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Modern and Contemporary Studies:The Crisis, Literature, and the Humanities


Admission requirements

No extra admission requirements


The term ‘crisis’ dominates public rhetoric in the last few years. Since the financial crisis broke out in 2007, but also before, since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, citizens in Europe and elsewhere in the world have been led to believe that they live in a perpetual state of crisis or emergency. The framework of crisis as a way of life resonates in various rearrangements in the European political landscape: the rhetoric of fear of others (terrorists, Muslim fundamentalists, immigrants), the popularity of anti-immigrant populist parties, the radical redrawing of the political spectrum (both on the Right and the Left), the intensification of nationalism in a time of waning nation-state sovereignty, and the growing polarization between the European North and South.
The climate of ‘crisis’ correlates with several eruptions of violence in the Europe context: the 2005 Paris riots, the riots in Athens in 2008 and in London in 2011, but also the bloodbath in Norway in 2011 and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015 are cases in point. But the ‘crisis’ has also generated various forms of social activism and protest movements, and attempts to rethink the future and initiate global change. In some of these attempts, protest is combined with collective self-organization and self-education, the demand for immediate democracy and an urgent appeal to devise alternative worldviews. A central question that we will tackle in this course is how all these phenomena relate to each other, and how we can find new ways or vocabularies to talk about them as scholars in the Humanities. We will probe this question by critically examining how the framework of “crisis” is constructed and to which ends.
In a next step we turn our scholarly gaze inward. One can hardly overlook the fact that the term ‘crisis’ also pervades debates about the current state of the Humanities. Literature and Humanities departments are increasingly called to justify their existence in the vocabulary of the market, using terms such as efficiency, productivity and output. Valorisation of results appears as the new decisive criterion in qualifying research for funding. The recent Dutch student protests against university management are signs of a desire for redefining the university, and more particularly, the Humanities against this tendency, and for reaffirming its ‘other-than-merely-economic’ value to society. In times of severe budget-cuts and rigorous downsizing literature departments, the issue of the significance of literature, for life and society arises with new urgency. What are the cultural and social functions of literature? Which of the various answers to these questions – Marxist, humanist, aesthetic, cognitivist etc. – are still convincing today, and which need to be abandoned for new approaches? How do recent literary works imagine literature’s relation to our realities and how do they respond to dominant fears, desires, and anxieties, exacerbated in the context of the ‘crisis’?
This course will probe various, conflicting positions in the contemporary debate on the function of literature against the backdrop of the current but also age-old attacks against the humanities and the general landscape of the ‘crisis.’ In order to explore the nexus of crisis, literature, and the humanities, we will read and discuss:

  • Works of cultural, political, and critical theory that deal with the ongoing ‘crisis’ and with responses to it (for example in protest movements), as well as theoretical texts that develop alternative discursive frameworks, vocabularies, and notions of subjectivity in this context (e.g. by Giorgio Agamben, Ulrich Beck, Alain Badiou, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Slavoj Zizek)

  • Texts that represent different voices in the debate about the present and future of the Humanities, as well as texts that probe the possible (aesthetic, social, political, cognitivist, ethical, revolutionary) functions of literature in the past and the present context (e.g., by Paul Jay, Stanley Fish, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Terry Eagleton, Martha Nussbaum, Mark Roche, Lisa Zunshine)

  • Literary works that put forward variegated responses to the ‘crisis’ or constitute attempts to (re)imagine literature’s relation to our realities (e.g. J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, Ramsey Nasr, Heavenly Life. Selected Poems)

Course objectives

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

  • Gain in-depth knowledge of the several uses of the concept of ‘crisis’ in various fields (social, cultural, academic)

  • Be trained in probing the functions and effects of the rhetoric of ‘an ongoing crisis’ and acquire insight into various theoretical approaches that can be used to examine, question or oppose this idea of ‘an ongoing crisis’

  • Become acquainted with theoretical texts that develop alternative discursive frameworks, vocabularies, and notions of ‘subjectivity in a context of crisis’

  • Obtain a critical understanding of the debate about the present and future of the Humanities, and about the significance of literature for society

  • Get acquainted with literary works that in variegated ways respond to the idea of crisis and/or reflect on the significance of literature to our lives


Monday 2-5 PM

Mode of instruction


Course Load

280 hours

  • Lectures: 42 hours

  • Class preparations (readings): 148

  • Assessment (presentation, mid-term, final paper): 90

Assessment method

  • Mid-term Assignment (30%)

  • Final Paper (70%)

Class presentation, including providing input for class discussion on Blackboard (requirement, no grade)

Resit in case of an insufficient final result by rewriting of the final paper.


Blackboard is used for providing information on the course, distributing texts and other materials, posting assignments, student exchange on the discussion board, and the grade center.

Reading list

The reading list will be made available on Blackboard.


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

Not applicable.


Mrs. dr. M. Boletsi or Mrs. E. Minnaard

For more practical questions and information please contact the Media Studies student administration, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;

Coordinator of studies: Mr. J. Donkers, MA, P.N. van Eyckhof 3, room 1.01b.