The question of what makes someone a
human being might seem like an obvious or commonsense one, but in fact the
status of the human is complex and politically charged. The question of who or
what is human is also far from an abstract or purely philosophical one. Whether
individuals or groups are accorded human status can determine whether they live
or die, and whether they have access to the most basic of human rights.
Biographies, autobiographies, and other life writing texts play an important
role in defining what is human, and in contesting exclusionary definitions of
the human. In this course, we will read a variety of life writing texts in
order to consider the slippery status of the human and the political and
ethical stakes of how humanity is defined.
The texts that we will read represent “limit
cases,” ones that address crises in what it means to be human. Each of the
course’s three sections focuses on one of the limit cases. Section 1 will
explore how the Nazi camps unsettled understandings of the human for both the
prisoners and for those complicit in the camps’ existence. Section 2 will
examine people(s) rendered as “terrorists” or as completely
“other” by the U.S. government in the conflict in the Middle East,
with particular attention to the post-9/11 “war on terror.” We also
will investigate the status of the governments as well as individuals that are
complicit in the dehumanization of individuals and entire groups of people. Section
3 takes up contemporary cases in the United States of transgendered
youth and those who have committed hate crimes against them. Throughout the
semester, we will investigate connections among the three sections and explore
how life narratives can expose exclusionary conceptualizations of the human and
challenge–on ethical and legal grounds–violence-inducing human/inhuman
As we consider life writing texts that illuminate the
humanity—and inhumanity—that these cases involve, we will explore the
particular power of life writing.
We also will consider why some life writing genres are more given over
to some subjects than to others. To aid our investigations, we will read some
theoretical writing about the human, humanism, and life writing.
Assignments: A short essay (5-6 pages) and a
term paper (10-12 pages). A few
short writing assignments and several quizzes. A presentation. Group journals. Attendance is mandatory; missed classes will negatively
impact your grade.
Texts (to be ordered through Revolution Bookstore): Hannah
Arendt, EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM; Primo Levi, SURVIVAL IN AUSCHWITZ; Art
Spielgelman, MAUS 1: A SURVIVOR’S TALE: MY FATHER BLEEDS HISTORY; Juliana
Spahr, THIS CONNECTION OF EVERYONE WITH LUNGS; Rachel Corrie, Alan Rickman, and
Katherine Viner, MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE; David Potorti, SEPTEMBER 11th
FAMILIES FOR PEACEFUL TOMORROWS.
Videos (to be placed on reserve in Sinclair Library
or viewed on YouTube): Aknieszka Holland (director), A GIRL LIKE ME:
THE GWEN ARAUJO STORY; Kimberly Peirce, director, BOYS DON’T CRY (film); Susan Muska
and Gréta Olafsdóttir, directors, THE BRANDON TEENA STORY (documentary); Gwen
Araujo memorial websites.
Reader including authors such as the following: Giorgio
Agamben, Judith Butler, Ward Churchill, Edward Said, Judith Halberstam.