Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Radical Composition Syllabus - Terrorism

A fellow PhD. student and I decided that whilst we are graduate students in English, at a tech university that builds the machinery to kill tomorrow's Iraqis we wanted the freshmen to at least have an idea of the stakes of their eventual careers. Together we developed a syllabus that explores: "Is terrorism merely a destructive force bent on undermining Western civilization? Is it a politically necessary tactic or strategy? Is it used only by the powerless to resist domination? Or do powerful states and institutions also use terror for their own purposes? What forms of protest are labeled as “terrorism” and who has the authority to make such distinctions?" This syllabus works well with the comp. curriculum here because all of it is based on analyzing and mapping arguments, all before students can contribute their own positions.

A great deal of the syllabus uses Samuel Huntington's article as a foil: an article that we did not assign until midsemester so that it would appear an illegitimate. This seems necessary given that H's position is largely the position students come to the class with--the assumption that terrorism is a response to Western culture and its open society, rather than a historical series of political decisions and interventions (Mamdani is great for responding to this). Beginning with Kellner's article on globalization works well to contextualize terrorism not as some primordial, pre-modern specter emerging to haunt humanity but a response to contemporary, shifting global forces and relationships, as well as in the context of an international series of interconnected resistances. Several of the articles emphasize the stakes of nationalism which are obliterated by the current media discourse that confuses insurgent with terrorist. I also highly recommend coupling the first two chapters of Mike Davis' short history of the car bomb (a very accessible, short book) with the documentary The Weather Underground (trailer below) to highlight the homegrown aspects of terrorism as well.

I generally like to do something a little more philosophical to finish off the semester to open up more room before the students complete their last paper, in which they take a position of their own. The Baudrillard fell flat unfortunately because of the dense discussion of good vs. evil which drew students to speculate on human nature which works a little counter to the material from the course that emphasizes historical precedent. I am trying to use a chapter from Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom this summer to redefine the meaning of "freedom" in the contemporary context indicating that Protestantism and capitalist selfish individualism both participate in the production of subjects afraid to exercise their freedoms. It might be a little more accessible. This is an old piece from the psychoanalyst of the Frankfurt School, but it is by far some of their more accessible work.

Suggested Readings:

Ahmad, Eqbal. “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.” Presentation. University of Colorado, Boulder. 12
Oct. 1998.

Ali, Tariq. “Mid-Point in the Middle East?” The New Left Review 38, March-April 2006. New York: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean. “L’Esprit du Terrorisme.” Trans. Michel Valentin. The South Atlantic
Quarterly 101.2 (2002): 403-415.

bin-Laden, Osama. Interview with Taysir Alluni. al-Jazeera. 20 Oct. 2001. Published as “Terror
for Terror.” Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin-Laden. Ed. Bruce
Lawrence. Trans. James Howarth. London: Verso, 2005. 106-129.

Davis, Mike. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso. 2007.

Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations.” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (1993): 22-49.

Kellner, Douglas. “Theorizing Globalization.” Sociological Theory 20.3 (2002): 285-305.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Good Muslin, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and
Terrorism.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 766-75.

Mann, Michael. Incoherent Empire. London: Verso, 2003.

Paglen, Trevor and A.C. Thompson. Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.
NY: Melville House Publishing, 2006.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. “America and the World: The Twin Towers as Metaphor.” Charles R.
Lawrence II Memorial Lecture, Brooklyn College, 5 Dec. 2001.

Alternative Readings:

Fromm, Erich. Escape From Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1942.

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