The seminar I’ll be teaching in the Fall

Comparative Literature 461 (for graduates and undergraduates)
Schizophrenic Futures

In the present historical moment, we are confronted by two sharply divergent and possibly incommensurable visions of the future. On the one hand, there are the optimistic visions of a high-tech society, in which advances in robotics, nanotechnology, genetics, and nuclear fusion brings an end to poverty, pollution, disease, and aging, and makes possible the unceasing enjoyment of leisure and luxury. On the other hand, nightmarish visions of civilizational collapse and endemic strife have become widespread in our culture, in conjunction with growing fears over the impact of resource depletion, climate catastrophe, and terrorism on the fragile, interconnected structures of the global economy. What is particularly significant about the bleak and resolutely negative view of the future is that it is no longer limited to the high culture critique of capitalism and industrial society, but has in fact become a vital part of mainstream entertainment, in the form of blockbuster films turning apocalyptic calamities into spectacle. How ought we to theorize and understand the schizophrenia with which the prospect of such vastly different horizons threatens us? Should these two visions be understood as strict contraries, so that we may grasp what choices are actually available to us and thereby illuminate the paths that enable us to avoid disaster? Or are they perversely contained within each other, or mutually complicit in fostering a sense of helplessness? Might one future come true for a few, and the other future become the fate of the majority? We will examine our historical present, schizophrenically divided between such drastically different perspectives, by reading recent novels and viewing films.

Novels may include:

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood
David Mitchell, The Cloud Atlas
J. G. Ballard, Millennium People
Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
James Howard Kunstler, A World Made by Hand
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island
Vladimir Sorokin, Day of the Oprichnik

Works of theory and criticism may include:

Tim Morton, The Ecological Thought
John Gray, The Immortalization Commission and Straw Dogs
Michel Foucault, ‘Society Must be Defended’
Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism
Paul Virilio, The University of Disaster

Films may include:

The Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaròn, 2006)
Code 46 (dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2003)
2046 (dir. Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)
Gamer (dir. Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
The oeuvre of Roland Emmerich, director of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and Independence Day (1996)


2 responses

  1. Hmm, how about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy? It explicitly interweaves these two themes.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. I am considering it, but it will be a challenge to incorporate because of its length.

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