21G.013 | Fall 2005 | Undergraduate

Out of Ground Zero: Catastrophe and Memory


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


Within twenty-four hours of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 politicians, artists, and cultural critics had begun to ask how to memorialize the deaths of thousands of people. This question persists today, but it can also be countered with another: is building a monument the best way to commemorate that moment in history? What might other discourses, media, and art forms offer in such a project of collective memory? How can these cultural formations help us to assess the immediate reaction to the attack? To approach these issues, “Out of Ground Zero” looks back to earlier sites of catastrophe in Germany and Japan.

This course includes a one-day field trip to New York in 3rd week. Students will meet with architects and photojournalists, and view the clearing in Lower Manhattan. Following the excursion, reading assignments will expand to form a cross-cultural, trans-historical base. The curriculum engages signal texts on the notion of “ground zero” in urban culture. Works of literature, cinema, and art, as well as architecture and choreography will be considered. The course draws from these works to develop a provisional scope through which to analyze the diverse responses to the World Trade Center attacks.

A central text for this course is Collective Memory. Here French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs offers critical insights on the impact of urban destruction on social groups. Does Halbwachs’ argument – that collective identity actually deepens in the wake of demolition – still hold today? His thesis about the non-architectural means of community building render more salient the question of how to analyze the media and culture produced in the wake of September 11.

Among the topics of discussion are:

  • Should there be a World Trade Center memorial? If so, when and how should it be planned? Who would be the audience? Besides a built memorial, what are other adequate cultural responses to the events of September 11?
  • What are the specific literary and iconographic dimensions of the ruin of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Lower Manhattan? Can they be compared to literary representations of the death camps in Auschwitz?
  • What are the points of convergence and divergence among these four sites? How do they register in memory?
  • What are the application limits of European social thought on the cases of American and Japanese culture and history?


The course will introduce certain main currents of social thought and will expose you to a range of issues of public significance. You will be expected to construct arguments of your own, both in speech and writing, about the issues raised.


Copies of the readings will be distributed in class. For background on the principles of literature and cinema studies, please consult:

Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing about Literature. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1979. ISBN: 0321104765.

Monaco, James. How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, Multimedia: Language, History, Theory. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 019513981X.


activities percentages
Participation in Class Discussion and Submission of 10 Brief Written Responses 25%
First Essay (500-750 words) 15%
Second Essay (750-1000 words) 20%
One Oral Presentation 15%
Final Examination 25%

To receive a passing grade for this course students must meet all course requirements.


Participation in Class Discussion and Submission of 10 Brief Written Responses

Class participation is essential to this course. In order to make a valuable contribution students should come prepared to each class. Assigned readings must be completed before each class meeting. A guiding question shall accompany each assignment. Students who are unable to attend a class must inform the instructor in advance, either in person or by telephone. Students with more than four unexcused absences shall be dropped from the class.

On most days, students shall submit brief written responses (100-150 words each) to the question on the reading assignment. Although these responses will not be graded, such individual preparation will enhance class discussions. Further, regular writing practice will prepare students for longer papers, both in this course and beyond. Of the 10 questions distributed over the course of the semester students may select 9 to which they would like to respond. Students shall account for their progress with this series by consecutively marking each text (i.e. 1/10, 2/10…) No extensions shall be granted for these writing assignments.

Courtesy toward others in discussions is expected. No eating, no hats, no personal media, thanks.

First Essay (500-750 Words), Second Essay (750-1000 words)

One of the primary goals of this course is the development and refinement of critical analysis and argument. To this end students will write two essays. About two weeks before a given due date students must submit a brief outline of the essay they plan to write. In finished essays any and all references must be cited. Essays must conform to MLA standards.

Essays are due at noon on the dates indicated. Essays submitted late without prior permission from the instructor will be penalized by one full letter grade. Essays submitted more than one week late will be penalized by two full letter grades. Always keep a printed copy of your essay.

One Oral Presentation

In addition to the writing assignments, students will also be expected to deliver an oral presentation. Students shall prepare and present a one-page handout on the day’s reading. In these twenty-minute presentations students should provide a summary of the author’s main points, describe the historical context in which the text was produced, and open up a few questions for discussion.

Presentations will be evaluated according to the following criteria: insight, clarity, and, importantly, the degree to which presenters stimulate the thoughtful participation of their classmates.

Final Examination

A cumulative final examination shall be given at the end of term. The examination shall consist of an identification section and a selection of essay questions from a list distributed one week prior to the test date.