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Practices of Witnessing and Onlooking in Visual Theory
Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, writes that his “confrontation of twentieth-century questions in the light of a monastic commitment … inevitably makes one something of a ‘bystander’.” While he has a great deal to say about guilt, the act of “bystanding” concerns him less directly. Visual practices of bystanding, onlooking, beholding and witnessing are the focus of this course, which puts into conversation two discourses. One discourse comprises biblical articulations of witnessing in Christianity and Judaism. The other discourse comprises modern expressions of visuality in religious and secular thinkers and practitioners. Within these discourses the course traces a thread concerning the gap between spectatorship and participation. It considers how visual forms can witness and participate in social movements. The material covered comprises biblical readings, such theorists and writers as Guy Debord, James Baldwin and Georgio Agamben, and related visual examples in photography, the graphic novel, and film. While most of these examples are drawn from twentieth-century American and European sources, the course will develop the necessary theoretical background and skills of close reading and close looking necessary to discuss a wide range of material. Students will make presentations and submit papers on topics of their choosing in consultation with the professor.
Graduate standing or the ability to pursue research at the graduate level; some familiarity with scholarly work in art history or visual/material cultures. No specific course prerequisites
Required Reading, written responses and discussion leadership roles, research presentation, a final paper on a topic of the student’s choosing, in consultation with the professors.
1. Discussion leadership, reader responses, and overall class participation, including conference attendance; see description below (30%)
2. Presentation of research topic in class (30%)
3. Final paper, on same subject as formal presentation, 15-18 pages (40%)