2017-2018 Catalog

CSLC 210 Reading Bodies: Face, Race, Space in German Thought

The obsession with interpreting moral character based on physical (especially facial) features has endured since antiquity under the name of "physiognomy." Strangely, interest in this esoteric art exploded during the "Age of Reason," the Enlightenment, when it first became codified as an empirical science. Starting with the writings of Johann Caspar Lavater, whose monumental "Physiognomic Fragments" (1775-78) advocated physiognomy as a means of "promoting human understanding and human love," this course will explore the widespread influence that the art of interpreting physical features had in the intellectual and artistic milieu of the 18th century, and, arguably, continues to exert in the modern day. We will examine physiognomy in the aesthetic, cultural, literary, and scientific contexts of the German Enlightenment, dealing with major figures such as Goethe, Lessing, Lichtenberg, Schiller, and Hegel, as well as the unprecedented boom in popularity of physiognomy around 1900, when it was embraced by many prominent strands of German thought, from the "philosophy of life" (Nietzsche, Spengler, Kassner) and literary modernism (Rilke, Benn, Musil), to eugenics, criminology, and racial biology. Concluding with the rise of Nazism and Nazi attacks on modern art as “degenerate," the course will assess to what extent Walter Benjamin's thesis that "[t]here is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism" holds true for the historical trajectory of German thought. Topics include: the relationship between texts and images, theories and practices of interpretation, as well as the complicity of the arts and sciences in constructing theories of racial difference. All readings and discussion will be in English.


4 units

Core Requirements Met

  • Regional Focus