This course is designed to reflect on the figure of the public intellectual as incarnated by Susan Sontag (1933-2004), an American woman who has for decades acted as an ambassador and cultural bridge between Europe and the United States of America. Her iconic status owes precisely to her performance of the public intellectual, as someone who who found her points of reference in great European thinkers and was a vital actor in the displacement of European ideas in the US. We will read an array of landmark texts, from “Against Interpretation” to “Notes on Camp,” from her portraits of influential Europeans like Emil Cioran and Walter Benjamin to her meditation on war and photography in Regarding the Pain of Others. From her defiant beginnings, through her longing to think out of the box, to her political activism, Sontag’s production spans from the 1960s to the early 2000s, and engages not only important global concerns (such as power, fascism, and violence) but also different geographical areas (Vietnam, Former-Jugoslavia, but also Latin America).
In this course, encountering Sontag will be instrumental to achieving the main objective, and that is understanding reading, thinking, and writing as interconnected practices. We will read, reflect on, and write on the issues raised by Sontag’s work but none of these moments can be severed one from the other or stand entirely on its own. While we will implement the knowledge gleaned in the course through the capacity for making arguments and advancing them clearly and with evidentiary support, both in communicative context (debate) and in well-structured academic papers, nevertheless our understanding of “critical thinking” will be less procedural and more process-oriented. This means that, given the phrase “critical thinking,” we will lean toward the “critical” understood in the affirmative and ampler sense championed by bell hooks in her marvelous essay, “The intellectual life.” Let me quote her to invite you in: “During my final undergraduate year and throughout graduate school I was drawn to intellectual work. Discovering a passion for working with ideas, for critical thinking, and theory I found a new path for myself. Once again it was anti-racist civil rights struggle and feminist movement which served as the locations where I channeled my desire to do intellectual work, to become a cultural critic.” Notice how hooks provocatively upholds “critical thinking” as synonymous with “working with ideas,” depriving the phrase of any procedural aura and incorporating the “critical” part in the basic, naked act of thinking. For the kind of public intellectual that Sontag incarnates, as for hooks, the life of the mind amounts neither to a solipsistic exercise nor to a procedure, but must always co-exist with an outside of conflicts and struggles, and a concern with lives that are always in relation to history and to their context.
In line with the aims of the Program in International Comparative Relations, in this course students develop a mastery of written and oral communication in English, read texts of increasing complexity, practice critical reflection and learn to produce an academic paper using the convention of the international academic community.