The French Revolution
This seminar will be a deep dive into the world-historical event that gave birth to modernity: the French Revolution.
The seminar will offer students a foundation for understanding the extraordinary complexity of the Revolution itself. After getting up to speed quickly, we will devote most of our time to work on primary documents, works, and artefacts of the Revolution. We will ask some fundamental questions: do books make Revolutions? That is, what relationships can we establish between Enlightenment writing (especially that of Rousseau) and Revolution? Conversely, we will ask whether Revolutions can create art: we will study revolutionary theater (which, like the press, grew exponentially), study the great painter and revolutionary Jacques-Louis David—thanks to the importance of David, art historians such as T.J. Clark have offered some of the most compelling accounts of the relations among art, modernity, and revolutionary politics. We will explore the meaning and significance of “minor literature” (and in so doing seek to ask what minor literature is) and popular culture in shaping the Revolution; and seek to understand how the lines between art and propaganda are drawn.
The Revolution spurred and was shaped by the explosion of print—literally hundreds of newspapers sprang to life to life nearly immediately. We will read revolutionary journalists from the obscure to the famous (Camille Desmoulins), to the infamous (Marat). The Revolution also inaugurated a new era of oratory; we will read major speeches given in the National Assembly by Robespierre, Siéyès, Condorcet, and more. We will study some famous and some not so famous debates. We will study the politics of the street: marches, riots, and political posters (many of which are available for study in the Bancroft Rare Books library). We will study the Haitian Revolution, itself a world-historical event, and the relation between it and the French Revolution.
We will study the French Revolution’s re-invention of time and space: i.e. the invention of the Revolutionary republican calendar (refigured by a poet!) and of the metric system.
This seminar will immerse students in the specificity of the Revolution itself, and also help us examine even larger questions about the relation between art and history, artistic representation and political representation, and the relation between political and social equality. We will study revolutionary changes to language, law, conceptions of race, the family, the city of Paris, and much more.
All this, and the guillotine!
Readings will be in French, class discussion largely in English.