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Modernism and Its Mysterious Transmissions

Course Description:
This course explores how modernist authors, artists and scientists attempted to make sense of new communicative possibilities offered by radio, telephones and television as well as séances, spiritual mediums and telepathic intimacy. We will ask how varying disciplines—psychoanalysis and literature, science and spiritualism—allowed individuals to reconceptualize the definitions of the self in contrast to the Other. In texts such as George Du Maurier’s Trilby, Oscar Wilde’s Teleny, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Henry James’ essays and short stories, characters cross sexual, racial and national divides using telepathic powers and technological media, suggesting that the boundaries between these realms are both dangerously and thrillingly permeable. In addition to these literary texts, we will also read reports from the “Society for Psychical Research,” Freud’s short essays on telepathy, H.D.’s meditations on “mysterious transmissions,” and André Bretón’s “Second Manifesto on Surrealism” exploring the exquisite corpse as a collective pooling of “unconsciousness.” Finally, throughout the semester, we will compare our readings to critical examinations of spirit photography, advertisements and surrealist films. Students will be required to produce one project in which they imagine life without a particular medium of communication and one essay in which they compare a technological medium of communication to a fantastic experience of (supposedly) impossible transmission.