Spring 2020 Course Offerings

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SHUM 4643/6643 Life in Ruins

(also ANTHR 4143/7143, ARKEO 4143/7143, NES 4943/6943, VISST 4643)
Spring. 4 credits.
Limited to 15 students.
Lori Khatchadourian.
T: 12:20 – 2:15 p.m.

How do humans live with the ruins we create? What lifeways and lifeforms do ruins sustain? What forces cause the remnants of late modernity to endure or erode? Through the lens of archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, cultural geography, art, and architecture, this interdisciplinary seminar interrogates ruination as a condition of the human experience—one that has intensified in the afterlife of modernity, and one whose study might help us cope with advancing planetary decline, even as we work to curb it.

Life in Ruins attends both to ‘the ruin’ as an object of encounter and contemplation, and ‘ruination’ as an ongoing process that entangles humans and nonhumans in a host of destructive and constructive projects. The former invites us to engage with the ‘ruins aesthetic’ generated in art and philosophy, and the affective and contemplative dispositions that the visual and philosophical archive of ruins ignites. Here we explore the romantic gaze that looks upon ruins at a remove, confronting the paradoxes of modernity, inviting nostalgia, and sensing the strange, sublime beauty in loss, decay, and the blurring of culture/nature. Ruination, in contrast, jolts us to concentrate on the direct, lived experience of ruins-in-the-making, the forces of decay, and their effects on bodies, livelihoods, subjectivities, and ecologies. Here we look upon ruins up close, through ethnographies that show how people live with the material and environmental debris of empire, industry and conflict, and consider the relations of power—colonialism, capitalism, socialism—that have required such precarious survivals. Relevant to both the aesthetic of ruins and the lifeways they support is our concern in this course for the materiality of ruins, whose archaeological discovery helps reveal silenced or difficult pasts, whose preservation creates new practices of memory and tangible heritage, and whose architectural redesign offers alternative futures.

We draw on a global assemblage of ruins, from post-industrial forests to urban wastelands, from derelict housing projects to abandoned Soviet towns, from defunct mining sites to decommissioned Cold War military installations, among other residues of the twentieth century’s excesses.

Lori Khatchadourian is Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. Her research probes the relationship between imperialism and the material world, asking how things are implicated in projects of macropolitical formation and dissolution. As both an archaeologist of southwest Asia and a scholar of Soviet socialism and post-socialism, Khatchadourian pursues this concern with the materiality of empire across temporal and disciplinary boundaries—ancient and modern, archaeological and ethnographic. She is the author of Imperial Matter: Ancient Persia and the Archaeology of Empire (UC Press 2016) and co-editor of Fitful Histories and Unruly Publics: The Archaeology of Eurasia. She has published scholarly papers on the archaeology of empires, the politics of archaeology in the Caucasus, and materiality in Near Eastern archaeology. Her current book project extends the preoccupation with ‘imperial matter’ into modernity. Through archaeological and ethnographic research in abandoned or underused Soviet factories, Khatchadourian is investigating the human and nonhuman forces shaping industrial ruination in post-socialist Armenia. The Afterlife of Socialist Modernity project asks how people live with the spaces and detritus of Soviet labor, how the materials of industrial ruin have helped create and perpetuate oligarchic power structures, and how post-industrial political ecologies are shaping the archaeological record of the twentieth century.

Khatchadourian is co-director of a long-term collaborative field project in Armenia called the Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS), co-director of Cornell's Landscapes and Objects Laboratory, and co-founder and co-director of the Aragats Foundation. She received her MSc in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics from the London School of Economics and her PhD in Classical Art & Archaeology from the University of Michigan.


SHUM 4644/6644 Animal Power

(also CLASS 4604, COML 4623, ENGL 4964, STS 4644/6644)
Spring. 4 credits.
Limited to 15 students.
Athena Kirk.
T: 10:10 a.m. – 12:05 p.m.

The modern world relies on a vast array of natural resources to drive its activities, but for most of human history, animals have provided energy to people. Animals were, and often still are, the energy fueling human transportation, agriculture, nutrition, and even entertainment. This course examines Classical and modern representations of animals as workpower, food and fuel, and raw materials for manufacture. We will read a wide array of sources that depict the work of animals in Classical antiquity and the contemporary world, such as pastoral poetry, and hunting and training manuals; we will also look at texts that attempt to describe how the animal body creates energy, such as zoological treatises and metamorphosis novels. As the course progresses, we will also reflect on the kinds of non-industrial energies that animals have provided, including fuel for poetry, song, and dance, in examples such as epic animal similes, musical instruments, and satyr play. In all these texts, we will consider the shifting ways in which sources attend to the “animality” and animacy of the processes and products they describe, and how their representations of animal energy relate to other forms of power and work. The course ultimately situates these concerns within broader theoretical discussions of animality, labor, and the idea of energy as a vis viva (“living force”), drawing on a selection of key texts that address these topics.


SHUM 4645/6645 Indigeneity and Energy in Native America

(also AMST 4646, ANTHR 4145/7145)
Spring. 4 credits.
Limited to 15 students.
Dana E. Powell.
R: 10:10 a.m. – 12:05 p.m.

This seminar explores the sociocultural dimensions of various flows of energy as these have shaped Indigenous experience in the late 20th and early 21st century. From nuclear power to fossil fuels, and from ethnobotanicals to gaming enterprises, energy profoundly shapes Native American landscapes, bodies, and communities. A critical understanding of settler colonialism today requires an understanding of these material flows of diverse energy resources as they profoundly constitute places and politics, for many Native Nations. Using ethnographic and historical texts, as well as fiction, visual artwork, and poetry, we will consider how energy – through its many conversions from the world of “nature” to the world of “culture” – is never solely a techno-scientific process, but is fundamentally a social practice, always embedded in complex, uneven relations of power. In the case of Native America, these relations of power include the ongoing structure of colonialism (see Patrick Wolfe 2006) and colonialism’s contemporary infrastructures. In other words, we consider how the production of “power” concerns the materiality of generating electricity, heat, nuclear weapons, and other sources of fuel from natural resources, but at the same time, also concerns the politics of infrastructure, human difference, and trans-local networks of social action. Artists, scholars, practitioners, and writers grounded in Indigenous communities have recently begun to critically explore the thematic of energy, as a way of making sense of Indigenous experience in the Anthropocene. This seminar will explore many of these recent and emerging texts. As such, studying energy flows emerges as a method of unveiling or unpacking the framework of settler colonialism, to reveal some of the inner workings of this structuring set of relations in North America. This course also serves as an upper-level introduction to critical Indigenous Studies and cultural anthropology.

Dana E. Powell is a cultural anthropologist whose work seeks to understand lived experiences of environmental risk, extractive industry, and ongoing processes of colonialism in Native North America and in the Navajo Nation, in particular. Dana is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Appalachian State University in western North Carolina, where she directs the Department’s program in Social Practice and Sustainability. In Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation, published on Duke University Press in 2018, she explores the rise and fall of the controversial Desert Rock Power Plant initiative in New Mexico and the tensions among varying interpretations of sovereignty, expertise, and development. Her most recent project examines the creation of solidarities and urban infrastructures in the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Dana’s project at the Society for the Humanities is a collaborative ethnography on the social life of water and climate change in the Navajo Nation.


SHUM 4646/6646 Moving and Knowing

(also ANTHR 4146/7146, STS 4646/6646)
Spring. 4 credits.
Limited to 15 students.
Rachel Prentice.
T: 2:30 – 4:25 p.m.

A martial artist learns movements and quirks unique to his teacher. A dancer conveys unbearable sorrow with a curve of her back. An artist’s charcoal flies across the page. Horse and rider make a pirouette in perfect balance. This course emerges from the idea that we know our worlds through movement, our own and that of others. Using texts drawn from anthropology, philosophy, sensory studies, and animal studies, this course pushes against any simple division of mind and body by putting the work of “mind” into motion, examining balance, kinesthesia, and proprioception as often-neglected means of knowing our worlds. It also critiques the static and fixed nature of “rational-centric” thinking, considering how the movement energy of living beings challenges and disrupts division, separation, and stabilization.


SHUM 4647/6647 The Energy Transition in the Nineteenth Century

(also AMST 4647, HIST 4647/6647, STS 4647/6647)
Spring. 4 credits.
Limited to 15 students.
Ariel Ron.
R: 2:30 – 4:25 p.m.

This course seeks to explore the epochal transition from organic to mineral energy sources that carried the world into the carbon age over the span of the nineteenth century. In recent years, the idea of “energy transition” has gained ground at the intersection of the social sciences, environmental studies, and sustainable engineering—and increasingly in the humanities, too. The concept seems to identify the underlying material transformation that brought forth the modern world and to pinpoint the essential challenge of how to save modernity from destroying itself. On both counts, it is important to try to understand the shift from an organic to a mineral energy regime that occurred most decisively in the 1800s.

Although this course is partly motivated by our present predicament—and it will hopefully contribute something to a better understanding of where we stand—its primary aim is historical, that is, to understand the particular structures, experiences and meanings of the nineteenth century’s transitional energy regime. In order to gain a critical eye on the present, we must first remove ourselves from its immediate influences. Since my own expertise is in American history, the course leans toward the United States, zooming in on the specificities of antebellum slavery, the grass-horse nexus of Plains Indians’ societies, the quite different hay-horse nexus of the urbanizing Northeast, the making of a continental coal industry, and the experience of industrial labor at the energy frontier. However, I have also aimed to incorporate perspectives from outside the United States that will broaden our view.

The central assignment in the course asks students to locate, contextualize and analyze one or more primary-source documents that reflect an important aspect of the nineteenth-century energy transition.  

Ariel Ron is a historian of nineteenth-century U.S. political economy at Southern Methodist University. His articles have appeared in the Journal of American History, theatlantic.com, and other publications. A book, Grassroots Leviathan: Agricultural Reform and the Rural North in the Slaveholding Republic, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.


SHUM 4648/6648 The Visual Economy of Work

(also GERST 4648/6648, VISST 4648)
Spring. 4 credits.
Limited to 15 students.
Alena J. Williams.
R: 12:20 – 2:15 p.m.

The visual representation of labor has a complicated relationship to the emergence of capitalist society in early twentieth century European and American culture. Many of the images that emerge from industrial firms before 1940, for example, attempt to represent the activity taking place within the factory walls. However, many of these images often falsely purport to show ‘things’ (objects, workers, operations, life) operating in a harmonic manner. With a focus on the pivotal period from the invention of photography until the onset of World War II, the course will examine the economy of work within modern visual culture. We will consider how representation of industrial work relates to conceits found within photographic reportage, cinéma vérité, as well as advertising, in contrast to methods of representation found within early modernist artistic practice in Europe, Asia, and North America. To what extent did such approaches—embedded within Western colonialist projects and modern globalization—enable or make plain a range of political and aesthetic agendas? What were the considerations at stake in capturing the “facts” of industrial production? In this course, there will be an emphasis on cross-disciplinary ideas and influences—ranging from art history, film and media studies, the history of science, literature, and political history as a means of integrating theoretical approaches with a range of materials, including photography, cinema, illustrated magazines, advertisements, archives, world exhibitions, and product showrooms. In addition to considering the political ramifications of these practices, this course will encourage direct, first-hand experience of artifacts and works of art, such that a close analysis of images might be coupled with a synthetic, wide-angle view on a range of sources afforded by student presentations and film screenings.

Alena J. Williams is Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, where she teaches art history as well as media history and theory. Her work examines experimentation in modern visual culture, theories of modernity, and the epistemology of the image with a long-range view across the twentieth century. She received her PhD in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University with a dissertation on the archaeology of expanded cinema practices. Her recent work has addressed astronomy and experimental cinema’s intertwined aesthetic imaginary, focusing on a contiguous set of objects from multimedia installations and films of the 1960s and 70s to the dynamic kinetic and light experiments of early modernism. From 2010-2013, Williams curated Nancy Holt: Sightlines, an international traveling exhibition on American artist Nancy Holt’s Land art, films, videos, and related works from 1966–1980 for the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York. The retrospective companion volume (University of California Press, 2011/2015) addresses the artist’s engagement with landscape across a critical spectrum—visual modes of perception and observation, photography and authorship, the politics of land-use, and the interrelation of media and language-based practices. Williams is the recipient of the Hellman Fellowship (2016–2017) and the Faculty Fellowship / Center of Humanities (2015–2016) at the University of California, San Diego. In 2017, she was a Visiting Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. In 2018, she was DAAD Fellow at the Institute for the History and Theory of Design at the University of Arts in Berlin.


SHUM 4649/6649 Tradition and Modernity: The Jewish Case and Beyond

(also COML 4624, GERST 4649/6649, JWST 4649/6649)
Spring. 4 credits.
Limited to 15 students.
James Redfield.
W: 2:30 – 4:25 p.m.

These days–for quite a while, in fact–to invoke "Tradition!" like Tevye the Dairyman is to take sides in an argument. The other side of this argument calls itself Modernity: a new concept of time and progress, with a new direction, goal, and new boundaries for who can be part of it (and who cannot). In this argument with modernity, tradition is often the loser. To be traditional is to fall behind; to stumble out of step; to remain hidebound by the "dead hand of the past." Tradition becomes synonymous with conservativism, and modernity with liberality; there is little space left for a concept of tradition in its own right, as a force of cultural and creative energy.

In this course, we attempt to unlock the energy of tradition by decoupling it from its argument with modernity, asking instead: What do traditions say about themselves? How do they work? Who speaks for a tradition? How are traditions made or remade? How do they interact? What is it like to be traditional, as viewed from the inside? What has made some traditions worth living for–or even dying?

The course materials are drawn primarily from Judaic traditions, with theoretical and comparative materials from many others. It unfolds in three stages of inquiry. We begin with media, literary (poems; short stories) and visual (films; graphic novels) which generate our own questions of tradition. In stage two, we focus on a school of thought where tradition was a vital concept: literary critics, philosophers, and theologians based at Marburg in the years leading up to World War Two. Students present on individual figures (with whom they will engage in final papers) while, as a group, we undertake a line-by-line study of short texts by several of them. In the final part, we turn our questions (part one) and theories (part two) to interpret pre-modern Jewish traditions.

James Redfield is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Talmudic Literatures in the Department of Theological Studies at St. Louis University. Redfield's primary research area is Talmudic literature. He also writes and teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible; medieval Jewish biblical interpretation; the history of Jewish law; pre-modern travel writing and ethnography; and the comparison of ancient Judaism/Christianity. James' book project at the Society for the Humanities (Open House: Curiosity and Culture in Early Rabbinic Law) integrates rabbinic law into the history of ethnography and the idea of culture. Alongside scholarship in these areas, James has published translations of scholarship and literature (French, German, Hebrew, Yiddish), with a volume of Yiddish fiction now under review.