LS 810: The 'Meta-Doctors' of Modernity: Darwin, Freud and Marx

Fall 2011  | Dr. Wayne Knights

In the many attempts to distinguish modernity from postmodernity, a singular catchphrase stands out. “I define the postmodern as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives” (J. F. Lyotard). The latter were understood to have shaped the foundation of the modern world view. These grand theories or metanarratives, it is argued, dismiss the heterogeneity of human existence; they are embraced and reinforced by power structures as a means of questionable legitimation; and they embody views of historical, natural, and personal development that include an unjustifiable progress towards a specific goal (teleology).

Some interesting questions arose in the wake of the ensuing debate: what were these metanarratives? Are they justly characterized as such by postmodern critics? Are they truly corrupted at the source, or are they subject to political and ideological forces beyond their control? Although none of them can claim to have finally attained the status of hegemonic narrative arguably achieved by the great religions, the influence they exercised over 20th century culture and politics is unquestioned and ongoing. It is certainly the case that these theories did not attain some final, neat formulation; nor did their future adherents restrict themselves to orthodox elaborations of these ideas – although the question of orthodoxy was always in play. True, all three were integrative in nature, but all three exhibit change and variation.  Indeed, all three were ‘unfinished’ – arguably in the manner of any research program.

The goal of this course is to assess the reputed master narratives of Darwin, Marx and Freud, and then to explore a few of the ways these ideas intersected in philosophy, politics, art, and culture. We will read and discuss some of their key works and ideas of over the first half of the course; the remaining seminars will focus on readings by key modern thinkers that exemplify the tensions and connections between these grand narratives and various ‘new directions’ spinning off from them. In doing so, we should open up further areas of exploration.

Required Reading

Jon Elster, Karl Marx: A Reader

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Sigmund Freud, The Psychology of Love

Sigmund Freud, Mass Psychology

Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe

Courseware Package [for use later in the course]

Seminar Schedule LS 810:

Part I:  Marx, Darwin, Freud

September 7 - Week 1: Introduction to the course  


Marx. Communist Manifesto {read the selections from the Manifesto in Elster}

Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms

Optional: Wendy Brown – Politics Out of History {available online but I will send it out}.

 September 14 - Week 2:  The Narrative of Alienation and Reification in Marx.

Reading: Elster, Sections 2, 4, and 8

Several narrative structures emerge from the work of Marx. The notion of ‘alienated labour’ and the connection to notions of the fetishism of commodities and reification will be canvassed. We will also squeeze the idea of ideology into this discussion. The readings from Elster will be supplemented by Reification and Class Consciousness by Georg Lukács, available online – to be forwarded to you.

September 21 - Week 3: The Narrative of Capitalism, Class & History in Marx.

Reading: Elster, sections 1, 3, and 5

 Here the focus falls on elements of Marx’s theory of class, history, and capitalism. Apart from the Marx readings taken from Elster, we will read another of Marx’s letters and canvas Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History. Both are available online – but I will send them to you.

 September 28 & October 5 - Week 4 &5:

Reading: Darwin, The Descent of Man [abridged version]

 October 12 - Week 6:

Freud, The Psychology of Love

 October 19 - Week 7

Freud, Mass Psychology

 Part II – Marx encore

October 26 - Week 8

Review of the course so far.

Each student should present an initial ‘take’ on their project. If you don’t have a firm topic in mind, just raise a general interest and we will try to formulate a first step in class.

Reading: get started on Buck-Morss and Berger, below.

 Saturday October 30   Room 2290 {note room change}

  • o   Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe
  • o   Berger, Ways of Seeing

 November 2 - Week 9

Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe [cont.]

 Part III – Freud Encore

Week  10: November 9: Course Reader

 Marcuse, Aesthetic Dimension

Merleau-Ponty, Man & Adversity

Herbert Read, The Created Form

            Psycho-analysis & the Problem of Aesthetic Value

 Saturday: November 13   Room 1525 {note room change} cancelled

 Part IV – Darwin Encore

Week 11: November 16

Brian Boyd, Conclusion: Retrospect & Prospects, Evolution, Literature, Criticism

                          Afterword: Evolution, Art, Story, Purpose.

 Week 12: November 23

 Week 13: November 30