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What Do Toys Want?: Playing with Walter Benjamin

Semester and Year SP 2018
Course Number IDSEM-UG1950
Section 001
Instructor Eugenia Kisin, Eugene Vydrin
Days R
Time 6:20 PM - 9:00 PM
Units 4
Level U
Requirement   HUM



Motionless and dynamic, mute and eloquent, commodity and gift: a toy is a thing that comes to life through play even as it remains inanimate, stubbornly separate from us yet also a member of the family. Toys were objects of fascination for nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, artists, and philosophers, who thought very seriously about toys—dolls and automata, puppets and marionettes, mystic writing pads and magic lanterns—as they struggled to make sense of modernity and the new relations it produced between persons and things. Taking its operating instructions from the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, this class is a playful and serious experiment with toys as ambivalent cyphers of social desires, material signs of collective dream lives, and (in the words of Charles Baudelaire) “a child’s first initiation into art.” Drawing on literary, art-historical, psychoanalytic, and anthropological approaches to material culture, this class will combine cultural analysis with sensory experience to explore the lives and loves of toys. Reading Romantic, modernist, and contemporary texts, we will explore toys as historical embodiments, as material culture that matters. In addition to texts by Benjamin, we will also read works by Heinrich von Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Baudelaire, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Gregory Bateson, Anne Allison, Mel Y. Chen, Elizabeth Chin, Donna Haraway, and W.J.T. Mitchell.


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Course Type

Interdisciplinary Seminars (IDSEM-UG)