GR120: Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs: The Inhuman, Almost Human, and Post-human in German Literature and Film
What does it mean to be human, and what are the limits of being human? Our class will interrogate these and related questions by studying representations of the inhuman (animals and monsters), the almost human (robots), and the post-human (cyborgs) in the German-speaking world. How have the boundaries between human and animal, and the boundaries between human and machine, been doubted, dissolved, and overcome in literature and art? And what might a future for humankind that transcends these boundaries look like? Is there a distinct post-human horizon, or has this horizon always been at the heart of what it means to be human? The focus of our class will be a long history of Western literature, folklore, and cinema, with an emphasis on how German texts fit into the broader intellectual history of the West. We will begin by reading the thirteenth-century epic poem The Nibelungenlied, which tells the story of Siegfried, a hero who gains invincibility by bathing in the blood of the dragons he’s slain. We will then trace eight hundred years of art and ideas concerned with the limits of what it means to be human. We will read Faust, a tragic play based on a sixteenth-century German legend about a scholar who bets his soul against the devil. We will read fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers, in which characters encounter magical animals and sometimes even transform into animals themselves, as well as fantastic tales inspired by those fairy tales, such as The Sandman. During our investigation of the twentieth-century will study foundational texts in the field of psychoanalysis, as well as expressionist films about hypnotists, vampires, and robots. We will read short stories and parables by Franz Kafka that comment on the absurdity of existence and the alienation engendered by modernity, as well as more contemporary science fiction and “cli-fi” (climate fiction) novels that reflect on political issues (like the Berlin Wall) and ecological trauma (like global warming). Our class will encourage you to think both broadly about the development and influence of German depictions of the inhuman as well as carefully and analytically about specific texts from many historical moments. We will analyze how such representations reflect changing cultural attitudes towards and anxieties about being human. We will also think about methodological trends in the discipline of German Studies, and literary studies more broadly, which have both embraced and leveled strong critiques against humanism.