Sem Life Writing (Humans & Humanism) (CSAP/LSE)

This course will address 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 will read memoirs and
biographies in conjunction with contemporary theory that takes up the question
of the human. This course will reinforce and advance your readings in literary
and cultural theory, and allow you to engage in advanced research methods and
independent research.

The life writing texts we will read
are ones that represent various “limit cases” that throw the question
of the human into crisis. The course will be divided into four sections; each
focuses on one of the limit cases. Section
will explore how the Nazi camps destabilized understandings of the human
both in terms of those who died in or survived them, as well as in terms of
those who engineered and ran the camps. This section will include Hannah
Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Primo
Levi’s memoir about Auschwitz, Art Spiegelman’s graphic narrative Maus, and
Giorgio Agamben’s meditation on Auschwitz. 
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 position of states as well as individuals that are complicit in this
dehumanization.  In this section, we will
consider, for example, how Edward Said’s memoir Out of Place seeks to humanize Palestinians that the U.S.
government and media dehumanize, as the memoir also implicitly challenges
designations of Said as “the Professor of Terror.” Through a reading
of Juliana Spahr’s lyric poetry, we will look to how she not only counters the
brutal “us/them” binaries that the “war on terror”
mobilizes, but also how she conceptualizes what we might call a
“posthuman” humanism. Section
will consider the significance of those in New Orleans whose lives in the
wake of Hurricane Katrina were so disregarded by the U.S. government and by the
broader U.S. citizenry, as well as what it means to treat human lives with such
disregard.  Theory that also provides
historical context will be placed in dialogue with Dave Eggers’ biographical
narrative, Zeitoun, and the documentary films Trouble the Water
and When the Levees BrokeSection
takes up contemporary cases in the United States of transgendered or gay
youth (Gwen Araujo, Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena) and those who have
committed hate crimes against them.  In
this section we will analyze a tv movie (A
Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story
), a documentary (The Brandon Teena Story), a feature film (Boys Don’t Cry), a play (The
Laramie Project
), and memorial websites to explore how gay and transgender
identities expose—and can challenge—exclusionary conceptualizations of the
human. Throughout the semester, we will investigate connections among the four
sections—for example, in section 2, we will read Ward Churchill’s essay on 9/11
in relation to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann
in Jerusalem
to think about how Churchill makes use of Arendt’s Eichmann,
and how their deployments of “the banality of evil” are alike and
different in the ways that they approach the human/inhuman divide. Or, as we
read Zeitoun, we will think about how the “war on terror” and its
Islamophobia converge with responses to Hurricane Katrina and anti-black

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 theoretical writing about the human and
humanism—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?

REQUIREMENTS:  The course will be run as a seminar.  Weekly required letters to the class on the
readings will help determine the shape of class discussion and will comprise
15% of the final grade.  Once during the
semester, students will present on a text of their choice (worth 10%). Students
will also write a short (5-page) analysis of one of the texts (worth ~10%), and
a seminar paper (approximately 20 pages, worth ~60%). Everyone will give brief
presentations of their final papers at the end of the semester.

(ordered through Revolution Books):

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Part

Judith Butler, Precarious

Alan Rickman, ed., My Name Is Rachel Corrie

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with

Moises Kaufmann and the Tectonic Theater Company, The Laramie


Spike Lee (director), When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (directors), Trouble the

Aknieszka Holland (director), A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story

Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir (directors), The Brandon
Teena Story

Peirce (director), Boys Don’t Cry

Memorial websites on Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepherd,
and Gwen Araujo

will include but not be
limited to selections from Giorgio Agamben, Remnants
of Auschwitz;
Churchill, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”;
selections from Saree Makdisi, Palestine
Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation
; a selection from Jaspir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages; selections from Edward Said, Out of Place; Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Fatal
Couplings of Power and Difference”; a selection from Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death; selections
from American Quarterly61.3
(Sept. 2009), special issue on Katrina; selections from Judith Butler, Undoing Gender;Judith Halberstam,
“The Transgender Look”