Hannah Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th Century, and her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) is habitually invoked as one of the century’s most important works of nonfiction.  In addition, after Trump’s election, amazon.com sold out of copies, which Hannah Gold of jezebel.com has called “extremely metal.”

The aim of this class is to provide entry to Arendt’s thought and to the history and theory of totalitarianism by way of a close reading of her seminal work and some of its historical and philosophical intertexts.   Origins addresses topics like the rise of anti-semitism and race thinking in 19th Century Europe, mass politics, propaganda, mob-elite alliances, the concentration camp, and terror as a mode of government.  We will consider it in light of some of the leading thinkers of Arendt’s time attracted to authoritarianism, such as Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, and Giovanni Gentile.  Time permitting, we will also consider the extension of Arendt’s work in her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), and its reception in postwar arguments about Zionism, Nazi criminality, and the Cold War.  Throughout, we will ask, what is Arendt good for?  In particular, can Arendt’s work help us understand contemporary movements in the United States and Europe that explicitly or implicitly seek a renovation of totalitarian rule?

The Psychoanalytic Tradition

Is Freud dead?  Is Freud wrong?  Is Freud German?  Is Freud bullshit?  These are the questions Google autocompleted for me when prompted with the entry “Is Freud ...”  They are therefore, arguably, the questions the near-present considers most immediate about Freud and the psychoanalytic movement he spawned.  They may or may not be “good questions,” “informed questions,” “insightful questions,” or “scholarly questions,” but they are certainly interesting ones, insofar as they suggest we live in an age tempted to defend itself against the claims of psychoanalysis by relegating them to the dung-heap of history dead, wrong, German bullshit.  On some counts, that dung-heap is a tall one!  Whether psychoanalysis belongs there, however, is an issue we’ll have to decide for ourselves.

The historical aim of this class is to garner a sense for how the psychoanalytic tradition inaugurated changes in what we mean when we call ourselves human beings.  To this end, the course stages several, cumulative encounters between the psychoanalytic tradition and you.   Roughly speaking, the first half of the course provides an overview of Freud’s thought, especially as it evolved in the context of clinical practice.  Here, the main aim will be to consider how influential ideas about the unconscious, love and sexuality, dreams, fantasy, and the organization of the psyche developed in response to the peculiar kind of suffering Freud called neurosis.  The second half of the course asks what is to be learned by situating psychoanalytic thought in its scientific, cultural, and social contexts, and by following its international dispersion in the work of those who extended (and revised) Freud’s ideas in ways he did not foresee.

There are also extra-historical aims of this class, though to call them aims may be a misnomer.  Hopes or wishes would be better.  First, I hope you will leave the course with an ability to dwell with ideas you find boring, discomfiting, bizarre, outrageous, even threatening, and to do so with a sense of interpretive charity for those who hold to them.  Second, I hope you will develop an appreciation for just how radical the act of listening to another human being can be, and how rarely it happens.  Last, I hope you will leave the course with a feeling of wonder about what it means to say to another person: “I love you.”


Dreaming the 20th Century

Every night, just about every human on the planet enters an altered state of mind characterized by wild hallucinations sometimes thought to reveal the deep truths of the universe.  Still, for something so common, dreaming is remarkably intractable to historical inquiry, in part because there is little agreement on what dreams are and on how or if they mean anything at all.  The aim of this class is to consider two questions: what kinds of histories can we write with dreams?  and, how can we use the history of approaches to dreams to shed light on the history of modern psychological thinking?  The class will begin with a close reading of Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1900), and will situate it and other major approaches to dream interpretation in their historical contexts.  We will then consider some exemplary collections of dreams dreamt under different regimes of control, including dreams under the Third Reich, the dreams of colonized peoples, the dream life of consumer capitalism, and dreams in the era of Big Data.

Whole Earths, Globalizations, World Pictures

Hear the words “Earth” or “world” or “globe” and the image likely to flash through the mind is a photo known as “Blue Marble” (1972), which reveals the disk of our terracqueous planet suspended alone in the void. It is reputed to be the most widely disseminated photograph in human history, and together with other views of the Earth from beyond has prompted a revolution in the global imagination. The aim of this seminar is to assess the plausibility of that claim, by situating these images in their diverse historical contexts. These contexts include the history of man’s imaginative self-projection into the beyond from ancient times to our day; how the “whole earth” image has been mobilized by environmental campaigns, political movements, and commercial enterprises; how the view of Earth has figured in economics (“globalization theory”), aesthetics (earth art, architecture, mapping and visualization techniques), anthropology, philosophy and the natural sciences (the Gaia hypothesis, the Biosphere projects, earth systems science); and how this pictorial imaginary has become integrated into the unthought ways we inhabit our natural and human-built worlds – what has happened once its ubiquity meant that we ceased, in a fashion, to see it. Arrangements will be made to enable students to explore new media and research tools for analysis and presentation, should they wish to do so.

The course involves historical inquiry, but is by its nature interdisciplinary, and will benefit from the expertise of students in disciplines such as anthropology, biology, economics, art history and studio art, religion, political science, chemistry, physics, the literatures, and others. Students from outside departments are therefore highly encouraged to join.

Technology and Social Thought in 20th Century Europe

“The fully enlightened Earth radiates disaster triumphant.” So the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued in 1944, just before Hiroshima provided an eerily literal proof. Their unease was shared by many. Something about man’s attempt to master the world by technological means had gone seriously awry. This course will examine how European intellectuals of the twentieth century revisited notions of culture, nature, politics, economics and religion as part of a wide-ranging reassessment of the modern age prompted by the rise of technocracy.

The narrative of the course proceeds in roughly chronological order, albeit with deviations in the service of thematic coherence. We begin by laying bare two of the foundational discourses underwriting much, if not most, of the reflection on the topic of technology and modernity: the modern reconfiguration of the art/nature relation and the rise of instrumental reason. We then consider how these notions played out in three of the most important philosophical statements on technology produced in the twentieth century—those of Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse. We will then turn to several empirical studies inspired by these philosophers centered on technologies of death. The course concludes with a broad look at the “new organicism” that emerged as an alternative to a discredited industrial paradigm, and with a more concentrated look at the controversies regarding our (allegedly) posthuman future unleashed in part by the rise of “technologies of life”—namely, eugenics and genetic engineering.

1968: Origins, Actions, Afterlives

A global revolution or an interpretation in need of an event? 1968 has been characterized as both and much in between. This course situates the tumultuous events of the late-1960s in a broader story about the evolution and transformation of movements for social change in Europe and the U.S. following the Second World War. We will trace its intellectual roots in debates about decolonization, civil rights, the welfare-state and the cold war. We will also pursue some of its legacies: left-wing terrorism, the global environmental movement, the neo-conservative reaction, and the myth of the 1960s itself. Reading includes memoirs, manifestos, political philosophy and social thought, complemented by classic secondary accounts, music and film.

Histories of Life in the Liberal Era

The aim of this research seminar is to use the conceptual tools developed by a series of seminal intellectuals to investigate cultural, social, and scientific practices pertaining to biological life in the twentieth century. These might include arguments about biotechnology, about the extension of legal personhood to natural objects, about patent claims over living species, about the regulation and production of seeds, about the development of organic agriculture, about the incorporation of natural objects into our systems of political representation, about bioethics, bioart, zoos, indigenous property rights (plants), bioprospecting, and the administration of human populations as if they were living organisms (biopolitics)--to name just a few. Notwithstanding their diversity, these phenomena all played out against the backdrop of liberal systems of jurisprudence, politics, property rights, and ethics. Hence, the modern liberal era, rather than specific geographic locales, will serve as a proximate historical context for our investigations. Please consult the instructor for further details.

An Intellectual History of Animals

This class traces the history of the relation between man and animal, principally as it has emerged in Western thought. It poses a series of questions. What does it mean to be an animal? How have our answers to this question figured in the development of our moral, political and religious traditions? How have we made recourse to the notion of animality to make sense of what it means to be human? What could it possibly mean for an animal to be free? What is the historical and conceptual relation between animal liberation and human liberation? How have these issues played out in practices such as zookeeping, husbandry, slaughter, sex, consumption, companionship, ritual, jurisprudence, or dressing your dog in silly little sweaters? These are some of the foremost questions broached by the burgeoning academic field of “animal studies,” and we will address them by means of primary source readings, complemented by secondary readings and the occasional film.

Social Action in the Twentieth Century

This course considers competing notions of freedom articulated by movements for social change as they evolved over the course of the twentieth century (in Europe above all). It proceeds from the crisis of liberalism and the advent of communist, fascist and authoritarian alternatives, to the mid-century rise of the welfare state, to decolonization and liberation movements in the post-war period fueled by concerns with gender, race and the non-human, and finally to some attempts to rearticulate the liberal project for the 21st century. Readings include texts from John Dewey, Lenin, Luxembourg, Trotsky, Giovanni Gentile, Carl Schmitt, Fanon, Marcuse, Foucault, Peter Singer, and Richard Rorty.

Liberalism and its Critics: A Genealogy of Political Thought

This course pursues the intellectual history of the last few centuries by thematizing the problem of liberalism. We will consider core ideas in the tradition of liberal political thinking as well as an array of critical alternatives to that tradition with a view to constructing a genealogy of modern political thought. The aim of the course is not to convince you of the plausibility of the arguments of either the liberals or their critics. Rather, it is to get you to see that there are important disagreements about the very first principles that structure our political lives, how they emerged historically, and that it is possible to engage in reasoned debate about these things. Citizens need to be able to do this.

Readings include works by Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Wollstonecraft, Benjamin Constant, JS Mill, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt. These will be supplemented by secondary sources designed to illuminate the historical contexts in which these figures wrote.

The Problem of Western Prosperity: Political Economy in History and Theory

Why is prosperity a problem? This course surveys the development of modern political economy in search of an answer: from its beginnings in eighteenth-century liberal thought to the radical permutations prompted by the industrial revolution and finally to some of its twentieth-century, post-industrial incarnations. The bulk of the course considers in historical context the work of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. We will also explore their contemporary relevance by considering more recent debates about neo-liberal globalization, labor rights and practices, capitalism and religion, and the relationship between wealth and democracy.

Germany: 1918-1945

This course is designed to introduce students to some of the major themes and problems posed by the historical study of Germany between the World Wars and beyond: the German defeat in WWI, the ill-fated left-wing revolution, the advent of the Weimar Republic and its attendant crises, the interwar explosion of cultural and intellectual activity, the rise and development of National Socialism, World War II, the Holocaust, and some attempts to “master the past” in its aftermath. The course also broaches a number of issues of more global concern: what does it mean to live in a time of political crisis and existential dislocation? what does it mean—literally and ethically—to come to terms with a morally troublesome past? how do interpretations of this period of German history continue to underwrite claims about the nature of modernity itself? Last, the course thematizes throughout the practice of historical inquiry and representation: what does it mean to represent in historical or literary language the horror of an event (the Holocaust) that for some defies representation altogether? what are the problems with teleological (ie, end-directed) explanations? does the writing of history carry with it any intrinsic form of responsibility, whether to the past, present, future, or something called truth? Reading consists of primary and secondary sources, supplemented by music and film

Theology and the European Imagination Between the World Wars

This seminar explores the theological dimension of European intellectual life between the world wars. It will address innovations in theological thinking, but also their resonance in political, legal, aesthetic, philosophical, historical, anthropological, and natural-scientific discourses. The aims are several: to understand how notions of the divine underwrote some of the major cultural undertakings of the early twentieth-century, and to reconsider the problem of secularization. What do we mean when we say we live in a secular (worldly) world? When did we (or the western intellectual tradition) begin to make this claim, and why? What does it mean that talk of God has not only endured, but flourished in this worldly world of ours? To get at these questions, we will read selections from a spectrum of interwar thinkers: from Protestants (Adolf von Harnack, Rudolf Otto, Friedrich Gogarten, Karl Barth), from Jews (Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Franz Rosenzweig, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin), and from figures who creatively transformed the Catholic tradition (Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Georges Bataille, Hugo Ball)—all with an eye to the trans-confessional and inter-disciplinary character of their parallel efforts.

Modern Jewish History

This course serves as an introduction to the major themes of modern Jewish life in Europe from the middle of the seventeenth century to its postmodern present: among them marranism and the Sabbatian controversies, Enlightenment and emancipation, the advent of reform, conservative, neo-orthodox, and hasidic modes of religious expression, anti-semitism and the Holocaust, Zionism and other forms of Jewish nationalism, the establishment of Israel and postwar Jewish life in the diaspora. The course adopts an avowedly pluralistic tack, and asks what is to be learned by setting Jewish experience in Western, Eastern, and Southern Europe in comparison, before turning to the events of the late-19th and 20th centuries that transformed them all.

Modern European Humanities, 1750-1950