The motivating concepts and history of aesthetic theory that continue to shape contemporary thought is the focus of these courses. We begin with a review of the Platonic and Neo-Platonic concerns with representation and the social as well as epistemological status of the artwork. An understanding of the developments that led up to Kant allows the class to closely study Kant’s Critique of Judgment, which continues to be a basic work of reference in all thinking about art. This is followed by an investigation of the philosophical complex of thought that Kant’s aesthetics spawned in the writings of Friedrich Schiller and G.W.F. Hegel. The first semester aims to provide an historico-philosophical undergirding for the theoretical and art historical work that follows.
The second semester is an intensive study of the questions of philosophical aesthetics as they develop throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Additional themes include the meaning of the so-called “end of art” debate; theories of the museum; the “art world”; the “New Aesthetic”; varieties of object theory and aesthetics; theories of the sublime; and tactics of subversion (e.g., feminist, vegan, erothanatic impulses on the fringe). We begin with the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger, to be followed by selections from Adorno, Agamben, and Arendt; Sloterdijk and Žižek; and Bataille, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Danto, Derrida, Foucault, and Rancière, among others.
Social Theory, Social Criticism and the Arts I and II
These courses present and carefully examine the structure of contemporary society drawing on close readings of seminal texts in modern social theory and philosophy. We develop in-depth comprehension of modern society and the traditions in social thought and criticism that have considered its antagonistic elements. The first half of the course focuses on the fundamental concepts of the founders of sociology and their development from Hegel to Marx to Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. What distinguishes modern society from other social formations? What insight does this tradition of thought provide into the nature of social action, the comprehension of social artifact and contemporary society?
The second semester amounts to a consideration of particular aspects of modern society in light of the principal debates in current social theory. We study the interconnection of economic and political forms, of modern commerce and state. How do social relations and individual comportment interrelate in modern society? What is the specific function of technology, media and culture industry in its dynamics? The overarching question of the second semester is how social structure at once makes the arts possible and no less structures their crises.
The Arts, Their History, and the United States I and II
These courses are organized around four studies of considerable importance, heft and renown: Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Walter Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Together they provide historically substantive and highly nuanced approaches to art, culture and society. In mastering these four works, students come away with a broad understanding of the entire history of the visual arts; the single most reputed history of literature and its techniques from Homer to Virginia Woolf; a penetrating and unprecedented theory of art — Walter Benjamin’s — that continues to hold a central role in contemporary thought; and knowledge of the most important work written about the United States, whose insights are far from exhausted.
Proseminar 1: The Situation of the Arts — “The Level of the Problem”
I and II
The 19th-century romantic tradition presented art as originating in a moment of spontaneous, intoxicating creation. And while it is true that there would be no art at all without something like inspiration, however reluctant artists might be to discuss that moment, artists, especially of our own times, know that making art presents sets of problems to be solved. The formulation of these problems is certainly distinct in the various media: videographers, painters, dancers, performers, installation artists, novelists, and poets find themselves faced by different kinds of problems. But, over the course of the year, in discussions with a series of carefully selected artists in our seminar room and in their studios, we will see that even in the diversity and close detail of how these artists present what they most have to contend with in their work, it is possible to discern commonalities in the problems that artists now confront and engage. Recognizing these central problems provides us with an optic through which we are able to discern what most of all is taking place in contemporary art and what it in fact means to talk about the “crisis in art today.”
Proseminar 2: The Serious Times Lecture Series — “Why doesn’t the United States make social progress?” I and II
The Serious Times Lecture Series emphasizes the program’s other focus on social reality. The ongoing question of this seminar is: Why doesn’t the United States make social progress? For while there is no doubt that the United States makes considerable technical progress, and while there are certainly achievements in social equality — we have an African-American president, for instance, and several states have legalized same-sex marriage — the society itself, as a whole, fails to progress. Central questions, however, are going unanswered: why 10 million homes have been foreclosed, why the jobless recovery, why this is the nation with the largest prison population, why the continued degradation of the environment, and — most of all — why have efforts to imagine alternative forms of society been abandoned?
The Serious Times Lecture Series is organized as an open seminar in which students and invited guests read recent work by outstanding contemporary social critics and have the opportunity to engage them in discussion. Continuity is maintained through the semester and the year under faculty guidance.
Brown Bag Lecture Series: Psychoanalysis Seminar
Psychoanalysis was the major intellectual revolution of the early 20th century. One measure of this revolution is apparent in considering that psychoanalysis was the first fundamentally new concept of psychology in more than two thousand years—that is, since Aristotle. Its most essential insight—the insight into the primitive in us and in the world around us—not only transformed the arts as a whole, but virtually every area of thought and culture was obliged to respond to the emergence of the new science, whether affirmatively or negatively.
Today, psychoanalysis remains central to critical theory. The Frankfurt School, for instance, is unimaginable without psychoanalytic reflection. And so it makes sense that in universities and colleges wherever critical theory is in one way or another taught, psychoanalytical texts are also broadly read and studied.
But, strangely, the general society-wide aversion in the United States to psychoanalytic practice in popular opinion is an opinion often no less popularly shared in these very same universities where critical theory is taught. A nation that as a whole now fears out loud that the “American Dream” is vanishing, is no less a nation equally certain that dreams themselves cannot possibly bear meaning worth investigating—and this stance is often shared, however tacitly, in the academy.
This has important implications. For the lack of familiarity with the actual clinical practice of psychoanalysis has not only stymied an understanding of what all those psychoanalytical texts are actually about — what experience in fact fills out such bandied about concepts as ‘narcissism,’ and ‘regression’ — but has also blocked understanding of how psychoanalysis was incorporated into critical theory and, perhaps, possible reciprocal development in both psychoanalysis and critical theory.
The program in Critical Theory and the Arts is therefore joined by a psychoanalyst chosen for considerable theoretical achievement in the field and clinical skill who discusses a group of psychoanalytic texts in the light of clinical practice. Many aims converge in this seminar. But one that cannot be covered explicitly in the seminar itself, but is of especial importance to the students in the program, is the potential recognition of the convergence between psychoanalysis and critical theory in the intention of a process that achieves what is non-conceptual by way of concepts.
Brown Bag Lecture Series: Notes on Political Life
The central concepts of political life that continue to shed light on the present are the object of this series of talks. With the aim of gaining insight into the political questions of our times, we consider fundamental aspects of political life by examining the fate of citizenship, political forms, democracy, and political literacy. Thinking through these notions, however distorted they have become in the present, is crucial for a critical understanding of contemporary political predicaments. We attempt to retrieve these concepts, and gain genuine insight from them, in order to think through the overarching concerns of political life and how these mediate the ways we think about the political structures of contemporary society.
The Comprehensive Thesis is the occasion for MA candidates to establish meaningful coherence in their year’s work, to integrate their thinking and research, to find new problems to investigate, and to sketch out plans for their future with faculty and mentors.
Preparation for the Comprehensive Thesis
Preparation for the Comprehensive Thesis begins with the student’s application to the program. Prospective students are asked to describe the issues, problems, curiosity, experiences or conflicts that motivated their application. On acceptance into the program, students begin to expand on these motivations, with the intention of developing four topics that they craft and assemble in preparation for the summer semester work for the Comprehensive Thesis. Students are encouraged to formulate these topics in a way that builds directly on what they have been intensely studying for two semesters. It is an opportunity to remember, organize and develop important thoughts that have arisen during the year, whether in course discussions, readings, or in the student’s own reflections and research. In one of the four topics the student is asked to set out plans for future work, whether it is scholarly or artistic, and thoughts about “what is next” in a way that the faculty can be of help in considering and discussing those plans.
Fulfillment of the Comprehensive Thesis
Once the student has completed the statement of the four topics along with a brief supporting bibliography of the work to be undertaken, and a faculty member has reviewed the statements favorably, the student spends the final semester preparing research. During this period, the student consults with his or her faculty advisor for advice and direction. Over the last two weeks of the semester, students present the Comprehensive Thesis through written response to questions formulated as ‘prompts’ on each of the first three topics. The fourth topic, “What is next?,” is treated as part of a final discussion of the student’s work on the Comprehensive Thesis with selected members of the faculty.