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The Self in Society

Rhode Island School of Design, Liberal Arts / HPSS-S577-01

Winter Session 2003, Schedule B. 

Instructor: Peter Hocking

Office: Swearer Center for Public Service, 25 George Street

Contact: Peter_Hocking@Brown.EDU or 863-1446



Overview: Who am I? Who are you? How do we know? How did we get this way? Why are we who we are? What sort of life might we wish to lead? The invention of identity is, perhaps, the only authentic creative enterprise that one undertakes in life. Through reading, self-reflection, direct work, and personal investigation, this course will investigate how individuals invent authentic identities in the context of social, political, economic and cultural forces that both define contemporary society and prescribe individual life paths. We will meet and work with local communities to explore how social forces shape the identities of life-long and newly arrived Rhode Islanders. Finally, we will look at the ways in which artists both reinforce and subvert the social forces that impact identity.





Discussion and Class Participation: The course requires everyone to engage in a conversation that connects personal experience with the knowledge represented by authors, artists, and other class members. One unexplained absence will be excused. After that, every unexplained absence will reduce your grade by 5 points. From time-to-time, we all need to miss class for an emergency or special circumstance; make arrangements with me prior to class and such an absence will not count against your grade.


Reading: A variety of written materials will form, in part, the basis of our discussions and the starting point for reflective writing. Faithful reading of the material is required. The required reading includes:

• Reader of articles available at Alegra Printing,

• materials provided by the instructor

You are also expected to read on your own and to connect that reading to your written work and final project.


Writing: The two short writing assignments will utilize the reading and personal experience as reference points. The purpose of the writing assignments is to develop one's skill as a writer while learning to construct meaning from experience and collected data. All papers should be typed, 3-5 pages long (unless otherwise specified) and conform to the MLA's 1999 guidelines (as specified in A Writer's Reference, fourth edition, Diane Hacker). Students are encouraged to experiment with form and to work in a variety of written traditions -- prose, poetry, reflective writing, autobiography, and essay.


Community Project: Each student will design and participate in a community project.  These projects may be undertaken in the Greater Providence community or on the RISD campus.  They should involve you with a “new” community or one with which you have had little previous contact.  Projects might include:

• working with the RISD / Pawtucket community studio (about which there will be a presentation in class);

• organizing an intentional weekly dinner discussion group with 5-10 other RISD students;

• working with a community-based organization such as a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, community school, or other social service agency;

• developing an artist’s collective, or

• establishing an on-line community via the Internet. 

A one-page proposal for your community project must be emailed to the instructor by 8:30 AM on Tuesday, 21 January. All community projects must be documented for the instructor via photography, writing, artwork, or other appropriate means.  Each student will provide a 2-4 page written report on the outcomes of the community project.


Resources for the community project:

The Swearer Center’s on-line database of community agencies:

On-line Journal Communities:


Final Projects: Each student will make a final presentation to the class that exhibits new understanding of the intersection the individual and society. Final projects may be written or engage other media.


Grading: Class participation 40%; Writing 10%; Community Project 35%; Final project 15%






Week One: Introductions and Orientations 

• Thursday, 9 January: Introductions, course goals and the practice of learning. 1st Writing Assignment: 2-5 pages responding to the questions "Why are you studying to be an artist / designer? What are your goals for being an artist / designer?  How does being an artist / designer ‘fit’ with other goals you have for your life?" Assignment due 15 January

Reading: Review Pierre Hadot,  “Philosophy As a Way of Life” --  provided by instructor.

•Friday, 10 January: Reading of Hadot chapter in class.


Week Two: Systems of Power – External Pressures on Identity

We live in systems that influence, shape, and even constrict our lives. As participants in an educational system, we all now find ourselves at RISD. What is this educational system? What are its goals? How has this prepared us, prevented us from becoming artists and designers -- or, more provocatively, creative people? What is the role of the arts, the artists and designer in American education? How is our education related to American society? Global society?

• Wednesday, 15 January, noon- 1:30: Discussion of community projects. First writing assignment due.

  Thursday, 16 January: Lecture on the history of higher education and discussion of reading.

Reading for 16 Jan: "Deconstructing the System: In the final vol. of his writings, Foucault explores the nature of power," Edward Said; "Foucault’’s Counter-history of Ideas," Alec McHoul and Wendy Grace; and "The Self Under Siege," from The Saturated Self, Kenneth Gergen.

• Friday, 17 January: no class


Week Three: Identity Formation / Inventing Identity – Internal Resources

The process of developing an authentic "I" spans one’s life. Yet this process is bracketed by many social systems and cultural markers – turning "21" or various moments of "graduation" -- that declare the conclusion of one’s education and identity formation. Other social forces mark each of us with labels of identity – for instance, being male or female, black or white – that may seem alien of incorrect to our lived experience. This section of the course will look at various theories of identity formation and self-invention that contradict static notions of identity while interrogating the labels with which each of us are marked.

• Thursday, 23 January: Lecture on Rhode Island Identity and discussion in class.

Reading for 23-24 January: “The Queer Politics of Michel Foucault,” David Halprin; “ Reflections on the Idea of ‘Cultivation of the Self’,” Pierre Hadot; “Theory as a Liberatory Practice,” belle hooks.

• Friday, 24 January: discussion continues in class.

2d Writing Assignment: a short autobiographical introduction that outlines a "personal philosophy."  Due on 31 January.


Week Four: Race, Sex, Gender and Sexuality

Issues related to race are deeply inscribed in the fabric of American society. So-called "color blindness" often betrays a desire for race-invisibility that re-enforces the foundation of racism. Conversely, explicit talk about race can incite reaction that is counter-productive to addressing the root causes of racism. In the nineteenth century, the suffragist and early women’s movements began a trajectory toward greater human and civil rights for women. The nineteen- fifties and sixties, with the emergence of modern feminism and a nascent gay liberation movement re-energized the articulation of diverse sexual identities based on sex, gender and transgressions of normative sexual categories. While these identities have longer and richer histories than is acknowledged in the general society, such histories are often obscured within the historical record. New historical projects are beginning to form a clearer picture of sexual diversity and in this section of the course we will look at the ways that transgressive sexual identities have been obscured and the impacts of such on society as a whole. Finally we will begin to uncover the ways that groups oppressed on the basis of sexual identity have established modes of resistance. This section of the course will investigate race sex, gender and sexual orientation as identity and cultural markers while seeking to develop a broader understanding of the ways that these markers influence our own identity formation.

• Thursday, 30 January: Discussion of reading. Check in about community projects.

Readings for 30-31 January: "Politics of Radical Black Subjectivity," belle hooks; "Building Gay Neighborhood Enclaves: The Village and Harlem," George Chauncy from Gay New York; “The Bodies That Were Not Ours,” Coco Fusco.

• Friday, 31 January : Discussion in class continued. Students will share with the class the plan for their final project. 2d writing assignment due.


Week Five: Resistances / Provoking Change

Throughout the course we have looked at identities that have been under-represented in American society and the ways that people resist the dominant power structures that define our society. How do these identities resist marginalization and oppression? When confronted by injustice we may be moved to action, but how is change achieved? Can artists be activists? Are there consequences to art being ‘political?"

• Thursday, 6 February: Discussion in class about the community projects.

Reading for 6-7 February: "The Waning of the Modern Age," and "Beyond the Rectangle, Out of the Frame," Suzi Gablik; "Speaking to Power" and Representations of the Intellectual," Edward Said

• Friday, 7 February: Discussion in class.


Week Six: Exhibitions

• 13-14 February: Final Projects will be exhibited in class and (possibly) at a dinner at the instructors house. In addition, we may use Thursday’s class period to continue discussions that are unfinished or de-brief on the community projects.