Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Midterm Questions & Review

The Midterm will be posted on blackboard Monday. The deadline will be 11/5 at midnight, that should be enough time for anyone who has work or other conflicts to be able to take the exam. The format of the exam will be one essay question. You will have a choice of two questions. Once you begin the exam you have to complete it, so don't start it until you know you have time to complete it before the deadline.

The exam will consist of the following two questions, please read the directions carefully.

Choose three examples from either: painting (Expressionism, Dadaism, and New Objectivity), literature (Siddhartha), music (Cabaret), and film (Expressionism) and answer one of the following. Explain the content or the structure of the work in your answer:

1. How is authority undermined or reinforced in these cultural forms?

2. How is the sense of 'crisis' (political, economic, social) depicted in these cultural forms?

In a short time we have gone over a lot. We started off the class talking about the origins of the Nihilism as a concept and especially how this idea was taken over by the late 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). We went over a few of his key ideas such as: ressentiment, ascetic morality,"God is dead," and his views on the Greeks, especially stressing their dual nature of being civilized and cruel at the same time. Nihilism refers to a sense of meaninglessness and disbelief and to a radical, often violent break with the past and traditional society which is believed to be constructed according to false principles. Many of you in your blogs focused on passages emphasizing Atheism or Nietzsche's hostility to Christianity and religion. Undoubtedly, Nietzsche believed that religion was the still foundation of European culture and by extension, Nietzsche became a critic of all of Western civilization.

What these ideas all have in common is they all relate to Nietzsche's overall worldview that European civilization by the late 19th century was suffering from a kind of "spiritual sickness," resulting from the "denial of life" that structures conventional morals and values. This has resulted in a sense of meaninglessness and emptiness in life that easily turns into pessimism, and this in turn breeds a violent reaction against those same forces.

In his research on the Greeks Nietzsche concluded that their way of life was superior in that it did not cause this kind of sickness. However, because they did not repress themselves as much as modern people do they had an unmistakable tendency for cruelty that would seem almost inhuman today. At the same time, this suggests that the values necessary to overcome nihilism might be more ruthless than conventional morality suggests. Either way violence seems inescapable. Still he thinks it is possible to create a new value system that would say "yes" to life, and such values will be created by a "superman." These ideas were also taken over by the Nazis. People are still trying to figure out if it is possible to say "yes" to life without being cruel to other people.

After explaining Nietzsche I tried to introduce some of the important historical events in German history and give you a sense of why I choose Germany as a country to study nihilism. I tried to emphasize how the history of the German state is fairly recent; that it had no tradition of democracy; and that it industrialized extremely fast compared to other nations. Nietzsche was writing in the period of time when the German Empire was still a new creation. As discussed more in the Luxemburg essay from this week, the creation of the German Empire also set into the motion the chain of events that culminated in World War I (1914-1918). It was during this war and after where the idea of nihilism began to have an impact upon the masses.

The first part of the class we looked at cultural depictions of nihilism which reflected social conditions in Germany from around the time of World War I to the 1930s. We looked at painting (expressionism, dadaism, and New Objectivity), literature (Siddhartha), music (cabaret), and film (expressionism).

Many of these pieces showed scenes of alienation and isolation; the effects of excessive self-control and repression; changing sexual norms; they also depicted scenes of violence and war; social and cultural decay; and suggested a sense of crisis just below the surface of society. We also looked at influential critics and thinkers who were beginning to write about mass culture and relate to contemporary mass movements and political conflict.

We have just begun the second part of the class where we are now looking at the same period of time from the point of view of politics instead of culture. Nihilism in politics is expressed as revolutionary politics aiming to destroy or transform completely the old structures of society. Both Communists and Fascists have been labeled as nihilistic movements, yet strangely both also claimed to have a solution for nihilism. The communists always had more popular support but the fascists ended up winning. In the process the Weimar Republic was destroyed because of extremists on both sides and because the majority of people were not motivated enough to try to save their government having no tradition and no habits of democratic government. However if it had not been for the Great Depression it is unlikely the Nazis would have even gotten near the popular support they needed to win. 

This week I tried to focus only on the events that led to the destruction of the German Empire in 1918, the aftermath, and the failed revolution of 1919. A Communist uprising by the Spartacus (Spartakus) group was led by Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg herself tried to prevent the uprising believing they could not win but she was outvoted. She was one of the most influential Marxist theorists who advocated a non-authoritarian form of revolution that would not require a centralized bureaucratic party like the Communist Party but would also be revolutionary and not compromise itself with the status quo like the Social Democratic Party had done, but emphasize constant self-criticism.

The best way to review is to go over the lectures again and study the individual works that you will use in your answers. Any questions contact me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Final Review

The second half of the class we focused more on the politics and the history of the period (1918-1939) after examining some of the cultural and artistic works in the first half. Beginning with Rosa Luxemburg who was also covered in the midterm we looked at the aborted revolution in Germany led by German communists known as the Spartacus Group or the Spartacists. However, in all of the following lectures, the theme of communism was a topic that we dealt with repeatedly. Some of the important things to remember:
What were the basic arguments against capitalism used by communists?
How did they predict its collapse?
What was the theory of imperialism and how did it change communist doctrine from the 19th century?
What thinkers were associated with the theory of imperialism?
What were the empirical events used to support/disprove this argument?
What role did communists play in the Weimar Republic?
How did communists oppose fascists?

Fascism/Nazism was the other main political movement that developed during this period of time:
What were the origins of fascism?
What were its major appeals to German people?
Why was fascism seen as a revolt against civilization?
What part of the population gave the most support to the Nazis?
In what ways could both communism and fascism be considered nihilistic?

Besides these political movements/ideologies we also discussed the political structure of Germany: during this time both the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime.
How did Germany divide power between its Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government and between state and local government?
What were some of the distinctive rights guaranteed in the Weimar Constitution?
What were the major political parties and how did the party system work?
What were the major weaknesses in the Weimar government?
When did Germany experience hyperinflation?
How did the Great Depression contribute to the Nazis seizing power?
How did Hitler seize power in 1933?
How did the Nazi regime control the economy?
What was the Volk?
What were the major artistic/cultural movements in the 1920s-early 1930s?
What was German propaganda like?
How is anti-Semitism central to understanding Nazism?
Why was fascism supported by many western capitalists?
What were other fascist governments doing during the 1930s?
Why is the Spanish Civil War important for the rise of fascism?
How did World War II begin?

The last few readings dealt with the radical social changes caused by the rise of fascists regimes and the cultural changes this was causing. Especially changes in education, in values and even perception, but also the "politicization" of culture in the writings of Ernst Jünger (conservative) and Walter Benjamin (radical/Marxist):
What is different about the post-liberal age from the liberal age?
Why are they skeptical of progress?
How does science and technology increase political control?
How does technology and science affect education?
How does modern forms of art change perception and experience?
What is the difference between integrated and isolated experience?
Why is culture becoming more important in political conflicts?
What was the Popular Front?
Why is Jünger more pessimistic about mass culture? Why is Benjamin more positive?
What is the aura and and how does mechanical reproduction destroy it? What are the consequences for culture?
How does the past influence our interpretation of the present?
What is the relationship between progress and nihilism?

These questions or some form of will make up most of the material on the final exam. In some cases I will also ask to compare some of these ideas/themes to the films and books we looked at in the first half of the class.