Thursday, January 17, 2013

Spring 2013: What Is Being?

LHUM-P410 What Is Being?

Dr. Lori Landay

Ever wonder, "what IS being?"  Then this course might be for you!

This course, "What Is Being?" is a special opportunity for Berklee students to explore an age-old question in multiple ways: through reading touchstone texts of philosophy, literature, psychology, and other disciplines; through exploring of how the subtleties of being and seeming play out in performance; and by considering what is being in contemporary culture. The development of the course was funded by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, and in Spring 2013 we'll experiment with some new ways of working on projects together in class. The class size is small (12) and the level of discussion is intense and interesting. We read into things. We look deeply. We keep asking questions and probably never really answer them fully, but instead come up with even more questions

We'll read whole books and also parts of books, including a few choice sections from thinkers like Machiavelli, Jean-Paul Sartre, Erving Goffman, Heidegger, and Jean Baudrillard. We'll delve into Hamlet so you'll know what that famous "To be or not to be?" line can mean, in Shakespeare's play and film versions of it.  You'll understand some basic concepts in the history of philosophy, and you can choose to work with them more fully.  We'll read some literature together, but you'll also be able to make your own choices.  You can shape your multimedia projects about topics that interest you, and we'll work together in class on the projects.  If you think you are interested in taking this course this semester, keep reading.  You can also scroll through this blog from the Spring 2012 semester to see some (not all) of the topics, which will give you an idea of what we'll do this year.

Course Description

The motto of Berklee College of Music is Esse quam videri, a phrase from Cicero’s essay “On Friendship,” which translates as “to be, rather than to seem.” The course “What is Being?” gives you the opportunity to focus and reflect upon the differences between seeming and being, and think deeply about existence, self, and image. Organized around three interrelated themes: seeming vs. being; performance on stage and in everyday life; and the power of images and illusion in contemporary culture, the seminar requires students to consider realworld issues by exploring in depth the great works of philosophy, literature and psychology. The course includes the reading and discussion of Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions grant, “What Is Being?” is a unique opportunity for serious seminar-style exploration of a foundational issue in human thought.

This course requires a commitment from the participants to:

attend class,

read the assigned material,

engage with the questions and ideas in multimedia and written assignments &

participate fully in class discussion and activities.


Mondays 10-10:50 & Thursdays 2-3:50 

Email with any questions

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Asking Questions about Being: Heidegger, Phenomenology, & Existentialism


"Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. This field of philosophy is then to be distinguished from, and related to, the other main fields of philosophy: ontology (the study of being or what is), epistemology (the study of knowledge), logic (the study of valid reasoning), ethics (the study of right and wrong action)"
(from Stanford Encyclopedia of Technology)

Heidegger as forerunner of existentialism:

In turning phenomenology toward the question of what it means to be, Heidegger insists that the question be raised concretely: it is not at first some academic exercise but a burning concern arising from life itself, the question of what it means for me to be. Existential themes take on salience when one sees that the general question of the meaning of being involves first becoming clear about one's own being as an inquirer. According to Heidegger, the categories bequeathed by the philosophical tradition for understanding a being who can question his or her being are insufficient: traditional concepts of a substance decked out with reason, or of a subject blessed with self-consciousness, misconstrue our fundamental character as “being-in-the-world.” In his phenomenological pursuit of the categories that govern being-in-the-world, Heidegger became the reluctant father of existentialism because he drew inspiration from two seminal, though in academic circles then relatively unknown, nineteenth-century writers, Sören Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. One can find anticipations of existential thought in many places (for instance, in Socratic irony, Augustine, Pascal, or the late Schelling), but the roots of the problem of existence in its contemporary significance lie in the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Some topics we'll discuss:

Being with a capital B, beings with a small b
Being and the Nothing
Heidegger and Plato's theory of ideas
Dasein (being-there)
Heidegger and Descartes
Heidegger's ideas about technology

What Is Being? Timeline: Here is the beginning of a timeline we'll fill in for the rest of the semester, putting it into an interactive timeline so you can add your projects to it

Plato (around 360 B.C.E.) -- Cicero (44 B.C.E) -- Machiavelli (1513) -- Shakespeare, Hamlet (1600) -- Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605) -- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818) -- (Wordsworth, "I wandered lonely as a cloud" (1888) -- Nella Larsen, Passing (1929) -- Heidegger (1927-1950s) -- Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) -- The Matrix (1999) -- Google glasses (2012)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Being and the Self: The Example of English Romanticism

(this is a multimedia podcast I made a few years ago with GarageBand, and serves not only as background for our discussion of Romantic poetry, but also as a model of a multimedia podcast project)

We'll read some poems closely on Tuesday

"I wandered lonely as a cloud," Wordsworth, p. 43
"Mutability," Wordsworth, p. 57
"Kubla Khan," Coleridge, p. 105

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


We pick up where we left off before Spring Break, and before the power outage that pretty much lasted until Spring Break began.  We'll certainly spend some time talking about how that experience made us aware of the role electrical power plays in our lives, and what it was like to be in a time when things were not "normal." We'll also prioritize our focus on Hamlet to make the most of our remaining time on it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Being, Self, Consciousness: Stanislavski and Hamlet

Rhonda Blair's essay, "Reconsidering Stanislavsky" in The Performance Studies Reader points us in two important directions: an introduction to the "method" of acting that rose to prominence in American theater and film in the second half of the 20th century (based on Stanislavski's turn of the 20th-century "system"), and a consideration of what is the self from both performance and neuroscientific perspectives. Through these lenses, we'll continue comparing and contrasting different performance choices in various versions of Hamlet.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Hamlet: "Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'"

Methinks Hamlet does know "seems," and very well.  What about being?

There is so much in this play--revenge, sanity and insanity, the genre of tragedy, family relationships, surveillance and privacy, doing and thinking, corruption and decay- but we are going to focus on how Shakespeare's play sheds light on our enduring questions about the complex relationships between being and seeming--in everyday life, in performance, and as we consider the contemporary film interpretations of Hamlet, in media representations.


Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. Act 1, Scene 2

Shakespeare, and the directors of the film interpretations, contrast Laertes with Hamlet.  We pick up at around the 3:20 minute mark, in this clip from the Royal Shakespeare Company film:

and at 4:20 in the Branagh film


O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

Laurence Olivier's 1948 performance of Hamlet's soliloquy in Act 1, scene 2

Ethan Hawke's 2000 performance:

In this clip, Patrick Stewart discusses setting Shakespeare in a contemporary or historical context, acting for stage and film, and some issues about performance that are central to our discussions.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Don Quixote, Seeming, & Being

We've been discussing how Don Quixote--the character--manifests with different facets highlighted in different versions: Cervantes's 1605 and 1615 novel, Nureyev's ballet film Don Quixote, the musical Man of La Mancha, in the levels of irony in the documentary Lost in La Mancha about Terry Gilliam's quixotic failed quest to make his film of Don Quixote, and in the visualizations in the graphic novel adaptation.

We began with some excerpts from a lecture from Professor Roberto González Echevarría's Yale University course on Don Quixote (so we know how to say Quixote!) and that gave us a strong foundation in a literary approach to the novel. Our interest, however, is how Don Quixote becomes an romanticized hero whose preference--or insistence--on internal reality over external reality is something to be valued not (only) mocked.   For Quixote, in the ballet, in Gilliam's vision, in the popular imagination, illusion is his reality; he cannot differentiate between seeming and being. The 20th-century texts question why it is necessary to make that distinction, and, in a very different way than Machiavelli, who makes the case for seeming over being in The Prince.  Let's talk about those differences.

Momchil Mladenov as Don Quixote and Sonia Rodriguez as
 Dulcinea in the Suzanne Farrell Ballet's production at the Kennedy Center.

INTERNAL & EXTERNAL REALITY: The twentieth-century texts dramatize and visualize Don Quixote's internal reality, and as they do that so we can see it, we are more interested in and open to his perspective.  Visually, dramatically, and narratively, they get more equal weight than in the Cervantes novel.  When we see Quixote's imagined Dulcinea dancing in the ballet, she exists, as opposed to the pure fantasy of the text Dulcinea, or the taking on of the role of Dulcinea by Aldonza in Man of La Mancha.  The modern, post-modern interest in Don Quixote stems from our interest in subjectivity, in how individuals perceive the world (and this is where the readings by Maurice Merleau-Ponty come in).

Realizing Don Quixote's internal reality is what Terry Gilliam wanted to do.  As we watch the documentary, we can see how he could see, in his mind's eye, how he wanted his film to show the giants, for example.  But he could not make that internal vision into an external reality of a film, and so he, like Don Quixote, experiences a gap between interior and exterior realities.  This is the non-insane,
modern version of Quixote, and it is the artist's eternal difficulty, that chasm between what we hear or see or imagine and what can be actualized in performance or art so it can be shared.

PERFORMANCE: We have two central ideas about performance for this unit: the performance of self in everyday life, and the idea that performance is always for someone, so there is a sense of doubling.  These are two themes we will see in Hamlet.  An interesting question is whether Don Quixote is performing?  He takes on the role of "knight" and speaks and acts, to his mind, accordingly, despite external reality, but is there a doubling?  Again, this is a question we'll encounter again in Hamlet.

Finally, let's consider one of the famous quotations from Don Quixote in the context of our overall course themes and areas of inquiry: “I know who I am, and who I may be, if I choose.”