Inventing the Self

Course Overview

Four centuries after Descartes’s famous declaration about the self—“I think, therefore I am”—the origins, meaning, and even the definition of selfhood remain mysterious and contested. After much searching—by psychologists, neuroscientists, fiction writers, poets, filmmakers, sociologists, and anthropologists—nobody has found a thing called The Self. In this course, students will practice graduate level reading, writing, and research through the examination of theories and representations of self-invention from a variety of disciplines and genres.

Contemporary thinkers working in diverse disciplines and genres have invented theories of selfhood that address a common question: Why does the self feel whole and real if we can’t locate it? Neurologist Antonio Damasio argues the self is the product of “distributed” brain processes that create a feeling of wholeness; philosopher Daniel Dennett has proposed a “multiple drafts” theory to suggest that the self a continuously revised composition; literary critic Nancy K. Miller proposes that the selves we find in autobiography are the product of social relations (and textual ones). Though these theories are diverse, they share the premise that the self is anything but static. Many contemporary thinkers share the belief that the self is a dynamic invention—a continuously evolving product physiology, social relations, artistic practice, and technological innovation. In this course, we will investigate the methods various thinkers and writers use to explore this proposition and the many questions it raises.

Course readings are divided into three units: 1.  Mind, Body, Brain, & Self, 2. Narrative Selves, and 3. Technologies, Writing & the Self. Each unit combines a variety of disciplinary methods and genres of writing. Class discussion will focus on the how particular methods or genres allow us to ask certain questions and produce particular kinds of knowledge or understanding.

Students will contribute to our course blog on a weekly basis and develop research projects that allow them pursue questions about selfhood from the perspectives of their particular disciplinary interests. In most cases, these projects will engage more than a single discipline, giving students the opportunity to practice the methodologies of particular disciplines and the synthesis required to create productive dialogue among disciplines.


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