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About This Course

Futurity: Why The Past Matters

Stanford University - Winter 2015

COMPLIT 271 (German 271) 

Tues/Thurs, 11:00am-12:30pm 

Course Description 

Drawing on literature, the arts, political discourse, museums, and new media, this course asks why and how we take interest in the watershed events of the modern era; how does contemporary culture engage with modern, man-made disasters such as the World Wars or 9/11? Moreover, what do these engagements tell us about the relationship between narrative, representation, interpretation, and agency? Readings and viewings include the literature of Ian McEwan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Thomas Mullen; films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour, The Reader, Inglorious Basterds, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Act of Killing, and rhetoric and speeches by world leaders like George W. Bush; historiography by Tony Judt and Niall Ferguson, new media and digital games; and the theoretical writing of Hayden White, Hanna Arendt, and Frederic Jameson, among others. The course readings, videos, media, and assignments will be hosted on a Stanford-based digital humanities platform, Lacuna Stories. By the end of this course, you be able to utilize a theoretical toolkit to conduct the stages of inquiry necessary to make convincing claims (in various modalities) on why and how the past matters. 

Student Success in this Course Will Include:

  1. Completing all the grading requirements.
  2. Demonstrating the ability to approach the study of the past, and why and how it matters, by using representations as the primary object of analysis.
  3. Deonstrating the ability to thoughtfully and persuasively explore causation and how actions preceding events inform how we adjudicate the “success” of representations of that event in their ethical ability to capture complexity of actions and reactions.
  4. Demonstrating the ability to thoughtfully and persuasively explore the rhetoric of possibilities of representations and their affects.
  5. Demonstrating the ability to be able to, at times, move analysis away from what “actually happened” in the past, to instead consider representations of the past beyond their literal representational value to their symbolic, metaphorical, creative, political, and ethical operations.
  6. Demonstrating competency in evaluating or performing many of the 21st century literacies driving this course.
  7. Demonstrating the ability to be a social learner, collaborating respectfully in our group exploration of “why the past matters” by bringing your unique perspective, skills, and literacies to our 10-week enterprise.

About the Instructors

Amir Eshel is Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies, Professor of German Studies and Director of the Department of Comparative Literature. He is also an Affiliated Faculty at The Europe Center at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His research focuses on the contemporary literature and the arts, with emphasis on twentieth and twenty-first century German, Anglo-American and Hebrew. As the faculty director of Stanford’s research group on The Contemporary and of the Poetic Media Project at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), he is interested in the contemporary cultural imagination as it addresses modernity’s traumatic past with its philosophical, political and ethical implications. Amir is currently working on a new project that examines poetry, prose and narratives across media as they raise ethical dilemmas.



Brian Johnsrud is completing his PhD in Stanford University’s Modern Thought and Literature program. After teaching middle and high school for a few years while getting a master’s endorsement in library and media science from MSU, he had the good fortune to nab a Rhodes Scholarship. At Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship, he received two masters degrees, one in medieval literature, (focusing on the Crusades and religiously-inspired violence) and the second in cultural anthropology, (focusing on cultural memory and the Middle East).

Brian’s current research interests include, broadly, cultural memory, media studies, medieval literature and the Crusades, the Middle East, the military, war and violence, performance, anthropology, cultural production and transmission. He is also interested in the digital humanities, and he is the co-director and project manager for Lacuna Stories. 


About the Teaching Assistant

Max Suechting is a PhD candidate in Stanford's Program in Modern Thought and Literature.