English 190

Research Seminar: Materialism: Ancient and Modern


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Fall 2015 Goldsmith, Steven
MW 11-12:30 301 Wheeler

Book List

Byron, Lord: Don Juan; Homer: The Iliad; Lucretius: The Nature of Things; Melville, Herman: Moby-Dick, or The Whale

Description

“As human beings we inhabit an ineluctably material world. We live our everyday lives surrounded by, immersed in, matter . . . Our existence depends from one moment to the next . . . on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday life. In light of this massive materiality, how could we be anything other than materialist?” So write the editors of a recent collection of essays on New Materialisms (2010). The aim of this seminar is to consider how four monumental literary texts, ancient and modern, reckon with “this massive materiality.” For our purpose, “ancient” means Homer (The Iliad) and Lucretius (The Nature of Things), and “modern” means the nineteenth century: Byron’s comic masterpiece Don Juan and Melville’s anything-but-comical Moby-Dick. Concentrating on these four texts will allow us to examine the possibility of an epic materialism, one that—in the absence of spiritual, divine, or metaphysical principles—minimizes human mastery and instead strives to convey a comprehensive range of worldly forces: bodily, physical, environmental, technical, economic, and political. Some through-lines in our seminar will be: violence (and especially war) as an all-encompassing material condition; the role of empirical observation and description in rendering the material world; the materiality of the literary object, itself subject to copying, piracy, deterioration, and repurposing. As time permits, we will also raise questions about the “new materialisms” in criticism and philosophy, reading essays by Weil, Althusser, Greenblatt, Harman, Bennett, and Morton, among others. Why has materialism become so appealing to recent thinkers? How do these “new materialisms” open windows onto past texts? Perhaps more importantly: can these older texts speak back, altering the way we view current trends?

In addition to informal assignments throughout the semester, students will produce 20 pages of writing, including the option of a longer research paper.

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