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Recent Graduate Seminars

The Human, the Post-Human, and Race: From The Tempest  to The Shape of Water - Fall 2019

This course explores a neglected encounter in the academy’s interest in theories of the posthuman--either from the paradigms of ecological animal studies, technology, bio-genetics, and medicine, or critical disability studies: the relationship between the posthuman and race. While theories attempting to move beyond the human/non-human divide often dissolve or deny differences of race, critics of color ranging from Frantz Fanon and Paul Gilroy to Frank Wilderson and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson have demonstrated how theories of the human always imply a logic of race. This course will trace the early modern roots of race in popular humanist discourses, joining early modern texts to contemporary theoretical writing and cultural productions. Taking a historicized approach, we will read a range of early modern texts that seek, implicitly or explicitly, to define the limits of the human in relation to categories of the divine, the animal, and the inanimate. We will trace the uneven process by which the human assumed a hierarchical distinction within the realm of nature, how this hierarchy became manifested through new perspectives on the relationship between human and world, and the origins of further categorical distinctions such as kind, species, personhood, and race. We will also consider theories of disability and emerging questions about what abilities or characteristics make a person more or less human. In uncovering a history of human ontologies that is powerfully fueled by Renaissance humanism but that also transcends such periodization, we will seek to uncover the ways in which ontological and anthropocentric understandings of the world intersect with the long history of race. 

In early modern texts ranging from philosophical treatises and travel writing to stage plays and utopian fictions we will encounter not only humans, animals, and gods, but also creatures, monsters, fairies, beasts, and unnamed hybrid beings. Do these text reveal a posthuman Renaissance or does such a claim merely seek to rescue or glorify Renaissance humanism and obscure its complicity in the history of race? How can we practice early modern scholarship in ways that are accountable to our present world? What happens when we take early modern writings as a context for approaching the Anthropocentric tragedies of Octavia Butler and Indra Sinha, or when we examine the continuities between The Tempest and The Shape of Water? Surveying theoretical texts ranging from Descartes and Darwin to Rosi Braidoitti, Calvin Warren, and Kathryn Yusoff, we will seek to take stock of what is gained and lost by the posthuman theoretical move. We will also consider how understandings of the human inform a philosophy of human rights and ethics--engaging the ideas of Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, as well as Crystal Parikh and Jasbir Puar. Finally, we will think about what specific questions are brought to bear on the posthuman by critics of race and colonialism, as well as gender and sexuality, and whether these theoretical approaches might be reconciled. 

Required Texts:

Shakespeare, The Tempest  

Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species 

Margaret Cavendish, Blazing World

 Aphra Behn, Oroonoko

 Indra Sinha, Animal’s People

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

 Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None

Michel de Montaigne, “The Apologie for Raymond Sebond” 

Rene Descartes, The Discourse on Method 

Selections from Jose de Acosta, Natural and Moral History of the Indies  

Selections from Edward Long, History of Jamaica  

Richard Wright, “Between the World and Me”

Frantz Fanon, “The Fact of Blackness” from Black Skin, White Masks 

Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man” 

Early Modern Global Economics, Imperialism, and Discourses of Fortune - Fall 2017

This course explores the ways that early modern England’s economic transformation and nascent colonial exploration produced, and were in turn ideologically justified by, new understandings of the nature of luck, chance, and fortune. We will think about how these interlinked developments relate to narratives of secularization and modernity. We will also consider how shifting understandings of fortune became fused with moral purpose, and how the human pursuit of economic fortune became associated with virtuous national, imperial, and corporate gains. Early modern drama by Shakespeare and his contemporaries will be foregrounded, but we will also investigate several influential writers on the topic of fortune, including Machiavelli, Montaigne, Lucretius, Calvin, and Bacon. In addition, we will read a range of criticism and theory on economics, imperialism, globalization, religion, narrative form, and more. 

Required Texts:

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice 

Shakespeare and Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen 

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra 

Shakespeare, Hamlet 

Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 

Shakespeare, As You Like It 

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus  and Other Plays

Machiavelli, The Prince 

Thomas More," Utopia"  in Three Early Modern Utopias

Thomas Heywood, The Fair Maid of the West, Part I

John Fletcher, The Island Princess

Early Modern Discourses of Fate, Fortune, and Human Will - Spring 2016

This course examines the conflicting discourses of fate, fortune, and human will that were used to explain worldly events ranging from the rise of empire to everyday accidents. We will consider how early modern writers attempted to reconcile evidence of luck, chance, and randomness with divine providence. And we will explore disagreements about the scope and limits of human agency in controlling events in the world. Although the course is rooted in early modern theories, its central inquiries are directly relevant to later periods, including our own. Our primary sources will include both plays and prose works. Through short readings by Aristotle, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon, John Calvin, John Dee, and others, we will consider how developments in philosophy, religion, science, and economics informed understandings of cosmic authority in the world. We will also read a sampling of stage plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Dekker, and Greene in conjunction with prose selections from multiple genres. Assignments include a conference presentation and a longer research paper, though students are encouraged to mold these assignments to address their own primary interests and areas of specialty. 

Required Texts : 

Lucretius, The Nature of Things 

 Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve 

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 

Shakespeare and Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen 

Machiavelli, The Prince 

Shakespeare, Hamlet 

Walter Raleigh, Selected Writings “History of the World”

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra 

Ben Jonson, Sejanus

Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay 

Thomas Dekker, Old Fortunatus 


150 Hicks Way, W333 South College,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

(413) 545-5498

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