Modernity and the Slaughterhouse: Violence, Labor, and Animals in Contemporary Society

Steven Pinker opens his influential bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature with the claim that “If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one,” going on to argue that the contemporary age is one marked by relatively more peace and less violence than ever before. Drawing on a long tradition of optimist thinkers, he credits this civilizational progress to a combination of the intellectual legacy of Enlightenment humanism, greater faith in scientific rationality and technological progress, a strong system of states and social institutions, and the development of democracy and the liberal market economy. For Pinker, this account holds as much for humans as it does for animals, and he goes so far as to claim the emergence of animal rights as “another rights revolution” akin to civil rights and women’s rights. But does this account of modern society hold up under scrutiny? Or, more specifically, where does it fail? And how exactly does contemporary society relate to different forms of violence (against humans and animals) that it has not done away with?

The historical processes described by Pinker have not only drastically changed human society, but they have also impacted how we interact with animals. The United States today produces and consumes more meat than ever, but most Americans live at an increasing geographic and perceptual distance from animals and the humans who work with them, relying on a system of industrial production and a complex division of labor. This course approaches the politics of this distribution of labor, violence, and human-animal relations from a site rarely considered in political analysis: the modern slaughterhouse. It engages with this institution as a historical and cultural object, using the story of its emergence and operation to ask broader questions about the politics of social change. We will draw on an interdisciplinary range of academic and non-academic works to explore a range of questions about the relationships between institutions and rationality, visibility and invisibility, hygiene and marginalization, and labor and society, and to examine the narratives ostensibly peaceful, liberal democracies tell themselves about violence, history, and progress.



Commodities: An Introduction to the Political Economy of Consumer Culture

We live a world increasingly saturated by market forces, where an ever-growing number of things are up for sale. But what does it mean for something to be a commodity? What logics govern the markets for things as diverse as sugar, art, animals, and DNA? What can we learn about society, history, and politics – and ourselves - by studying products? Should there be limits to what can be bought and sold? This course foregrounds commodities as a base for introducing students to foundational aspects of the theory and practice of political economy. By engaging with a range of primary commodities as they move through various phases of their respective value chains, we will explore the dynamics of production, market exchange, advertising, and consumption. We will then turn to the question of what is obscured by the (fetishized) commodity form and how value (and values) are created in markets. This will include an introduction to the debates about the social and ethical limits of commodification. Throughout, we will interrogate the broader historical and economic context within which market exchange takes place while also examining our individual participation in the system and the range of political opportunities for personal and systemic change. We will draw on an a wide range of authors belonging to diverse disciplines, including Karl Marx, William Cronon, Jean Baudrillard, and Ralph Nader, among many others.



Transitions to Democracy

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history” and the victory of capitalist liberal democracy. But ongoing struggles for political transition throughout the world and socio-economic crises in developed countries show that history is far from over. In this course we will examine the idea of democracy and the ideal of democratization before moving into focusing on the tangible practice of transition. We will study how countries have transitioned to various forms of democracy from totalitarian, authoritarian, and colonial governments by looking at case studies from around the world (including Poland, Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa). We will then turn our attention to the theory and practice of regime change, to retreats from democracy, and to critiques of democracy as a mode of governance. The roles played by domestic and international actors as well as the place of violence and nonviolent resistance will be considered. Throughout, academic sources will be bolstered by journalism, public and intellectual commentary, and art that reflect the lived experience of those struggling for change.   



Introduction to International Trade

This course has three main objectives. The first is to introduce student to the history and socio-political importance of international trade and of the phenomenon of globalization. The purpose of this is to place the study of international business within a broader context rather than taking an insular “good for business / bad for business” approach. The second goal is to introduce the student to basic concepts and theories underpinning the operation and flow of international business. This discussion includes the conduct of international trade, the institutions and agreements which provide structure for global commerce and the organizations, both large and small, which undertake international business. This material is meant to provide an integrated framework which allows students to understand various aspects of international business not as individual facts but as part of a systematic whole. The final objective of the course is to heighten students’ awareness of current issues in the field, combining an understanding of theoretical principles with a grasp of how these principles tangibly impact on countries, businesses, and individuals on a daily basis.