Writing Seminars: How to Be a Good Pessimist

Do we live in the worst of all possible worlds? If your answer to this question is “yes,” you might be a pessimist. Philosophershave debated for centuries whether human beings are innately good or evil, whether history leads to perfection or descends into madness, and whether life is joy or endless suffering. In 2017, as nuclear superpowers face-off and climate change threatens the biosphere, these ancient questions have gained new urgency. On the side of sorrow, the pessimist sings with Townes Van Zandt, “we all got holes to fill / them holes are all that’s real.” She echoes Voltaire, who writes that we are “born to endure either the convulsions of anxiety or the lethargy of boredom.” Buteven when confronted with misery, a pessimist need not be nihilistic, conservative, depressed, or unhappy. In this course, we consider how pessimism has been an essential if controversial resource for revolutionary politics. We begin by introducing a set of classic debates on pessimism.Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, and Camus all disputed the likelihood of human progress, the relationship of slavery to civilization, and the most ethical means of achieving freedom. The second and third parts of the course concern extensions of those debates into the 21st century. First, we study the Afro-Pessimists, a group of thinkers who believe, in the words of Frank Wilderson III, that the entire world “is sutured by anti-Black solidarity.” We investigate how Afro-Pessimism has shaped arguments about reparations for slavery, black feminism, and science fiction. Then, we look at the place of pessimism in queer life, specifically, the global AIDS crisis, the fight for marriage equality, and decolonization. We will ask, how have pessimists imagined a future free from oppression, if not pain? What value can we find in our lives under such conditions? And perhaps most significantly, where (if it all) can we build a just society in a broken world? 


Students who wish to enroll in this seminar should participate in online preregistration, which opens at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 23 and closes promptly at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, August 28, 2017.

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MW 2:30pm-3:45pm