Seminar in Life Writing

Cynthia Franklin

ENG 764/1 (LSE/CSAP)

Thurs., 6:30-9 pm


Seminar in Life Writing

The Human in Crisis: Life Narratives as Sites of Struggle. This course addresses the slippery status of the human and the political power and ethical stakes that accompany our understandings of how humanity is defined, and who it does—and does not—include. To investigate this question—currently a pressing one in the humanities—we consider life writing texts in conjunction with contemporary theory that takes up the questions of the human. The course engages with texts and concerns central to a number of different fields: life writing, human rights, affect studies, queer studies, Afro-pessimism, studies of race and ethnicity, indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, (post-) humanism, trauma studies, and civility studies. You should emerge with some fluency in these fields.

The life writing texts we will read are ones that occasion or are produced in response to a public scandal that throws the question of the human into crisis. As we read these texts, we consider how life writing narratives can be mobilized to resist as well as support forms of dehumanization that are key to the everyday workings of society. The course will be divided into three sections; each focuses on individual stories that bring public awareness to forms of dehumanization that are central to the structure and everyday workings of civil society. The life narratives we study provide insights into the possibilities and limitations of addressing various forms of dehumanization through eliciting readers’ affective engagements with narratives about an individual human’s life, and sometimes death.

The introductory section of the course will feature readings that take up theoretical challenges of defining the human, and the possibilities and limits of employing different frameworks (legal, human-rights based, humanistic) to counter human rights abuses. Then, in Section 1 we will consider texts that engage the spate of police or security guard killings of Black men and the M4BL that arose in response to this state violence, as well as the concurrent development in the academy of Afro-pessimist thought. Section 2 will consider, through study of Katrina narratives, the significance of those in New Orleans whose lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were so disregarded by the US. We will also consider texts in the Pacific that concern climate change in relation to racism and colonialism. In Section 3, we will explore how Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians, and US support for them, depend upon casting Palestinians either as terrorists or as non-existent, and we will read life narratives that counter this dehumanization.

As we consider life writing texts that illuminate the humanity—and inhumanity—that these cases involve, we will explore the particular power life writing has to define and complicate understandings of the human. We will consider why some autobiographical or biographical genres are more given over to some subjects than to others. We also will think about how these various life writing texts articulate with the theoretical and critical texts we read—what can theory do that life writing texts cannot, and vice versa? And how do the life writing texts support, but also at times challenge and rework, theoretical formulations? We will conclude the course by considering how the texts and the situations we have studied might inform or be informed by attention to other forms and genres of dehumanization, especially those relating to gender and sexuality.


Assignments: Weekly letters to the class, two of them focused on events attended outside of class that relate to its themes (20%). Class presentation + accompanying handout (15%). Brief (5-page) analysis of a text (15%). Seminar paper (~15 pages) and proposal, annotated bibliography, and outline of the paper (45%). This paper may combine autobiographical narrative as well as analysis of the life narratives we have studied. Presentations of the final paper (5%).


Student Learning Outcomes:

  1. Through our interdisciplinary focus, you will gain a greater “understanding of the discipline of English and its relationship to other disciplines.”
  2. Through written and oral assignments, you will develop your ability to place your own scholarly work within broader critical conversations and to contribute to these conversations by conducting independent research.
  3. Through oral presentations, you will gain experience delivering concise, informed, focused, and thought-provoking presentations to peers in the field.


Required Texts (tentative listing):

Atef Abu Saif, The Drone Eats with Me

Ta-nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Patrisse Cullors, When They Call You a Terrorist

Alan Rickman, ed., My Name Is Rachel Corrie

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Norma Hashim (ed), Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Steven Salaita, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom


Films/videos (tentative listing):

Ryan Coogler (dir.), Fruitvale Station

Ava DuVernay (dir.), Selma

Kathy Dede Neien Jetnil-Kijiner, “Dear Matafele Peinem”

Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (dirs.), Trouble the Water

Raoul Peck (dir.), I Am Not Your Negro


Partial list of secondary readings: selections from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem; Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender (2004); selections from Biography’s special issues in 2012 on “Post Human Lives” (2012), “Life in Occupied Palestine” (2014) and “M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives” (2019); selections from Noura Erakat’s Justice for Some (2019); selections from Samera Esmeir’s Juridical Humanity (2012); Esmeir’s “On Making Dehumanization Possible” (2006); Cynthia Franklin’s “Narrative Humanity and Post-9/11 Dehumanization: Zeitoun as Case Study”’; introduction to Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection; writings on Afro-Pessimism and Afro-Optimism by Fred Moten, Jared Sexton, and Frank Wilderson III; selections from Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake; selected writings by Sylvia Wynter