Modernity and its Discontents


Fall 2013 and Winter 2014 quarters

Taught by

aesthetics and philosophy, critical theory, psychoanalysis
British literature

Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category .—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

How and why do we think about “modernity”? What do we mean when we say we are thinking about it? This program will largely be an investigation of modernity as it appears in and behind those discourses produced by and about its forces. These are questions that will lead us primarily into the realms of philosophy, political theory and political economy, sociology and literature.

Along the way, we will try on a number of definitions of and arguments about what constitutes modernity, both in the sense of its causes and effects as well as its historical extension. Here are some of the questions we might ask:

  • Is modernity best characterized by a secular individualism that leads to freedom, revolution, enlightenment and rationality, as the works of Montaigne, Bacon, Cavendish, Rousseau and Locke might suggest? What might Freud, Poe, Baudelaire or Mann have to say about the impact of modernity on the individual psyche?
  • Does modernity just replace old forms of authority with new forms of economic control, or desires for collective, universal and encyclopedic power, evident in the political philosophies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, Benjamin and Adorno?
  • Is modernity a historical period, perhaps that encompasses the break from medieval feudalism to the break with the capitalist nation-state? Is it an economic condition that comes as a result of expanded European and Western trade, colonization and slavery, and a period of intense global warfare? How might we view these developments through the economic philosophies of Adam Smith or Max Weber or the literary imaginings of Shakespeare or Defoe?
  • How is modernity marked by rapid developments in technology? Is modernity born of the printing press, as Bacon suggested? Is it dying at the hands of the Internet?
  • How is modernity expressed in the arts? What is “modern art,” what is “modernist art,” and what might be seen more generally as “anti-modern” tendencies? What is the modern aesthetic, as considered by thinkers such as Kant and Nietzsche?
  • Are we still in a period of modernity? What might constitute a post-modern condition?

This program is designed for upper-division students interested in developing and refining their ability to work with complex historical texts and important ideas. An important part of our work will be to help one another develop the skills needed through seminar conversations, close reading sessions, writing workshops and individual and group projects and presentations. We will offer a 14-credit option to students of foreign language.

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

philosophy, literature, sociology, political science, political economy and the humanities.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


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Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning

More information about online learning.

Required Fees

$80 per quarter for entrance fees.


Date Revision
April 30th, 2013 This program will not have an embedded German or French component. A 14-credit option has been created for students who wish to take a foreign language course in addition to this program.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall); 16 (Winter)

Variable Credit Options

14-credit option available to students who wish to take a foreign language course in addition to the program.  Please contact the faculty ( and for further information and a signature.

Class standing: Junior–Senior

Maximum enrollment: 50


Course Reference Numbers

Jr - Sr (16 credits): 10191
Jr - Sr (1-16 credits): 10192
Jr - Sr (14 credits): 10308

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Accepting New Students

Course Reference Numbers

Jr - Sr (16 credits): 20152
Jr - Sr (1-16 credits): 20153
Jr - Sr (14 credits): 20223

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