Core Courses

Recent and upcoming graduate classes:

German 1G and German 2G : Introduction to Reading German (for Graduate Students)

A two-quarter sequence that introduces graduate students to the essentials of the German language with emphasis on aspects of structure that are indispensable for reading skills. We will be translating academic, literary, philosophical, scientific, and journalistic texts. Open to students with graduate standing in any field
German 1G —  Winter 2020 MW 12:30-1:45PM - HSSB 1215 

German 2G — Spring 2020

Instructor: Gisela Kommerell 




From Movable Letters to Bits. A Media History of German Literature.
The purpose of the course is to analyze the material and technical conditions of writing as a key to the imaginary effects they produce in fiction and in theory. The material studied will include the emergence of the author from the printing press, the alienation of the author by voice recording and transmitting technologies, and the death of the author in the time of automated data processing machinery. Exemplary readings of texts by Luther, Leibniz, Fichte, Kant, Goethe, Kleist, Keller, Freud, Kafka, Arno Schmidt, Max Bense, Helmut Heissenbuettel and others.

Speaking of Language
This course traces the discourse on language and signification from the 17th century to the present with a particular focus on the German contributions. The following stages will be discussed: the quest for a universal language, the stories about the origins of language, the history of language, and the language game. Exemplary readings of texts by A. Kircher, Leibniz, Suessmilch, Herder, F. Schlegel, J. Grimm, E. Sievers, K. Buehler and L. Wittgenstein.

Friend and Foe: Political Thought from Plato to Derrida

At a time, when such terms as “globalization” and “universal human rights” are commonplaces of the political discourse, states and nations still are (and remain) defined by internationally sanctioned boundaries, that is, by the difference between us and them, citizen and alien, friend and foe. The purpose of this seminar, which will be based on close readings of both literary and philosophical texts, is to investigate the long history of this distinction from antiquity to the present. More specifically, I suggest the following topics for discussion: the ambiguity of the term potentia, which can mean both violence and the exercise of legitimate power; the concept of the political; the difference between war and civil war; the definition of just war; the role of gender roles and relations in politics and war (Derrida’s question: “Is not woman the partisan as such?”); the difference between regular and irregular warfare; the state of exception; the idea of human rights; and the prospect of an international court of justice. (Readings include, among others, texts by Plato, Sophocles, Thomas Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Kleist, Clausewitz Benjamin, Carl Schmitt.)

Humans, Animals, Machines

This seminar attempts to probe the boundary that separates humans from, but also unites them with animals, and, since early modernity, machines. Sources to be studied will include the texts by, among others, Aristotle, Ovid, Descartes,  Kant, E.T.A. Hoffman, Darwin, Samuel Butler, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, Norbert Wiener, Alan Mathison Turing, and Jacques Lacan.


Walter Benjamin
Close readings and discussions of one of the most influential critical voices of 20th-century European thought. The class focuses on some seminal texts, among others, Benjamin's famous essays on language and translation, some of his analyses of literary texts of the19th and 20th centuries, his “Critique of Violence,” the “Theses on the Concept of History,” and “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility.” Secondary sources include texts by Wolf Kittler, Rainer Nägele, Jacques Derrida, Carol Jacobs and others.

Sprach-Denken/Speech-Thinking: Walter Benjamin and Franz Rosenzweig
The seminar proposes a close study of selected texts by Franz Rosenzweig and Walter Benjamin on language and translation. In particular, the relation of language and translation to notions central to the Jewish tradition, such as ‘creation’ and ‘redemption,’ will be explored. We will also discuss both thinkers’ critical reflections on ‘religion’ and ‘progress’. In addition to texts by Rosenzweig and Benjamin, readings will include contemporary scholarship (among others, essays by Emmanuel Levinas, Stéphane Mosès, Robert Gibbs, Leora Batnitzky, Dana Hollander, Eric Santner).

The seminar proposes close readings of seminal texts by three pairs of highly influential critical thinkers: Nietzsche--Foucault; Freud—Lacan, Heidegger—Derrida.

Humanities and Human Rights in Times of Torture
Given their testimony to suffering and grievances in unique, compelling, and original ways, literature and the arts offer the chance to engage innovatively and constructively with the complex issues surrounding human rights and their countless violations in today’s world. In addition, philosophy and critical theory provide urgently needed tools to think about categories whose definitions have become, in the contemporary context, more and more uncertain, including the categories of “the human,” “democracy,” “justice,” “rights.” At the core of the seminar will be the use of torture by powerful democracies. The seminar will address “democratic torture” and its devastating effects on the concept and practice of democracy; the consequences of state-sanctioned torture on the principles and practices of scholarship and education; the role of mass media in the increasing acceptability of the use of torture, and the relationship between torture used in US run prisons abroad, and human rights violations on American soil. Readings from Alfred McCoy, Ariel Dorfman, Edwige Danticat, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Jean Améry, Hannah Arendt, and others.

Contemporary Theory: Activist Papers

In this class we will study texts by leading contemporary theorists that can also be read as activist manifestos. Authors include Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Jacques Derrida, Richard Falk, George Lipsitz, Jean-Luc Nancy, Arundhati Roy, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Cornell West, Slavoj Žižek. We will also discuss some seminal texts that have informed the work of those thinkers, such as essays by Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas.