Witnessing War

Autumn 2019-2020


Rachel Galvin

War is a defining phenomenon of the twentieth century, yet there is no consensus on how to represent it. How can the experience of extremity or atrocity be described? Who might provide a more trustworthy account of events—a soldier, civilian eyewitness, news reporter, or philosopher? How do political bias and propaganda complicate our understanding of the reliability of war stories? We begin by evaluating arguments about war and its representation by a range of international writers including Wilfred Owen, W.B. Yeats, and Tim O’Brien. Next, we explore the intellectual’s role in witnessing war by reading Primo Levi’s autobiographical account of Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, alongside critical texts by thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Said, Susan Sontag, and Judith Butler. In the course of the quarter, we’ll examine a range of classic writings on war by Karl von Clausewitz, Immanuel Kant, Ernst Jünger, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt, and others. In the last part of the course, we consider responses to the United States’ involvement in the wars of the twenty-first century. Texts may include Nick Flynn’s memoir The Ticking Is the Bomb and contemporary poetry from writers such as Don Mee Choi, Mónica de la Torre, Philip Metres, Solmaz Sharif, Juliana Spahr, Ocean Vuong, and C.D. Wright. We conclude with a look at war as represented in painting and photography, and a discussion of Susan Sontag’s controversial New York Times article about the American use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. (1830-1940, Fiction, Poetry, Theory)