May 11 – June 4
From Paranoia to Propaganda: Conspiracy Theories in Literature and Film
Used as potent weapons to undermine the scientific and political status quo, conspiracy theories often motivate individuals to act violently and groups to seize and expand power. Conspiracy theories, disseminated through disinformation campaigns, are used to exploit biases and fuel paranoia. In this course, students will learn about some of the most influential conspiracy theories, how they took hold in the public mind, and have led to horrific outcomes such as terrorist attacks, genocide, and the destabilization of democracies. Specifically, we will look into different categories of conspiracy theories such as plots to rule the world, anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denialism, terrorist ideologies, secret societies, as well as the use of technology for an alleged single purpose. We will discuss why theories that usually reside at the fringes of public discourse find a larger audience through the repurposing of mass media, i.e. propaganda and its spread through film, radio, posters, manifestos, books, and various social media platforms. This course focuses on aesthetic representations of conspiracy theories – from Kafka’s The Trial to Orwell’s 1984 and from Lang’s Ministry of Fear to Ditter’s Biohackers – and serves as a workshop for writing and producing stories around conspiracy theories. Taught in English. (3) [INT]
- Franz Kafka’s The Trial, transl. Breon Mitchell, New York: Schocken 1999, ISBN: 9780805209990
- Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns, transl. James Cleugh, 2. ed., New York: Carroll & Graf 2001, ISBN: 0786708808
- Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, New York: Harper Perennial 2006. ISBN: 006091307X
- George Orwell: Animal Farm, intr. by Christopher Hitchens, London: Harcourt 2003. ISBN: 0151010269
- Ernst Jünger: The Glass Bees, transl. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Mayer, intr. by Bruce Sterling, New York: New York Review Books 2000. ISBN: 0940322552
- Georg Klein: Libidissi, London: Picador 2002. (provided).
- Rob Brotherton: Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, Bloomsbury 2017, ISBN: 9781472915634
- Thomas Rid: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2020. ISBN: 0374287260
Movies and some excerpts from books will be provided as indicated in the syllabus.
- Participation 10%
- Final paper 30%
- 6 discussion entries 30%
- Individual project 20%
- 7 learning reflections (video) 5% (pass/fail but not graded)
- Self-assessment 5% (pass/fail but not graded)
Each of these areas has to result in at least a D for a student to receive a total grade in this course.
Discussion entries: Contribute to an ongoing Brightspace discussion about the course material by submitting a post on the readings or movies by the beginning of each section. Posts must show an in-depth engagement with the material and raise a question or, for example, develop a theory on a topic that is part of the material. Posts will be graded according to quality and originality of ideas, use of suitable level of language for academic discourse, and accuracy of expression. They may not summarize the text or movie in question but should offer a statement, argument, interpretation, or analysis of the material. Responses are due on each section day at 12:00 pm (noon) as indicated in the course schedule.
Final Paper: Your final papers should be 6–7 pages in length. Each paper should have a headline, an introduction that outlines a comprehensible hypothesis, bases its arguments in close-reading and engagement with some scholarship (between four and six books/essays are expected to be quoted), use quotations (preferably Chicago or MLA style with a short bibliography attached), is structured in a meaningful way, and leads up to a convincing conclusion. Papers should be double-spaced, have one-inch margins, and be written in Times New Roman. Do not forget your name and the course number and title. Final papers are due on June 11.
Project: Students develop a project in three steps: 1. Develop a conspiracy theory by the end of the second week (1–2 pages); 2. Design a media campaign to “unleash” your conspiracy theory (1–2 pages); 3. Submit a complete proposal for a conspiracy theory and its complementing media campaign including its rationale and goals (5–6 pages). You may add pictures or video material to your submission in addition to your writing.
Learning reflections: Provide a three-minute video reflections on your learning after each of the six units (see schedule for due dates) . These reflections will help you to understand your progress in this course. They also offer an opportunity to raise questions in a one-on-one setting (with your professor being the only audience). Learning reflections are not graded but evaluated on a pass/fail-basis.
Self-assessment: Based on a rubric, you will have the opportunity to submit an assessment of your contributions in each of the sections in class. I will certainly take your self-assessment into consideration before submission of a grade total. Self-assessments are not part of your grade but have to be submitted to receive a final grade.