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The History of Ideas as a Task for Comparative Literature: Barbarism


Admission requirements

No extra admission requirements


This course will probe a foundational concept in Western history – barbarism. Although barbarism is rooted in one of the most rigid hierarchical oppositions (civilization vs. barbarism), the historical travels of the “barbarian” reveal the concept’s adaptability to diverse historical situations and geopolitical settings. Barbarism has a complex genealogy. It has been employed as the negative outside in a dyadic structure separating a civilized interior from a barbarian exterior; as the middle term in-between savagery and civilization in temporal structures delineating an evolutionary process; as a (repressed) internalized aspect of the civilized psyche (Freud) or, in the work of radical thinkers, as inextricable from, and concomitant with, civilization (Benjamin e.a.); and as a term that confuses hierarchical structures and fixed notions of space (eg. in Deleuze and Guattari). Barbarians have been the negative other in a traditional binary, but also conceived affirmatively, as agents of change and regeneration, both in philosophy (eg. Nietzsche) and in art.

This course will explore the shifting functions of this concept in various contexts through close-readings of literary, philosophical, ethnographic, and theoretical texts and artworks from the Greek antiquity to the present: from Euripides or Herodotus, Michel de Montaigne, and Edward Gibbon, to Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, C.P. Cavafy, and Walter Benjamin, and from Aimé Césaire, J. M. Coetzee, and Zbigniew Herbert to G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, M. Hardt and A. Negri, Slavoj Zizek, Denys Arcand, Alessandro Baricco and others; from Greek tragedy and Enlightenment historiography to contemporary cultural and political theory; from the Persian Wars and the Roman “barbarian invasions” to 20th century avant-garde art and popular culture; and from the academic “culture wars” in the 1990s and the “culturalization of conflict” since 1989 to the ongoing financial crisis and recent protest movements and uprisings (the ‘Occupy,’ the ‘Indignants,’ the Gezi park protests etc.). We will particularly focus on works that mark shifts in the concept’s meanings, problematize or ironize dominant uses, propose affirmative mobilizations of the concept, or establish ruptures in existing discourses.

By focusing on barbarism, the course also aims at exploring alternative ways of “doing” conceptual history in the field of comparative literature. Conceptual history has traditionally been the domain of historians. Students will be briefly acquainted with basic approaches within conceptual history, eg. in the German tradition of Begriffsgeschichte (Koselleck). But we will primarily consider conceptual history as a task for literary scholars, thereby developing interdisciplinary and more “literary” approaches. For example, we will read works from different genres (ethnographic, philosophical, etc.) in a “literary” manner, probing the performativity of barbarism in the rhetoric of the text; reflect on how the term is used and from whose perspective; untangle the power structures involved in its uses; probe the relation between texts and their (ideological) subtexts; identify irony or ambivalence in uses of barbarism; scrutinize tensions between the concept’s historical meanings and its signifying force in each present.

To further substantiate such a “literary” approach, we will focus on the fates of recurrent topoi, tropes, and figures that involve the barbarian. As sites of repetition and change, topoi repeat in order to confirm dominant discourses, but also open up the possibility for rupture or critique of the discourses they repeat. Topoi we will examine are: barbarians at the gates; barbarian invasions; the barbarian within; waiting for the barbarians; new barbarians; and positive barbarism.

Course objectives

The course has historical, theoretical, analytical, and methodological components and objectives. Specifically, students will:

  • Gain in-depth knowledge of the main historical traditions of use of “barbarism” and turning points in the history of this notion.

  • Be trained in probing the shifting functions of “barbarism” by close-reading works from various genres, with a specific focus on literary and artistic contexts.

  • Be able to compare “barbarism” to related notions of otherness (eg. wild man, savage, animal, monster etc.).

  • Get acquainted with basic methodological approaches to conceptual history.

  • Develop alternative ways of studying (the history of) concepts as literary scholars in transcultural, transhistorical, comparative perspectives.

NB: This seminar is linked to the international research project “Barbarism: History of a Fundamental European Concept from the 18th century to the Present.” The project, funded by the NWO and SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation), is formed by a collaboration between universities in Holland, Switzerland, and Germany. A few selected papers by students who follow the course will be presented by the students in a joint symposium to be held in Leiden (probably in late May 2015) with the participation of graduate students from the universities of Leiden, Bonn, and Geneva.


The timetable will be available by June 1st on the website

Mode of instruction

Choose from:

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load: 280 hours
Seminar attendance: 42 hours (3 hours a week)
Study of compulsory literature: 160 hours
Preparing papers and presentation: 78 hours

Assessment method

Assessment and grading method (in percentages):.

  • Mid-term paper: 30%

  • Final paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation and contributions to discussions on Blackboard: 10% (presentations and blackboard contributions are not graded, but are compulsory requirements. Failure to complete these requirements results in a 10% reduction of the final grade).

In case the average grade from the midterm and final paper together is a fail, the student gets a second chance and can rewrite the final paper.


Blackboard will be used to provide students with an overview of current affairs, as well as specific information about (components of) the course.

Reading list

Diverse articles and texts will be made available on Blackboard.
Primary literature to be purchased: To be announced.


Enrollement trough uSis is mandatory. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272144 or mail:

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs NVT

Contact details

Media Studies student administration, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;

Coordinator of studies: Ms S.J. de Kok, MA, P.N. van Eyckhof 3, room 1.01b.