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Course Overview

In his novel The Echo Maker, Richard Powers writes that the self is “not one, continuous, indivisible whole, but instead, hundreds of separate subsystems, with changes in any one sufficient to disperse the provisional confederation into unrecognizable new countries.” Contemporary thinkers working in diverse disciplines and genres have invented theories of selfhood that address a common question: Why does the self feel whole and real if we can’t locate it? Neurologist Antonio Damasio argues the self is the product of “distributed” brain processes that create a feeling of wholeness; philosopher Daniel Dennett has proposed a “multiple drafts” theory to suggest that the self a continuously revised composition; literary critic Nancy K. Miller proposes that the autobiography is the story of the self’s fundamental relation to other people and other texts. Though these theories are diverse, they share the premise that the self is anything but static. Many contemporary thinkers share the belief that the self is a dynamic invention—a continuously evolving product physiology, social relations, artistic practice, and technological innovation. In this course, we will investigate the methods various thinkers and writers use to explore this proposition and the many questions it raises.

Each week’s course reading combines a variety of disciplinary methods and genres of writing. Class discussion will focus on the how particular methods or genres allow us to ask certain questions and produce particular kinds of knowledge or understanding. Students will contribute to our course blog on a weekly basis and develop research projects that allow them pursue questions about selfhood from the perspectives of their particular disciplinary interests. In most cases, these projects will engage more than a single discipline, giving students the opportunity to practice the methodologies of particular disciplines and the synthesis required to create productive dialogue among disciplines. We will publish the research projects as on online anthology, in collaboration with another MALS 70000 course, “Oversharing,” taught by Professor Carrie Hintz.

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