Artifacts of Self-Regard

Professor Roberto Diaz, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures and Comparative Literature

More often than not, works belonging to various art forms—literature, painting, opera, film—tend to hide the fact that they are symbols or codes, and not reality itself. A novel, for instance, may tell a story whose characters, mere verbal constructs, fall in love as if they were creatures made of flesh, while a still life may depict a semblance of lemons without explicitly remarking on its true colors as just a mixture of pigments. Yet there are some works of art, including a few famous ones often regarded as masterpieces, which openly reveal or playfully flaunt their status as artifacts. Consider, for instance, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose characters are readers obsessed with reading, or Velázquez’s Las Meninas, where the artist represents himself as he paints under the shadow of numerous other paintings. Oddly enough, these Spanish seventeenth-century works, despite their disarming verbal or visual self-reflexivity, are frequently praised as paragons of realism, or as works that truly seem to capture aspects of reality.

Anchored on our reading of Don Quixote and viewing of Las Meninas, we will examine a series of works from various parts of the world that variously engage with reality even as they meditate, sometimes rather obliquely, on their condition as art. We will read short stories and essays by Borges, who wrote, quite disturbingly, “if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious as well.” Beyond literature and painting, we will also study an opera—Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, whose plot deals with the staging of an opera—and three feature films: Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, whose female lead is an actress making a movie about peace; Bergman’s Persona, about an actress who has stopped talking; and Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, a tale about filmmaking in the wake the Cuban Revolution. Finally, we will read an English novel, Woolf’s Orlando, the subject of which is reading and writing; and a French theoretical work, Barthes’ Empire of Signs, which views Japan not as a reality but as a system of symbols.


Roland Barthes. Empire of Signs.
Ingmar Bergman, dir. Persona.
Jorge Luis Borges. A Personal Anthology.
Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote.
Alain Resnais, dir. Hiroshima mon amour.
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea et al. Memories of Underdevelopment and Inconsolable Memories.
Richard Strauss. Ariadne auf Naxos.
Virginia Woolf. Orlando.

The American Gun

Professor David Treuer, Department of English

The gun has come to dominate our modern American lives. Who has one? Who should have one? What do we have to fear from them? Where might they suddenly appear? From police brutality to school shootings, guns have come to define, to symbolize, and to shape our country. This course will treat the gun as a symbol and look at the various systems that run through, meet, and cross in the phenomenon of “the American gun.” Using the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 as our primary focus, we will analyze legal, cultural, religious, colonial, imperial, and psychological systems by way of readings such as the U.S. Constitution, Discipline and PunishCivilization and Its DiscontentsThe Gun, and films such as Full Metal JacketElephant, and Bowling for Columbine, among others.


Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Eula Biss. On Immunity.
David Cullen. Columbine.
Michael Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
Sigmund Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents.
Clifford Geertz. The Interpretation of Cultures.
Malcolm Gladwell. “Thresholds of Violence.”
Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, eds. American Violence: A Documentary History.
Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian.
Claudia Rankine. Citizen.
Matt Taibbi. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.
Adam Winkler. Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.


Professor Vanessa Schwartz, Departments of Art History and History

Marilyn Monroe, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, John Wayne, and Mickey Mouse. Few would dispute the notion that the mass visual media have transformed these people, places, and things into “icons.” Although these phenomena exist apart from their representation, their cultural significance and importance is attached to their status as pictorial representations that are widely disseminated. The term “icon” initially invoked an object worthy of religious devotion; that original meaning now denotes an uncritical and popular devotion.

This course poses the question “What becomes a legend most?” That question, made famous by the Blackglama fur ads, conflated “becoming” in the sense of being visually pleasing with “becoming” a legend, a modern process fueled by image-making. We will examine basic ways of thinking about visual symbols by learning about semiotics, symbolic and cultural anthropology, and what art historians have called iconology. This course will trace the interplay between specific icons and the visual culture that made them iconic.

Particular emphasis will be placed on technologies of representation such as photography and film and the vital role they have played in the culture of modern icons. If possible, there will be an optional class field trip to Disneyland.


John Berger. Ways of Seeing.
Arthur Danto. Andy Warhol.
Neal Gabler. Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power.
Jason Hill and Vanessa Schwartz (eds.). Getting the Picture: The Visual Culture of the News.
Martin Kemp. Christ to Coke: How Images Become Icons.
Scott Lukas. Theme Park.
Chris Rojek. Celebrity.
Donald Sassoon. Becoming Mona Lisa.
Susan Sontag. On Photography.

Ezra Edelman, dir. OJ Simpson: Made in America.
Julie Cohen and Betsy West, dir. RBG.