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On Decadence: Aesthetics, Culture, and Decline

at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research - Online

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Class Level: All levels
Age Requirements: 21 and older
Average Class Size: 12

Flexible Reschedule Policy: This provider has flexible, free rescheduling for any-in person workshop. Please see the cancellation policy for more details

What you'll learn in this history lesson:

From stories of Roman emperors drowning their dinner guests in roses to the reveries of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, tropes of decadence—decay, decline, decomposition—have flourished in modern times. Decadence has played a vital role in narratives of culture, history, and political economy. On the one hand, decadence can indicate a sense of historical or cultural loss in the face of swift-moving technological progress. On the other, it can signal a fidelity to the artificial or the constructed over the seemingly natural. 

Often, decadence expresses a florid stylistic tendency that reflects perceptions of a civilization in decline. Confusingly, decadence encompasses both the ideas of outdated morals and deviations from increasingly urgent moral norms. It can illuminate a decaying world order (say, capitalism; bourgeois culture), or a utopian renunciation of failing forms of social life.  How do narratives of decadence function in phenomena ranging from climate change to the rhetoric of electoral politics to the fabric of ordinary life? Why has decadence become so central to modern culture and politics?

In this course, we’ll study modern decadence in literature, visual art, and theory, concentrating on nineteenth- and twentieth-century France, Germany, and England. We will ask: what has decadence meant historically and what does it mean now? What are the uses—ethically, politically, poetically, and otherwise—of narratives of decadence? How should we understand decadence as a stylistic tendency and what are its relationships to romanticism, modernism, and the avant-garde? 

What does it mean to claim decadence or, by contrast, to designate a person, place, thing, age, or phenomenon as “decadent”? What are the material conditions that give rise to myths of decadence? And what kinds of counter-narratives do these myths suggest? The syllabus for this course will draw on the work of Adorno, Baudelaire, Benjamin, Lenin, Luxemburg, Huysmans, Marx, Nietzsche, Poe, Showalter, Wilde, and Yeats.


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Upon request, we will refund the entire cost of a class up until 1 week before its start date. Students who withdraw after that point but before the first class are entitled to a 75% refund. After the first class: 50%. After the second: 25%. No refunds will be given after the third class.

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School: Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research was established in 2011 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Its mission is to extend liberal arts education and research far beyond the borders of the traditional university, supporting community education needs and opening up new possibilities for scholarship in the...

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