English 188A - Fall, 2019

Topics in Literary & Critical Theory

    Topic: Bowie in Theory

Class Information

Instructor: Shershow, Scott
CRN: 63232
Time: MW 2:10-3:30
Location: 248 Voorhies


    In this seminar we will read and discuss an assortment of twentieth-century critical theory in association with the work of the late David Bowie. This will not be a course in Bowie’s work as such, but rather, a course in modern critical theory in which Bowie’s work will be a constant reference point.

    Not every rock star insisted on bringing boxes of books with him on tour, and not every rock star could intelligently discuss Nietzsche’s The Gay Science in an interview. David Bowie’s life and work bring to our attention many of the central themes of modern critical theory: questions of gender, race, cultural appropriation, nihilism, and more. One might even say that the extraordinary end of his life and career fulfilled the ancient and modern philosophic aspiration to “know how to die.”

    We will read a few texts that Bowie cites as primary influences, including excerpts from Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956) and George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle: Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (1971); or that appear in the idiosyncratic list of “one hundred most important books” Bowie released in 2013. But the majority of our texts have a looser association with Bowie in that they share and elaborate on the themes and questions that often preoccupied him.

    Tentative reading list:

    Nietzsche, from The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) and The Gay Science (1886).
    Martin Heidegger, excerpts on “Being-toward-death,” from Being and Time (1927).
    Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940).
    T. W. Adorno, “On Popular Music” (1941).
    Colin Wilson, from The Outsider (1956).
    Franz Fanon, from Black Skin, White Masks (1959).
    Susan Sontag “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1966).
    George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (1971).
    Gayle Rubin, from Thinking Sex (1984).
    Jacques Attali, “Listening,” from Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1985).
    Jean-Luc Nancy, from The Inoperative Community (1986).
    Jacques Derrida, from Specters of Marx (1993).
    Richard Dyer, “Whiteness Dying” from White (1997).
    Judith Jack Halberstam, from Female Masculinity (1998).
    Susan Jacoby, from The Age of American Unreason (2008).
    Calvin L. Warren, “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope” (2015).


    For this seminar, regular attendance and participation are an absolute must, and the participation grade will accordingly be a relatively high portion of the final grade. Otherwise, requirements are: a “philosophic journal” with brief entries required for each seminar; a term paper requiring some additional research beyond the course reading; and a take-home final examination.


    All texts will be available either in a copy packet or as electronic reserves on Canvas.