21G.031J | Spring 2003 | Undergraduate

Topics in the Avant-Garde in Literature and Cinema


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


Examines the terms “avant garde” and “Kulturindustrie” in French and German culture of the early twentieth century. Considering the origins of these concepts in surrealist and dadaist literature, art, and cinema, the course then expands to engage parallel formations across Europe, particularly in the former Soviet Union. Emphasis on the specific historical conditions that enabled these interventions. Guiding questions are these: What was original about the historical avant-garde? What connections between art and revolution did avant-garde writers and artists imagine? What strategies did they deploy to meet their modernist imperatives? To what extent did their projects maintain a critical stance towards the culture industry?

Surveying key interventions in the fields of poetry, painting, sculpture, photography, film, and music, the readings also include signal moments in critical thought of the last century. Figures to be considered are: Adorno, Aragon, Bataille, Beckett, Brecht, Breton, Bürger, Duchamp, Eisenstein, Ernst, Jünger, Greenberg, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mayakovsky, and Tzara. Taught in English, but students are encouraged to consult original sources when possible.


The course will introduce main currents of European cultural history and aesthetic practice. You will be expected to construct arguments of your own about the issues raised. The course places a premium on excellence in communication; papers and oral presentations account for nearly 100% of the final grade. Students are expected to demonstrate progress in critical analysis and expression.

Undergraduate Requirements

The method of pedagogy is based in three modes: instruction, practice, and feedback. Students are given the fullest opportunity to engage in seminar discussions. Students shall receive constructive commentary on each assignment, and will be asked to revise their work when appropriate.

  1. 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 three unexcused absences shall be automatically dropped from the class. 

    On most days students shall submit brief written responses (150-200 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 13 questions distributed over the course of the semester students may select 10 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. 

    Grading: Participation in class discussion and submission of ten brief written responses — 25%.

  2. One of the primary goals of this course is the development and refinement of critical analysis and argument. To this end students will write three essays of increasing length. About two weeks before a given due date students must submit a brief outline of the essay they plan to write. Shortly thereafter they shall receive critical feedback. In finished essays any and all references must be cited. Essays must conform to MLA standards. A good guideline for word counts is this: 1 manuscript page = 250 words. The minimum amount of writing submitted for grades is 21 pages

    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 will be penalized by two full letter grades. Always keep a printed copy of your essay. 

    The first essay is a diagnostic exercise. Students are required to submit revised versions of this essay. For this assignment, only the revised essay will be graded. 

    Grading: First essay and revision — 20%, second essay — 20%, third essay — 25%.

  3. In addition to the writing assignments, students shall 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 are able to stimulate the thoughtful participation of their classmates. 

    Grading: One oral presentation — 10%.

Graduate Requirements

  1. Graduate students shall be expected to deliver an oral presentation that meets the same criteria as those listed above for undergraduates. One oral presentation — 10%.
  2. Graduate students shall submit final projects (papers or other projects) within five days after Lecture 19. Mid-semester, students will submit an abstract proposing their projects. Term project — 90%.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2003
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments with Examples