Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Science Fiction Cinema and Social Criticism: My course for this fall term

Science Fiction Cinema and Social Criticism

Prof. Langdon Winner
STSS-2962 and STSH-2962
Mon. & Thurs., 4 – 5:50  in Sage 3705
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Fall 2012
         Dept. of Science and Technology Studies        
Office hours: Wed. 10-11:00 & Thurs. 3-3:50 in Sage 5709 and by appointment: winner@rpi.edu

This class studies relationships between science fiction films and serious works of modern social criticism.  Through a careful reading of texts, analytical viewing of films and comparison of the two experiences we will explore some of the most significant issues in modern society.  As in all your classes, the real subject is: How to think!

Meetings.  We will meet twice a week.  Roughly half of our time will be spent viewing the films, the other half discussing them in relationship to the readings you be doing.  Everyone should come to class fully prepared to discuss the readings, films and their own ideas about them.  Regular, active participation is required and is an important part of your grade.  Attendance will usually be taken. You are responsible for putting initials next to your name in the day’s attendance sheet.  Please arrive promptly and be seated so we can view the lengthy films and discuss them.  [Note:  Because we will focus upon the material and each other – rather than the vast world of outside distractions -- this class will strictly maintain a “no laptop, no tablet, no smart phone” policy.]  

Readings:  Some of the books for the class are available in the Rensselaer Bookstore.  Others are online or on reserve in digital format (indicated by * on this syllabus) at Folsom Library listed under the course name and “Winner”. http://library.rpi.edu/setup.do
Readings will usually be discussed on the day they are listed.  Readings listed as “optional” readings often can be found by online search, in Folsom or through inter-library loan.  They are not required and have not been placed on reserve, however.

Weekly short papers:  For many (but not all) weeks of the term there will be short papers to help clarify and express your ideas, one page, single spaced (no longer!).   Usually these will be due at the Thursday session. These writings should be thoughtful, neat and printed.   The goal is to make sure you keep up with readings and ideas, making sure that when asked about the readings and films, you will have interesting things to say to the group.  [Note:  Weeks in which there are no papers due will be announced in class, in advance.]   Grades on these papers will be on a 5 to 1 scoring scale (5 = very good, 4 = good, 3 = average, 2 = poor, 1 = very poor, 0 = did not submit. 

Three essays:   I ask you to write three short essays, five pages double spaced (no longer!).  These essays will discuss the connection between the readings and films you have been studying.  Sample topics will be distributed, but you may propose topics and approaches to writing of your own.  Grades will be given on and A though F scale with “+” and “–“  as appropriate.  Excellent: A; Good: B; Average: C; Very poor: D; Failing: F.  Due dates: Sept. 27; Oct. 25; and Nov. 15.  No short essays are due on any of these due dates.  However, you must have done the readings for the day and be fully ready to discuss them.

Final exam: On December 6 there will be an in class final exam consisting of several short answer questions and one short essay.

Writing standards: To help you understand and anticipate the standards I will use to evaluate your writing, three items will be useful to you.  First is the “Key to the Marginal Notes” which provides an arcane code for understanding my notes on style, organization, and other features of your writing.  Thus, the code “UC” means “This passage is unclear.”  Second, you will receive a list of key features I’m looking for in your written work, each one arrayed on a sliding scale from Very Good to Needs to Improve.  Third, is the wonderful essay, “Politics and the English Language” by a writer, George Orwell, whose novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, we’ll read during the term. URL for the essay: http://orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/

Grades.  Your grade for the semester will be determined by:
(1) attendance in class and active participation in discussions 20%;  
(2) weekly short papers with your comments on course materials, 20%
(3) three short essays: 45%
(3) in class final exam: 15%

Absences:  You may miss any two daily sessions without excuse and skip any one week’s short paper without penalty.  If you miss more than that, your grade will suffer.  Excused absences will be recognized for illness, family emergency, required varsity sports travel, and other crucial matters with written notification.  Usually, a simple email will suffice.

Late papers:  ALL PAPERS MUST BE SUBMITTED IN CLASS and on time.  There will be NO EMAIL OF PAPERS at any time during the term.  (Don’t ask. If you miss turning in a paper for any reason, just bring it to class the following session.  The grade will be necessarily lower, but often better than zero.)  Your weekly short papers are due on Thursday unless notified otherwise.

Other materials on the Web:  As the course moves along some additional course writings and illustrations from the web may be assigned.

Academic integrity:  All work submitted must be your own.  If you borrow ideas or information of any kind (which is always essential to learning and creativity), please just give a clear reference to the original source, a footnote or endnote, for example.  This is easily done, expresses gratitude and is a good habit to cultivate.  Evidence of plagiarism, borrowing materials or ideas without credit as well as other forms of cheating, will be dealt with severely – a grade of “F” for the course.

Learning Outcomes:
With any luck, students in this class will improve their ability to:

(1)  understand and interpret important works of social criticism and corresponding themes in modern movies;
(2)  read books and watch films in an active, engaged (rather than passive) manner;
(3)  recognize contrasting ideas and arguments crucial in debates about politics, policy and ethics
that involve scientific technologies;
(4)  grasp the ways that film makers express ideas and concerns about humanity’s present
 and future prospects;
(5) improve their ability to think and write clearly;
(6)  ponder ways in which their own lives and careers might include reflective artistry in
      professional work or other pursuits:
(7) fathom and anticipate ways in which bureaucratic strictures such as Orwellian Newspeak “learning outcomes” statements tend to infringe upon academic freedom in ways that commodify, degrade and infantilize the process of becoming a thoughtful, well-educated person.


Week 1: Introduction

            August 27:      Discussion of the aims and requirements of the course.  Introductory comments
                                    about Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”
                        Roger Ebert, “How to Read a Movie,” http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/08/how_to_read_a_movie.html
                        “MacGuffin,” [a plot device in films]:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin

            August 30:   “Metropolis” -- vision of a technological future 
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”
                                    Available in several formats: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/61
                        “Metropolis (film),” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolis_%28film%29

Week 2:  Interpreting Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”

            September 3: Labor Day holiday (no class)

                        Readings: (to be discussed on Thursday, Sept. 6)
                        *Edgar Jung, “The Organic German Nation” in Roger Griffin ed., Fascism 
                        *Ernst Junger, “The Emergence of a New Type of Human Being,” in Griffin
                        *Martin Heidegger, “National Socialism as the Custodian of European Being”
                        Joseph Stiglitz, “The Price of Inequality,” interview with Amy Goodman

            September 6:  Workers, robots, class struggle, and the search for redemption

                        Adam Call Roberts, “Metropolis: A Proto-Fascist Anti-Utopia”
                        Optional reading (for the truly inspired):  Siegfried Krackauer, From Caligari to Hitler

Week 3:   The Bomb, Scientists and Paranoia

            September 10:  Alien invasions – a message for planet Earth

                        Film:  “The Day the Earth Stood Still”
*Cyndy Hendershot, “The Atomic Scientist, Science Fiction Films, and Paranoia:
            The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth, and Killers from Space”   
                        *Albert Einstein, “Survival is at Stake”
                        *Lewis Mumford, “Gentlemen You are Mad”

            September 13:   Science fiction films as expressions of social unrest

Cyndy Hendershot, “Monsters at the Soda Shop: Teenagers and
Fifties Horror Films”
                        Seth D. Baum, et al, “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm
                                                Humanity? A Scenario Analysis”
            Ian Sample, ““Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists”

            Optional reading (for sci-fi pulp magazine fans): Henry Bates, “Farewell to the Master”
            [the 1940s short story that inspired “The Day the Earth Stood Still”] 

Week 4:  The Total State and Technologies of Control

            September 17:  George Orwell’s vision of humanity crushed

                        Film:  “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (Michael Radford’s adaptation)

                                    George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

            September 20:  How many of Orwell’s fears are being realized today?

                        Reading:  Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four  (to the conclusion)
                                       Glenn Greenwald, “Extremism Normalized”

                                       Newt Gingrich, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”
Week 5:   Supreme Rationality and/ or Utter Madness

            September 24:  America’s technocratic era

            Film:  “Dr. Strangelove”

                        Ida Hoos, *Systems Analysis and Public Policy, (selections on reserve)
                        “Robert MacNamara,”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara
                        September 27   [First essay is due in class.]
            Films:  “Dr. Strangelove” (conclusion) and a BBC documentary:  “Pandora’s Box”
                        by Adam Curtis

                        Louis Menand, “Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age”

            Optional reading (for the curious):  “Herman Kahn,” in wikipedia

Week 6:  Humans and Androids in a Dystopian World

            October 1:  The imagination of Philip K. Dick

                        Philip K.Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 
                        or:   http://www.kejvmen.sk/dadoes.pdf

                        [Note today we will discuss Dick’s novel fully and look only at the very
                          beginning of the film.]

            October 4:  Artificiality and the “other”
                        Film:  “Blade Runner” (the final cut, 117 min.)

            Optional reading: (for the philosophically minded)
                        Stanislaw Lem, “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans”

Week 7:   How to Read a Movie

            Tuesday, October 9 – [Note: Monday becomes a Tuesday session this week]

            Film:  A scene-by-scene analysis of “Blade Runner” in “cinema interruptus” mode

                        Roger Ebert, “How to Read a Movie,”
                        [Read the some of the comments that follow Ebert’s essay as well.]

            October 11 – Cinema Interuptus: “democracy in the dark” continues

Week 8:   Philosophy of Technology in Cinema

            October 15
            Reading: Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, pp. xxv-xxxvi and pp. 3-107

            October 18
            Film, “Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance)”

Week 9:    Mass Media, Reality and Illusion

            October 22:  Is everybody happy?  Oh, yeah!

            Film:  “The Truman Show”

                        Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,
                        chapters I and IV

            October 25:  An illusion called “America”
            [Second essays are due in class.]   
                        Empire of Illusion, chapter V

Week 10:   Reinventing Discrimination (and Blasting It into Space!)

October 29:  The origins and dynamics of inequality

            Film:  “Gattaca”

            *Derrick Bell, “After We’re Gone: Prudent Speculations on America
                                    in a Post-Racial Epoch”
            *Sun Ra, This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra, selected poems
with Introductions by Amiri Baraka and Bhob Steward

Film:  “Sun Ra Arkestra live at Montreux 1976” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7j-Hm2NgFM

November 1:  Genetic engineering and social policy

                        “Racial Segregation in the United States,” Wikipedia
                        “Eugenics in the United States,” Wikipedia 

Week 11:   Is High Tech Civilization Inherently Violent?

            November 5:  Earthlings as the alien invaders

            Film:  “Avatar”

                        *Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol. I, selections to be announced

            November 8  Beings in harmony with nature

                        Endgame, selections to be announced

Week 12:   Post-Apocalyptic Visions I

            November 12:  concluding discussion of “Avatar” and Jensen readings
                        Endgame, selections to be announced           

            November 15:  Environment and society collapse
                                    [Your third essay is due in class.]
            Film: “The Road”  [Note the film will be show in its entirety today.]
                        Begin reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Week 13:   Post-Apocalyptic Visions II

            November 21

            No film today.  Continue your reading of The Road, now and over the Thanksgiving holiday.

            November 24 – No class, Thanksgiving feasting!

Week 14:  Post-Apocalyptic Visions II (continued)

            November 26
            Discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in comparison with the movie, “The Road,” based upon the novel

Weeks 14 and 15:  Technology and Narcissism (a pungent combination)

            November 29

            Reading:  Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion, chapter II, “The Illusion of Love”

            Film, “15 Million Merits” (from the Black Mirror series)

            December 3
            Readings:  James Rivington, “Project Glass: what you need to know”
            Sherry Turkle, “The Flight from Conversation”

            Film:  “The Entire History of You,” (from the Black Mirror series)

            December 6:  Final exam in class


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  3. Anonymous5:58 PM

    I am writing my MA thesis from the actual topics.The period I am discussing is :the long 1950s" from 1946-1964.I am trying to go against Susan Sontag and her essay in which she claimed("The Imagination of Disaster")that science fiction is far from social criticism.Although,I am trying to prove that it was the only genre capable of doing so.If you could suggest me some books that are worth dealing with,please let me know.


    An American Studies MA student from Hungary

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