Seminar: Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies

L470 — Fall 2021

Cass Turner
Days and Times
4:55p - 6:10p MW (3 CR)
Course Description

Topic: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Today, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is most famous for having developed binomial nomenclature, the system we still use for naming living organisms. What many people do not know is that Linnaeus’s taxonomic method divided the natural world into three kingdoms. There were the two kingdoms of plants and of animals, as we might assume. There was also a third kingdom of minerals—rocks, fossils, and ores. What might have motivated “the father of modern taxonomy” to use the same method of identification to designate both living and non-living things? Why do human beings classify natural things at all? And what questions do these classificatory systems raise—not only for science, but also for the fields of ethics, aesthetics, and politics?

In this course, we explore these questions by looking back to the periods of the Enlightenment and Romanticism—the historical moment in which these modes of knowledge were being established, commercialized, and debated in the public sphere. Throughout, we’ll be interested in how these classificatory practices also helped to define the human itself. How is the category of the human related to both the classification of living things into species—and to the historical constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality? When we say “we,” who is included in that community? Our pets? Our pests? Our dead? Might “we” include mountains—or, in the words of the poet William Wordsworth, “rocks, and stones, and trees”? Readings for the course will include philosophical and scientific texts; novels, poems, and a play; as well as select secondary and theoretical texts. In the imaginative literature we read, we’ll find that creative writers were just as capable as scientists and theorists of developing complex approaches to these challenging questions. Our archive of texts will reveal to us a variety of ways that human beings have encountered, defined, used, cared for, and lived with other creatures and entities. In doing so, we’ll find, these texts also offer up ways that human beings have understood—and sometimes misunderstood—themselves.

Interested in this course?

The full details of this course are available on the Office of the Registrar website.

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