Course # 01:090:294:H3
Index # 06611
Thursday 10:20 AM - 1:20 PM
Campus CAC
Location: HC - S126
Trip McCrossin (Philosophy)


“Why do bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad?” is as old and challenging a question as any in intellectual history, going back at least as far as the Old Testament’s Book of Job, otherwise known as the problem of evil—the perniciously difficult to satisfy “need to find order within those appearances so unbearable that they threaten reason’s ability to go on,” as Susan Neiman has described it. (1) It’s a very old problem, that is, but one made regularly new. The proposed seminar is designed to explore this phenomenon, as reflected in certain strains in the history of philosophy, with Neiman’s assistance, in related ones in popular culture, old and new, and in the ways these strains are reciprocally clarifying.

Given the problem’s deep and wide-ranging roots in longstanding intellectual history, we can’t reasonably aspire to sample it all. Rather, we’ll adopt a more episodic approach.

1. We’ll begin with the Book of Job, in its original incarnation and as adapted, searching for some of the basic dimensions of the problem. Among its many adaptations, and the many occasions it’s been referenced and incorporated to one degree or another, we’ll focus in particular on Ethan and Joel Coen’s A Serious Man (2009) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).

2. Having worked to identify some of the basic dimensions of the problem, in an ancient poem and its contemporary adaptations, we’ll move back again to the eighteenth century. We’ll review in broad strokes Neiman’s identification of a secular version of the problem that evolved in the first half of the century, to accompany the older, more conventional theological version, and two broad sorts of response to the problem, one more “optimistic,” the other more “pessimistic.” We’ll engage not only with her analysis, but in particular at three formative controversies which it reflects—between Bayle and Leibniz, Rousseau and Voltaire, and Hume and Kant. In addition to a better understanding of this swath of history of philosophy, the hope is to reflect a different, more enjoyable way to do such history than the relatively antiseptic way it’s typically done.

3. We’ll turn then to popular culture that follows, in particular a pair of nineteenth- and twentieth-century storylines: the gothic tradition, through the lens of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and its various adaptations, and the dystopia tradition, through the lens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and their various adaptations.

4. Back to philosophy, as it develops in the aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust in particular, the trial and execution of Adolph Eichmann more specifically still, including Hannah Arendt’s watershed “report” on it for The New Yorker, in five installments in February and March of 1963, and in book form later that year, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which Neiman tells us is nothing short of “the twentieth century’s most important philosophical [perspective on] the problem of evil.” Here we want not only to look at the details of Arendt’s view, but, following Neiman, to understand it as in dialogue with the work for Jean Améry.

5. As in the passage from #2 to #3 above, we’ll turn to popular culture that follows, fleshing out an intuition of Neiman’s, that “the forms of evil that appeared in the twentieth century made demands modern consciousness could not meet,” not obviously at least, which produces additional “fragmentation” in hitherto available responses to the problem, as described in #2 above. We’ll explore a variety of storylines that develop in the wake of Eichmann—for example, a selection of episodes from the original incarnations of two television series, Perry Mason (1957-66) and The Twilight Zone (1959-64); a comic book series collected into an a two-volume graphic novel, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1973-1994); and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Bruce Miller’s television adaptation (2017ff), a sequel as of season two, and Atwood’s own sequel, The Testaments (2019).

6. Having laid the above ground, the concluding third to half of the semester will be more free-form, addressing materials identified and chosen more collectively.

About Trip McCrossin

Professor Trip McCrossin teaches classes in the history and legacy of the Enlightenment, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy, and in contemporary ethical and political issues and popular culture. He strives to organize them to be as thoroughly conversational and exploratory as possible, and to relate philosophy as often as possible to the cultures we live in, and in this spirit, contributes periodically to essay collections published in several "popular culture and philosophy" series. He studied at the University of Michigan and Stanford and Yale Universities, and before coming to Rutgers in 2003, worked for some years in the labor movement.


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