30 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003
From questionable stories of Roman emperors drowning their dinner guests in roses to the smoke-painted reveries of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (1857), tropes of decadence—decay, decline, decomposition—have flourished in modern times. Why have new, powerful tropes of decadence become so central to forms of modern culture and politics?
Decadence has played a vital role in modern narratives of culture, history, and political economy, in part because narratives of progress, revitalization, and renovation often summon up the specters of entropy and degeneration. On one hand, decadence can indicate a sense of historical or cultural loss in the face of swift-moving technological progress. On the other, it can also signal a fidelity to the artificial or the constructed over the seemingly natural. Often, decadence expresses a florid stylistic tendency that reflects perceptions of a civilization in decline. The contradictions of decadence can encompass grasping for outdated morals or a deviation from increasingly urgent moral norms. It can illuminate a decaying world order (capitalism; bourgeois culture), or a utopian renunciation of failing forms of social life. How does this paradoxical history inflect our understanding of decadence in the contemporary moment, in which the sense of an ending reverberates at scale? How do narratives of decadence function in phenomena ranging from climate change to the rhetoric of electoral politics to the fabric of ordinary life?
In this course, we’ll study modern decadence in literature, visual art, and theory, concentrating on nineteenth- and twentieth-century France, Germany, and England. We will ask: what has decadence meant historically and what does it mean now? What are the uses—ethically, politically, poetically, and otherwise—of narratives of decadence? How should we understand decadence as a stylistic tendency and what are its relationships to romanticism, modernism, and the avant-garde? What does it mean to claim decadence or, by contrast, to designate a person, place, thing, age, or phenomenon “decadent”? What are the material conditions that give rise to myths of decadence? And what kinds of counter-narratives do these myths suggest? The syllabus for this course will draw on the work of Adorno, Baudelaire, Benjamin, Lenin, Luxemburg, Huysmans, Marx, Nietzsche, Poe, Showalter, Wilde, and Yeats.
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm
June 06 — June 27, 2017