The Modern Revolution
HUM 410
FALL 2016
TUESDAY / THURSDAY 4:10 PM – 5:25 PM in HUM 582
Dr. Robert C. Thomas
E-mail: theory at sfsu dot edu
Office HUM 416 | Office Hour: 2:10 – 3:10 THURSDAY


The course covers philosophical and cultural issues of modernism/modernity, roughly from 1850 – 1945. We will undertake a careful examination of select primary (modern) theoretical texts (Nietzsche, Benjamin), works of literature (Walser, Kafka), artwork (Duchamp), film (Lumiere, Méliès, Vertov), and secondary engagements with modernism / modernity by Celeste Olalquiaga, Michel Foucualt, and  others.  We will follow the convention of the catalog description in looking at modernisms from, roughly, the mid-19th century to the early/mid 20th century. We will study the history of Dada / Dadaism in relation to the present, watch surprising films like Walter Murch’s 1985 adaptation of the turn of the century work of L. Frank Baum, Return to Oz (which we will read in light of modernity, commodification, and monstrosity, among much else), and study Todd Haynes’ untimely comparison of glam rock with high modernism, Velvet Goldmine. We will study the construction of the modern subject through discursive practices, which Foucault referred to as “technologies of the self”—for example, those on pornography, sexuality, and gender.

How do we think about the modern? Is it the new, the avant-garde, a break with the past, the everyday? What does it mean to think about a peculiarly “modern” life? (Which can be another way of saying, what is the “present” of a particular era.) And what of progress, enlightenment, technology, discipline, acceleration, and the subject? (Which can be another way of saying modernity or, 400+ years of capitalist development.)  This course will think modernism/modernity as a philosophical problem rather than a historical object. We will strive to think modern thought as something immanent to (i.e. not outside) the “presents” it traverses. In this reading, the counter-modern, the a-modern, the alternatives to, and the excluded of modernity will be viewed as fully a part of modern life itself. This is because the problem of modernity is something we are continuing to work through, today.  To paraphrase Michel Foucault, we will ask ourselves what it might mean to think the modern, simultaneously, as a philosophical problem, a relation to life, and a critique of the present.

Required Texts (available at the bookstore)

  • Rudolf Kuenzli – Dada
  • Celeste Olalquiaga – The Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience
  • Jessica Ellen Sewell, Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915
  • Robert Walser – Jakob von Gunten

Essays (available online)

Short Stories

Films (shown in class)

  • Richard Fleisher – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (USA, 
  • Todd Haynes – Velvet Goldmine (USA, 1998)
  • Tsai Ming-Liang – The Hole (Taiwan, 1999)
  • Walter Murch – Return to Oz (USA, 1985)
  • Brother’s Quay – Institute Benjamenta (UK, 1996)
  • Dziga Vertov – Man With a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929)

Early Modern Cinema and Short Films

  • Lumiere Brothers (selections) (France, 1899)
  • Georges Méliès – Voyage à travers l’impossible (The Impossible Voyage) (France, 1904)
  • Georges Méliès – Le Voyage dans la Lune  (A Trip to the Moon) (France, 1902)
  • Legar and Murphey “Ballet Mecanique” (USA/France, 1924)
  • Jean Painlevé — Science is Fiction (France, 1902-89) (selections)

Additional Reading (optional)

For those who wish to do additional research, the journal Modernism/modernity is a good source of recent scholarship in the field.


Students are responsible for completing all the assigned course work and are expected to regularly attend and participate in course discussions. Students are expected to come to class prepared. Prepared means that you have done the assigned reading, have thought about it, and have something relevant to say. Always bring the assigned reading material (for each particular day) to class. Always take notes. My lectures, comments, and rants constitute an important “text” for the course. Be aware that my style is casual and approachable—this should not detract from the seriousness of the work we do together (this style of presentation is meant to make it easier for you to grasp the material). There will be a mid-term paper (5-pages) and a final paper (5- pages) required to complete the course. There will be handouts for each assignment (at least two weeks before the assignments are due). These assignments constitute the ten pages of formal critical writing, required to satisfy the Segment Three writing requirement and will be graded for style and content. (See the Segment Three statement below.) Your papers should demonstrate mastery of the reading material and course lectures for the assignments (your grade will be based on this). All response papers must be critical. No grades will be awarded for non-critical papers. Plagiarism in any of the course assignments, in any form, will result in a grade of zero and be forwarded to the Dean’s office. (Note: you must receive a letter grade for each assignment to complete the course.) No papers will be accepted via e-mail. A final exam covering all of the course material will also be required. Cell phones and PDA’s are to be turned off in class. If you are caught text messaging in class, surfing the web, playing video games, or engaging in any ot he r no n-course r elate d act ivi ty, you will be required to leave the classroom. No eating in class (unless you bring enough to share with everyone). If you do not do the assigned reading or do not have the assigned reading with you at the class session, I reserve the right to make you leave the classroom (you will also be counted as absent from the class). 


To meet the segment III writing requirement, you will be required to write two five page critical papers. These papers are “formal” and will be read and graded by the professor. You will be expected to argue coherently, to support your arguments with detailed examples from the works analyzed, to edit your papers for spelling, grammar punctuation and agreement, and to meet recognized standards for notes and bibliography when relevant. All of the above will be taken into account in the grading of these assignments. 


Students with disabilities who need reasonable accommodations are encouraged to contact the instructor. The Disability Programs and Resource Center (DPRC) is available to facilitate the reasonable accommodations process. The DPRC is located in the Student Service Building and can be reached by telephone (voice/TTY 415-338-2472) or by email:,


Attendance and participation 10% || Mid-term Essay 40% || Final Essay 40% || Final Exam 10%

Electronic Version of Course Syllabus
The Modern Revolution 2016

Revised Schedule