Scenes of Writing: Literature, Media, Technology
This course explores the different, and often surprising, ways in which writing—in all its myriad
forms—has been practiced, conceived and represented in German literature and thought from the
18th to the 20th century. Throughout the semester, we will explore different “scenes of writing,”
from the somnambular écriture automatique of the Age of Goethe to the mechanized typewriting
of classical modernism, and consider how literature’s imperative of dramatizing writing frames
the protocols of communication that guide a given literary work. In conjunction with close
readings of texts by such key figures as Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich
Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger and Franz Kafka, we will examine how their work
opens up different theoretical perspectives onto the practice and presentation of writing in
modernity: as a self-referential symbolic practice; as a form of communication in which memory,
experience, and knowledge are produced, articulated and organized; and as a procedure of
inscription in which language, technology and bodily gesture are inextricably intertwined.
Additionally, we will explore the different ways in which writing has been theorized by
prominent scholars of literary and media theory, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida,
Roland Barthes, Bernhard Siegert, Cornelia Vismann, Vilém Flusser and Friedrich A. Kittler.
Nietzsche and the Poets
This course will explore the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and their significance for the
literature and philosophy of the fin de siècle. In addition to selected texts by Nietzsche—
including, among other works, The Birth of Tragedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and On the
Genealogy of Morality—students will read works of literature, philosophy and aesthetics that
allude in different ways to Nietzsche’s writings. Authors to be discussed include: Thomas Mann,
Rainer Maria Rilke, Gottfried Benn, Wassily Kandinsky and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. While the
course will focus primarily on the exchange between literature, philosophy and aesthetics around
1900, it will also grapple with the complex and often controversial conceptions of power,
morality, aesthetics, finitude and epistemology developed in Nietzsche’s work.
Reading Bodies: Face, Race, and Space in German Thought
The obsession with interpreting moral character based on physical (especially facial) features has endured since antiquity under the name of “physiognomy.” Strangely, interest in this esoteric art exploded during the “Age of Reason,” the Enlightenment, when it first became codified as an empirical science. Starting with the writings of Johann Caspar Lavater, whose monumental Physiognomic Fragments (1775–78) advocated physiognomy as a means of “promoting human understanding and human love,” this course will explore the widespread influence that the art of interpreting physical features had in the intellectual and artistic milieu of the 18th century, and arguably continues to exert in the modern day. We will examine physiognomy in the aesthetic, cultural, literary, and scientific contexts of the German Enlightenment, dealing with such major figures as Lichtenberg, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, and Hegel, as well as its unprecedented boom in popularity around 1900, when it was embraced by many prominent strands of German thought, from the “philosophy of life” (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Spengler) and literary modernism (Rilke, Benn, Döblin) to eugenics, criminology, and racial biology. Topics to be discussed in the course include: the relationship between texts and images, theories and practices of interpretation, modernism and anti-modernism, and the complicity of the arts and sciences in constructing theories of racial difference. All readings and discussions in English.
Kafka: Law, Literature, Power
This course will explore the writings of one of the seminal theorists of power in modernity: Franz Kafka. We will read and discuss Kafka’s descriptions of the modern institutions and apparatuses of power, ranging from the family and the legal systems, to forms of bodily discipline as well as the relations between humans, animals, and machines. Throughout the semester we will consider to what extent Kafka’s literary works—including, among other texts, The Trial, The Castle, and The Metamorphosis—not only depict different kinds of power relations, but also articulate their own theory of power with respect to the complex structures and opaque processes—as well as the terrifying perversions—of modern bureaucratic society.
Myth and Metamorphosis from Ovid to Kafka
“To speak of forms changed into new bodies […] from the very beginning of the world up to my own times.” Thus begins Ovid’s Metamorphosis, whose programmatic opening stanza links the the birth of the world from formlessness and chaos to a narrative principle of transformation and change over time. This course will explore the shifting conceptions of metamorphosis – the transformation of “forms […] into new bodies,” and vice versa – from its mythic origins in Ovid to its modern manifestations and modulations in the works of Goethe, Darwin and Kafka. Throughout the course, we will examine the ambiguous relationship between “forms” and “bodies” in Western thought and how the permutations of this nexus come to bear on a wide variety of different topics in the humanities, including myths and theories of changing forms in nature; dynamic representations of gender, sexuality and erotics; as well as figures of hybridity and the grotesque (human-animal hybrids, beasts and monstrosities). More broadly, the course will explore the porous interfaces between ancient and modern poetics, myth and modernity, as well as the arts and sciences.
Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles
Taught in English. After Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, Los Angeles became an unlikely cultural sanctuary for thousands of German artists and intellectuals who fled the Nazi regime. Many of these German expatriates ultimately settled in the U.S., where—simultaneously attracted and alienated by their new surroundings—they made a significant impact on American culture. During their years in exile, they would produce a substantial body of major works, in which Weimar Germany and its culture—with its mix of 18th-century classicism and 20th-century modernism—served as a key reference point. This seminar will explore German Exile Culture in Los Angeles, spanning film (Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder), architecture (Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler), literature (Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger), and philosophy (Adorno, Horkheimer). Based on the aesthetic and conceptual specificities of cultural phenomena, class discussions will focus on the relations between art and politics, modernist and mass culture, art and capitalism, culture and democracy.
Keeping it Brief: Small Forms of German Lit & Philosophy
Small forms cover the broad field from aphorisms, epigrams, fables and riddles to anecdotes, jokes, short stories and novellas. In each of these forms, smallness unfolds in different and historically-specific ways. From the aphorisms of the 19th century to the Twitter updates of today, the seminar will explore the poetics and pragmatics of small forms in German literature, philosophy, and contemporary social media. Questions to be discussed in the course include: What can small mean at the level of (literary) form? What kind of readings does small form facilitate? Which does it thwart? To what extent does small form gain epistemological significance with respect to the critique of systematic philosophy? And what can its contemporary manifestation in the form of social media “microformats” such as tweets, blog posts, and Vine videos inform us about condensation, narration and knowledge in the present? Readings include Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Nietzsche, Kafka, Walser, Benjamin, and Twitter.
“To Be Continued”: The Serial Impulse in Literature & Other Media
Ever since the emergence of serialized formats of fiction in the 19th century, the phrase “to be continued” has left readers in a state of suspense. This course will examine the aesthetics and practices of seriality from the mid-19th century to the present. We will consider how the concept of seriality, as a common logic underlying mass media production, and the series as a distinct form of open-ended composition, articulate themselves in different historical periods and in different media (literature, art, television, film). Questions to be discussed include: How does serialization serve to heighten suspense or defer narrative closure? How do series simultaneously form an interconnected whole, while also maintaining the standalone character of the parts? Throughout the course, we will reflect on these questions as we more explore the broader tension between seriality as a popular- or mass-cultural phenomenon and as an experimental technique of the avant-garde. Course material includes Goethe, Dickens, Poe, Kafka, Benjamin, Deleuze, Warhol, Eco, "The Perils of Pauline" (1914), and Twin Peaks (1990-91).