophers and linguists who have introduced influential ways to think about meaning, from Aristotle to Francis Bacon to Wittgenstein to David Lewis; and by showing how these various conceptions of meaning provide new ways of interpreting important texts, from prehistoric cave paintings to music to comics and computer programs. Finally, we confront the implications of deep learning and neural nets (Siri, Alexa, and the like) for our conception of ourselves. Does the fact that these machines can answer questions accurately mean that the human race no longer has a monopoly on meaning?
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—The Meaning of Life
Prof. Moss (Philosophy) [Syllabus]
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that everyone agrees that there is one ultimate goal in life: living well. What people disagree about, he added, is what living well is. And indeed, from the Buddha in ancient China to psychologists and novelists today, thinkers have had radically different views of what will make a person’s life go well. Should you aim above all for pleasure, physical and emotional? For inner peace? Communion with God? Connection with others? Exercising your strengths in the service of something meaningful? We consider these and other answers by reading and discussing works of religion, philosophy, psychology, and literature. Readings and author include: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Epicurus, Epictetus, Bhagavad Gita, Pali Canon, Ecclesiastes, excerpts from contemporary philosophical and psychological works, Gilgamesh, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Dostoeyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Chopin’s The Awakening, Lu Xun’s Real Story of Ah Q, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Mrs. Sen’s.”
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—The Birth of the Human
Prof. Geroulanos (History) [Syllabus]
We consider the history of a complex and highly popular fantasy that the idea that humanity and modernity can be traced to a prehistoric moment when “the human” was born out of the animal. Supposedly a moment when humanity can be glimpsed at its most basic, today it is most often identified with a movement “out of Africa,” but also with claims about the origin of language, nationalist theories of a communal purity, theories of representation in cave art, and theories about tool use and human posture. This obsession with reconstituting prehistory is closely tied to modern colonialism and racism, postwar universalism, and even anticolonialism, and also speaks ways that European and American intellectuals and scientists produce knowledge about humanity. Because their analytical tools and priorities project this highly speculative moment of a “cradle of humanity” backwards in time, it has often been synonymous, even identical, with the way thinkers have defined humanity, and suffers from ideological and usually fantastical components. Readings include: Genesis, Tacitus’ Germania, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Montaigne’s “On Cannibals,” Condorcet’s Outline of a Historical View of the Progress of Mankind, Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Wagner’s Artwork of the Future, Frazer’s Golden Bough, Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Bataille’s Cradle of Humanity.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—Long History of Cybernetics
Prof. Weatherby (German Studies) [Syllabus]
Derived from the Greek word for “steersman,” “cybernetics" was an interdisciplinary movement of engineers and management experts, philosophers and scientists, who developed the hardware and terminology of the digital world we live in today. Its goal was to recast the full range of scientific and philosophical knowledge with the aim of studying and guiding organized systems—animals, machines, social bodies. Its leading figures drew on a long history of mostly Western philosophical and scientific thought, and their work generated and was inspired by a new kind of literature called “science fiction.” This course is an introduction to this discipline and its deep intellectual roots. We will proceed thematically, starting with the key terms “communication” and “control,” and treating such topics as the computer, the system, the animal, intelligence, and emergence. Readings will include early and second-wave cyberneticians like Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, and Ross Ashby, as well as John von Neumann, Heinz von Foerster, and Humberta Maturana and Francisco Varela. We will construe their concerns in terms of a long intellectual history stretching back to Plato, Kant, and Peirce, among others, complementing these readings with science fiction from Isaac Asimov to Octavia Butler, from Samuel R. Delany to Ursula Le Guin to Neal Stephenson.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—Objectivity
Prof. Gitelman (English) [Sylalbus]
Bias. Spin. Propaganda. Hype. Fake news. These are familiar pejoratives for citizens of the twenty-first century, and by implication they privilege the same alternative: objectivity. Objectivity is a concept—or an ideal—that frames our understanding of pursuits as diverse as politics, journalism, and science, realms in which we hope to be able to discern the right, the true, and the real. But what is objectivity? Whose discernment counts as objective? How can we tell? Questions like these ask us to consider not only what we know but also how, while the conditions of evolving, possessing, and assessing knowledge turn out to be remarkably available to cultural and historical change. We consider the origins and character of objectivity within and against the Western intellectual tradition by considering selected episodes in its emergence, both ancient and modern, asking how thinkers have thought about knowing. What are or have been the available routes to certainty? What standards exist or have existed for knowledge about the past, about the self or about others, and about the world around us? Is it possible that the twenty-first century will involve new forms of objectivity? Are algorithms objective? Readings: Matthew, Thucydides, Plato’s Protagoras and Meno, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, selections from Montaigne, Bird’s Sheppard Lee, Agee and Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—Justice and Injustice in Biblical Narrative and Western Thought
Prof. Weiler (Law) [Syllabus]
Issues of justice and injustice and other normative concerns. Each week pairs a core reading from the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament with another work in the Western tradition to explore a broad range of complex normative issues. Often God will be “on trial”: Was the Deluge genocide? Is Abraham guilty of attempted murder and child abuse? Was Jesus guilty as charged? Was Socrates? The themes are all of relevance to contemporary issues: communal responsibility vs. individual autonomy, ecological crisis, ethics vs. religion, freedom of speech and thought, genocide, rule of law and civil disobedience, the Other, punishment and retribution, religious intolerance, sanctity of human life, sex and gender. Readings include: Aristophanes’ Clouds; Plato’s Apology; Xenophon’s Apology; Sophocles’ Antigone; selections from Hebrew Bible, Christian New Testament, Aristotle, Maimonides, Aquinas, Luther, Kant, Kierkegaard, Mill, Thoreau, Kafka, Camus.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Exile and Belonging in Ancient and Modern Literature
Prof. Waters (Irish Studies)
We consider issues of place and displacement, exile and belonging, individuality and community, and citizen and state, as these are manifest in works of classical and modern literature. Reading widely in a variety of literary forms, we ask how different cultures and societies have created forms of identity through inclusion and exclusion, paying particular attention to enduring philosophical, psychological, and political structures that shape our theme across more than twenty-five centuries. Readings: Exodus, Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Padraig O’Conaire’s Exile, Inaam Kachachi’s American Granddaughter, Moshin Hamid’s Exit West.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—Discovery and Recognition in Narrative, Film, and Drama
Prof. Kennedy (Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies) [Syllabus]
Across all cultures, stories are fashioned to withhold information at first, holding our attention through suspense. They then produce disclosures at crucial moments of denouement. This dynamic movement from ignorance to knowledge, which creates meaning, is deemed essential in the Poetics of Aristotle, especially when it takes the form of the the recognition of something previously unknown. It exists in all literatures independently of Aristotle’s prescriptions. This sort of discovery is essential to both high literature and low, across genres, epochs, and artistic media. Tracing an arc from the ancient world to the present day, we then see how the epistemology of modern storytelling, across cultures, disturbs the familiar patterns of clear and comforting revelation associated (often mistakenly, in fact) with classic genres. Reading: Aristotle’s Poetics; Homer’s Odyssey, Sophocles’ Oedipus; Genesis; Mark, Luke, John; Shakespeare’s King Lear; Arabian Nights; Kalidasa; Recognitions of Shakuntala; Voltaire’s Candide; Dickens’ Great Expectations; Auster’s City of Glass, Mahfouz’ Search; Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, excerpts from The Qur’an. Films: Reed’s Third Man, Axel’s Babette’s Feast, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Altman’s Gosford Park, Nolan’s Memento.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 400, Texts and Ideas: Topics—The Making of the Human in Early China
Prof. Zhang (Comparative Literature) [Syllabus]
Humans are animals of meaning. We constantly seek meaning from inputs we are exposed to. Among these interpretive activities, the most human-specific is the use of language. We study how philosophers and linguists think about how humans use language to encode meaning, create meaning, interpret meaning, do with meaning, and reflect on meaning. We also study how various kinds of media, from pictures and comics to music and computer programs, provide new ways of encoding and interpreting meaning as well as new perspectives on studying meaning. In particular, we discuss the implications of deep learning and neural networks: can machines achieve human-like intelligence and deprive humans of the monopoly of meaning-related activities? Readings include: Aristotle, Frege, Wittgenstein, David Lewis, Montague.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 402, Texts and Ideas: Antiquity & the Renaissance
Prof. Gilman (English) [Syllabus]
The "Renaissance" understands itself as an age bearing witness to the "rebirth" of classical antiquity. In art, philosophy, and literature it also assumes the task of reconciling the cultural inheritance of Greece and Rome with the Christian tradition (itself entering into a moment of crisis as allegiances split between the Catholic church and the "reformed" church of Luther and Calvin). Our first task is to look at antiquity; our second, to explore the ways in which European culture between 1400 and 1700 invents the modern by making itself conversant with the past. Readings: Homer's Odyssey; Sophocles' Antigone; Plato's Phaedo and Symposium; Vergil's Aeneid; Genesis, Exodus, Job, Luke, Acts, John; Augustine's Confessions; Castiglione's Book of the Courtier; Machiavelli's Prince; Erasmus's Praise of Folly; Montaigne's Essays; More's Utopia; Shakespeare's Tempest.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 403, Texts and Ideas: Antiquity & the Enlightenment
Prof. Rubenstein (Hebrew & Judaic Studies) [Syllabus]
Beginning with the collision of the "Judeo-Christian" and Hellenistic traditions and their encounter in the Christian Scriptures and Augustine, we see Enlightenment thinkers grapple with the fusion of these traditions they had inherited, subjecting both to serious criticism and revising them as a new tradition—science and technology—rises to prominence. Reading from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Sophocles, Plato, Augustine, Montesquieu, Pope, Voltaire, and Rousseau.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 404, Texts and Ideas: Antiquity & the 19th Century
Prof. Renzi (Classics)
Contemporary moral psychology: where it came from, where it’s brought us, how we might move beyond it. Readings: Book of J; Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah; Matthew, Galatians; Gospel of Mary; Euripides' Medea; Aristophanes' Clouds; Plato's Apology and Republic; Xenophon's Apology; Augustine's Confessions; Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto; Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling; Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality; Freud's "Case of Miss Lucy R." and Civilization and Its Discontents.
FALL 2021 CORE-UA 404, Texts and Ideas: Antiquity & the 19th Century
Prof. Levene (Classics) [Syllabus]
Every society places demands on individuals: it could not do otherwise and still remain a society. But what happens when those demands are inconsistent? Can—or should—an individual determine the right course of action by reason alone? Or should one simply obey—but then, whom should one obey? What happens when people’s moral judgements differ from the expectations of those around them? How can one maintain a society in the face of such conflicts? From the first moments of Western literature those questions are explored; they became all the more insistent in the unprecedented political, social, intellectual and economic upheavals of the 19th century. One effect was the increasingly central role given to art, seen as the dynamic force able to create a cohesive society. Our study includes Richard Wagner’s remarkable music-drama The Ring of the Nibelung, perhaps the most significant and influential art-work of the era (studied primarily as a text, though there will be opportunities to hear the music as well). Other readings include selections from the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian New Testament, Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato’s Gorgias, Vergil’s Aeneid, poetry by (among others) Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, Wagner’s Art and Revolution, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality.