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Political Theory Through Science Fiction: Utopias, Dystopias and Allegories

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Course DatesMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
July 13, 2020 - July 31, 20207/13 - 7/31M-F 12:15P-3:05POpenRachel Nusbaum
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Course Description

Since Plato, political philosophers have both feared and admired the power of the arts. In this class, we will ask why. What can fiction—and in particular, science fiction—reveal that speaks to the enduring questions of political theory? And what makes it seem potentially dangerous?

In this course, students will engage seriously with both standard philosophical texts and sci-fi classics. We will discuss and debate key issues in political theory including the nature of power, the origins of human society, the purpose of political life, and the nature of justice. In addition to becoming familiar with key political thinkers, students will be asked to consider what the works of fiction we consider tell us about race, class, gender, sexuality, environmental catastrophe, authoritarianism, and human aspiration that the more traditional texts may overlook.

Students will read classic works of political theory alongside works of science fiction which, in their own way, have something to say about the enduring questions of political philosophy. Starting with Plato’s famous allegory of the cave and Nietzsche’s parable about birds of prey, we will see how philosophers themselves have turned to story to express certain insights. We will consider the idea of utopia, with help from Sir Thomas Moore, as well as the dystopia depicted in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Selections from W.E. B. Du Bois, Hobbes, Rousseau, Foucault and Kafka will be considered.

We will also (based on the time available and student interest) cover a broad range of sci-fi classics from authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, Phillip K. Dick, and N. K. Jemisin. In addition, films like Blade Runner, Existenz, They Live, Children of Men and The Matrix will help us to further delve into the power of story to connect us to some of the urgent questions that drive political theory. Lastly, we will consider how these works might allow us to think differently about contemporary political challenges including mass incarceration, surveillance technologies like facial recognition, racism, patriarchy and environmental destruction.

We will consider the artistic as well as the philosophical qualities of these works, and as such this class may be of particular interest to those with an interest in creative writing, film, politics, philosophy, race and gender studies, or social criticism.

Students will engage with the material in a variety of ways, including in short written reflections and an oral presentation on one of the assigned works. This will ensure that students leave the class prepared to express their thoughts, both verbally and in writing, clearly and concisely. The emphasis will be on class discussion, working together to unearth the deeper meanings and foundational assumptions of these texts.

As a result of completing this course, students will have learned to engage texts closely and be able to walk into a college classroom confident in their ability to contribute to class discussion.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this course. Students are asked to bring an open mind and to come prepared to engage in serious discussion about these text with their peers.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPS0986
  • Length: 3 weeks

Program Information

Summer@Brown

Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2020.

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