This panorama is cinematically presented through the enormous observation double-glass located at the front of the Nautilus, which acts as its eyes ...Opening and closing its eyes, roaming the ocean at different speed and angels, surfacing daily to breathe, lying down on the sandy bottom to scavenge for food or send out exploratory missions, the Nautilus circulates freely as an ersatz aquatic monster. As such, it catches underwater life at its most quotidian.

Celeste Olalquiaga
The Artificial Kingdom

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.



FALL 2016

Rodney, King of the Hermit Crabs

Jean Painlevé

Victorian Futurism
"Two Heads" by Kazuhiko Nakamura

Paris Arcade, 19th Century

Carzonia Apartments, SF

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.
Michel Foucault
"What is Enlightenment?"