HUMS 349, Modernities: Identity in Modern Thought

Meeting Time: 
T 3:30p-5:20p

HUMS 349/LITR 470. Identity is at the heart of our present social conflicts, from campus debates about power and privilege, to movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too, to the resurgence of ethnic nationalism. But what is identity, after all? How does it come into being? What role do “nature” and “culture” play in that process, and are they separable? To what extent are we defined by our belonging to identity categories such as race, class, gender and sexuality? How free are we to create our own identities? What makes me “me”? Is there a true self? This class explores the complexities of identity through readings in modern literature, philosophy and social theory, from psychoanalysis to critical race theory, romanticism to postmodernism, autobiography to autofiction. Authors include J.-J. Rousseau, William Wordsworth, R. W. Emerson, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, G. H. Mead, Erik Erikson, Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Djuna Barnes, Nella Larsen, W. E. B. Du Bois, Franz Fanon, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Saidiya Hartman, Claudia Rankine, Ben Lerner, Maggie Nelson, Camille Paglia.

Led by:

Professor Benjamin Barasch is a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Humanities Program at Yale University. Having received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University in 2019, he is delighted to be returning to Yale and to the Humanities Program, from which he received his BA in 2009.

While his scholarship is rooted in nineteenth-century American literature and European aesthetic and ecological thought, he is also committed to wide-ranging inquiry into questions such as the nature of value and the status of the human in an age of environmental catastrophe. His book project, Living Thought: Form and Vitality in American Literature, argues that authors such as Walt Whitman and Henry James held a paradoxical conception of the imagination as both the mark of human uniqueness and the source of our closest intimacy with the nonhuman world. He proposes the irreducible doubleness of the imagination as a corrective to the academic critique of the human subject.

He has taught classes on American visionary art from Emily Dickinson to David Lynch; on the question of value in humanistic study; and a yearlong survey in political philosophy from Plato to Foucault. His paper “Emerson’s Discovery of Life” was the 2019 winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society’s award for the best graduate student paper. A performing pianist and guitarist, he also studies the history and theory of classical and popular music; particular favorites include Gustav Mahler, Charles Ives, and Bob Dylan.


This course has never been offered before. Testimonials are taken from student course evaluations of other courses by Professor Barasch.

  • “He is an excellent teacher who is always willing to meet with students. His insights allowed for deeper discussion in class. His engagement level was very high. He was very friendly and always open to help all of his students.
  • “He gives unique insights into the texts. They can be really different from what we usually heard and can be really deep. He’s especially helpful in office hours and gives me lots of ideas for my essays. I’m really grateful that I had him for my literature course in the first semester.”
  • “Professor Barasch continually engaged with my writing and ideas, even if he disagreed with the themes I put forward in my essays or our conversations he did always seem to respect me as a thinker and student. I’ve learned a LOT about a lot of books and have enjoyed discussing them together.”
  • “Professor Barasch not only demands participation and original thought, but he also uses our involvement to curate discussions that answer our own questions. Office hours are incredible, as he will discuss elements of the text with you as an equal and show care towards your well-being.”