To prove a villain….

Inspired by Sir Ian McKellan’s reflections on Richard III here and here, and this excellent resource on the historical Richard III, I’ve been thinking about designing a course around villains, moral monstrosity, and evil. Perhaps I’m just a nerd, but this is something I like to sit around doing: arranging texts and problems around a theme. Of course, I’ve also been trying to decide whether to respond to this irritatingly content-free hit piece on Arendt, Eichmann, and Heidegger from Slate. (The author seems to prefer vitriol to content in his scholarship, so I’m not sure whether it dignifies a response.)

So right there, we have two different villains to anchor a course. (Interestingly, another version of Eichmann, as told through the eyes of his  interrogator, was recently made into a motion picture….) Then it’s just a matter of assembling the rest of the pieces: a counterpoint to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, like Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, and another kind of villain, like Jean-Baptiste from Albert Camus’s The Fall. Of course, Richard III fits quite well with Machiavelli’s The Prince.

We might also read something like Derrida’s Rogues or Agamben’s Homo Sacer, and finish up with some things on my favorite villain of all: Lucifer. You can’t go wrong with a little antihero worship. Perhaps we would read René Girard on scapegoating and then turn to something fun and light, like Shelley’s Frankenstein. Another way to end the course would be to look at some of the literature on the recent financial crisis, and identify the ways in which scapegoats and villains are picked out and held up for public shaming. A third way to conclude the course would be to reflect on punishment and vengeance, perhaps using my favorite Pettit book, Not Just Deserts.

3 thoughts on “To prove a villain….”

  1. Oh, I love, love, LOVE this idea!! Any chance of convincing you to draft an actual syllabus and let the rest of us have a look?

    Some other possible things to include:

    — the Showtime series "Dexter" (the very model of a modern major antihero, in my book)

    — any or all of Michael Moore's films

    — George Schuyler's Black No More

    — Errol Morris' "The Fog of War" (a great depiction of a villain's recognition of his own villainy, perhaps?)

    — testimonies of "perpetrators" in the reports of various truth commissions

    I'm unabashedly self-interested in your project, since our "Intro to Philosophy" class is always topic-oriented. I would love to steal this idea for my Intro class the next time my turn to teach it comes around.

    1. I'm working on a full syllabus, now. Probably I'll put together a tentative schedule and then do a set of blog posts on the different readings, with the idea of gettting in under the wire for the Spring book orders…. 🙂

      As the woman who introduced me to the great Dexter Morgan, of course you are perfectly welcome to use whatever you like on this front. I've been the recipient of more than one very helpful syllabus, and I've always thought that this is one of the great spaces of collaboration within the discipline.

      Your comments on using real TRC interviews strikes me as very good, but I only really know the literature on South Africa. (Country of My Skull has some pretty harrowing perpetrator testimony, for instance.) Can you recommend anything from the various Latin American truth commissions?

      One thing that motivates me here is the distinction between agent-attributions and spectator-attributions of responsibility, so I'd want to find some space for more analytic ethics as well. (Bernard Williams, specifically.) Then there's the issue of designing assignments.

  2. The Argetinian Truth Commission's report, Nunca Mas, has lots of testimonies in it. In fact, one of the reasons it has been criticized is because (unlike the SA TRC report) it doesn't really have a coherent overarching "narrative" voice, but rather reads like a collection of testimonies.

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