Who am I? How and what can I know? Is what I perceive of and present to the world the truth? What can and should I do? Who knows what about me? Such questions are asked with increased urgency as the sheer mass of information makes reliable orientation impossible, as social relations become unstable, as uncontrollable actors gather ever more information about us, and as the (neo)liberal sense of self starts to dissolve under the pressures of new media and accelerating social and political processes.
This course proposes that, to look for ways to navigate this situation, we ought to turn to the 18th century, a time when old certainties and assumptions collapsed under the emergence of modernity and new, “enlightened” views of humans and their world were developed. During that time, thinkers and artists set out to redefine the self, obsessively observing the individual, its cognition, and its role in the world. In doing so, they invented the modern self, one with rich inner lives, a keen interest in the observable reality, proud of its abilities, and aware of its role as a social being and its observation by others. They created elaborate modes of paying attention, of reading the human being in its complexity. Acquiring insight into their ideas can help us see what is being lost and gained today. We will focus largely on the German 18th century since it produced some of the final instantiations of Enlightenment thought in a variety of disciplines.
In the first part of this course, we will read from a variety of disciplines that either were invented in the 18th century or underwent significant changes during that time, ranging from legal theory and natural sciences to philosophy and literature. In the second part, we will jump forward to the dissolution of this modern self in our current moment. We will engage with theory and digital art of the 21st century, exploring what it means to constantly be distracted, to be the focus of attention of algorithms, and to be confronted with a world which is both always at the disposal of our attention and always out of reach.Learn More