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New York City and the Experience of Modernity, Fall session

Tue, November 16, 2021 @ 5:30 PM - 7:30 PM

$10.00 – $70.00

An eight week series featuring visual and oral presentations along with discussions each week. Please note that this will be on Tuesdays, not Fridays. TWO MORE WEEKS

Convened by Thomas Wensing

In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century; the black would be put back; the strikes of white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression – a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth”[1]

This is a seminar about New York City and its people. It is not a study of architectural styles and objects, – although the physical stuff of cities does play a role -, but it is a course about the experience of the way in which modernity builds and destroys cities. In the previous course we saw how the idea of modernity originated in eighteenth-century Western Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. In this course we explore how modernity is not only an expression of the constellation of forces that builds modern societies, but from the onset has been an exclusionary project along racial, gender and class lines.

Europe produced, in the words of Stuart Hall, a cultural identity which portrayed Europe as a distinct, unique and triumphant civilization[2]. The construction of otherness within the dominant European culture itself, and in relation to the exploration and conquest of the Americas, formed the pretext for native displacement and genocide, environmental exploitation and extractivism, oppression and slavery. These discourses of “self” and “otherness” are, of course, inextricably interwoven with the history of New York City, and have always been contested.

This semester turns to the late 19th and 20th century and focuses on the way in which the building of New York City took place in an arena of contesting political, cultural and economic forces; that of the dominant, patriarchal, Anglo-Saxon, male, capitalist culture on one side, and that of the excluded social groups on the other. We will look at various groups, whether it be socialist, communist, feminist, black, or queer, which questioned the ‘centeredness’ of the West, – and the structures of oppression it built -, and which thus argued for the project of Reason and liberal democracy to be expanded and fulfil its promise.

Writers and novelists have been able to direct the gaze at these groups which have been excluded from the path of progress, – as it was defined and constricted by society – to express diverging meanings to life in the metropolis. Theirs were often minority views, but in expressing them, they were able to carve out space for the ‘other’, and they have expanded the conversation and imagination in indelible ways. A question which looms large in this seminar is the relationship between individual agency and collective action. The seminar encourages the expression of personal, familial, local, and ethnic explorations and to tie these to larger societal trends. [3] The participants will be presented with multiple views of the same topic; one drawn from the professional literature, – either historical, architectural, sociological, or drawn from literary studies -, and one from fiction or biography. Two points of view are compared: that of sociologists, urban planners, geographers, and architects, with that of the subjective vantage point of the biographical account or the fictional character.

Weekly Lectures and Bibliography:

Each week consists of readings, one lecture class and one group discussion, preceded by a 20-minute introduction on the topic.

[1] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2008, p.253.

[2] Hall, Stuart. “Introduction.” Essay. In Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies, edited by Stuart Hall, David Held, Don Hubert, and Kenneth Thompson, 7. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2011.

[3] I refer here to Berman, Marshall, All That Is Solid Melts into Air – The Experience of Modernity, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1982, Verso, London, Brooklyn, 2010, p.346-347.


Each week consists of readings, one lecture class and one group discussion, preceded by a 20-minute introduction on the topic.



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