POL S 310 A: The Western Tradition of Political Thought, Modern

Meeting Time: 
MW 10:30am - 12:20pm
* *
Noga Rotem

Syllabus Description:

Pol S 310: Modern Political Thought

The Politics of Crowds

Winter 2021


Professor: Noga Rotem

M, W 10:30-12:20


Office hours: Friday 9-11 am, or by appointment




“The subjects must be kept apart. That is the first maxim of modern politics.”

(Jean Jacques Rousseau)


“Passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob” (Federalist 55).



One of the many things we had to give up in this pandemic year is the company of other people. Not just of loved ones but also the company of complete strangers: in concert halls, marches, sports games, in crowded streets, festivals, movie theaters, etc. In this selective survey of Modern Political Thought we will pay homage of a sort to these crowds and others we might miss, by reading and discussing political thinkers who studied crowds as either a problem to worry about, or as democracy’s greatest asset, or as both.


Modernity is certainly, among other things, the age of the crowd. The 19th century saw the emergence of the new science of “mass psychology” which responded to the emergence of the masses since the French and Haitian revolutions. Crowd theorists saw the crowd as dangerous, hysterical, as dissolving individuality, as unruly, or, alternatively, as given over to the leader. While these theorists saw in the crowd a great threat to democracy and to the rule of law, others (or sometimes the very same thinkers, in different contexts), however, saw miraculous moments in these spontaneous gatherings – instances of public joy, and sources of democratic and revolutionary hope. How can we account for that disparity?

We will ask, further: what distinguishes the violent mob from the democratic crowd? What drives people to take to the streets (or: what does the crowd want)? What kind of emotions (also known as affects) do the people of the crowd share (rage? sympathy? pity? joy?) and why does it matter? What is the bodily experience of being in a crowd? What happens to the agency of subjects in crowds? What do actual historical events and movements in modernity (such as the American, French, Haitian revolutions, the Algerian War, the feminist movement) teach us about the political promises and dangers of crowds?


We will read canonical modern texts by Edmund Burke, Hannah Arendt, C.L.R James, Simone de-Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, and others. The class consists of three main units: the first, “The Phenomenology and Choreography of Crowds” will focus on the bodily experience of being in a crowd and on the crowd’s form and movement and their political importance; the second unit, “From Crowd to People: The Age of Revolution” will look at the three major historical revolutions that took place in modernity, focusing on the revolution as a moment of founding where the crowd or the mob becomes a people. The third unit, “Subjects and Crowds,” will look at the crowd as a hindrance to individuality, and at individuality as an obstacle for the formation of a politically active crowd. 


This class focuses on modernity in two complementary levels: it reads modern (and some contemporary) political thinkers, and, it also discusses works that respond to modern historical events. This is thus an opportunity not only to read modern political thought, but also to see how political theory is very much grounded in the world and responds to the political events of the time.



Required Texts




Burke, Edmund

Reflections on the Revolution in France




James, C.L. R.

The Black Jacobins


Vintage Books


Arendt, Hannah

On Revolution (optional)




Fanon, Frantz

Black Skin, White Masks


Grove Press


de Beauvoir, Simone

The Second Sex


Vintage Books



Requirements and evaluation:

  1. Read the assigned material before class and come to class prepared to discuss the readings

I encourage you to keep a reading journal where you take notes and write down questions about parts of the texts that interest you or that you are struggling to understand. Bring those to class or to office hours! These notes will serve you for many years to come as you might return to these texts.

  1. Participation: 15%

This class will consist of lecture and discussion. If you feel uncomfortable speaking in class, you might want to attend office hours on a more regular basis. In general, and regardless of the level of your class participation, I highly encourage you to attend office hours to discuss the class, the readings, your interests, or just to check in.

  1. Five reflection posts on canvas (1-2 paragraphs): 15%

These are not papers. Instead, they are opportunities for you to reflect on some of the texts ‘on the spot’ as you are reading them, that is, in a more spontaneous and less structured way than you would in a paper, and share your thoughts with your instructor and peers on canvas. You will post your responses 5 times during the quarter, at your choosing. Responses are due on canvas by 8 pm the night before the relevant session. Write responses for the texts that you found particularly thought provoking. You might feel that you strongly agree, disagree, puzzled, intrigued, etc. In your response, try to refer to a specific paragraph or page number from the text. The response might answer (concisely) one of the following questions: What in this particular text, or segment from a text made you pause and think, and why; why do you so strongly agree or disagree; or, how do you see this text/segment of a text speaking to the larger themes we are discussing in class, or speaking to another text we have already read and discussed. Before you write your reflection post, check canvas to see if anyone else posted a reflection about the same text. Read previous posts, and consider responding to them in your own response as you see fit.

  1. Midterm paper, 1500 words max. Due on January 27th. 30%

Study a crowd: Find one news article that describes a political crowd, or a scene from a film/novel you like that features a crowd. Describe the scene briefly (1-2 paragraphs). Choose two of the following thinkers: Canetti, Arendt, and Butler and answer the following question: how does each of the two help us understand the scene? What do they miss? Which reading do you find more useful and generative to our understanding of the politics and the phenomenology of the crowd in the scene and why?

The ability to express your ideas and make an argument in a limited space is a big challenge to all of us but it is also a great exercise that forces you to figure out exactly what is your argument. Be aware that papers will not be read/graded beyond the 1500 word limit.

Depending on the formatting you are using, 1500 words usually amount to 4-5 pages. For this assignment only, students who would like to improve their grade might revise the paper and resubmit it, no longer than two weeks after it has been graded and returned. You will be asked to add to your revision a cover letter (1 paragraph) which explains how you responded to the grader’s comments.

The paper is due on January 27th.

  1. Final paper, 2000 words max. Due on March 10th. 40%

Depending on the formatting you are using, 2000 words are around 6 pages. Prompt will be distributed on February 22nd.


Late Policy

If you need to turn work in late, please give prior notice when possible. Unexpected lateness will result in a dropped 0.3 points each day.


Response times

I will check my email regularly. In general, I usually check and respond to emails at night. You can email me at any time but you may not receive response until the evening.



If you would like to request academic accommodation due to a disability, please contact UW Disability Resources for Students (DRS), uwdrs@uw.edu. Please present to me any letter you might have received from DRS confirming the need for academic accommodations, so that we can arrange accommodations.


Religious accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy (https://registrar.washington.edu/staffandfaculty/religious-accommodations-policy/). Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (https://registrar.washington.edu/students/religious-accommodations-request/).





*=on canvas


M Jan 4

Introduction and course overview


ONE: The Phenomenology and Choreography of Crowds


W Jan 6

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, pp. 15-30*

Watch (in class): clips from CROWDS by filmmaker and choreographer Sarah Friedland

Recommended: interview with Sarah Friedland about the making of CROWDS


M Jan 11:

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition – 7-9; 175-212*


W Jan 13:

James Martel “The magic of matter: bodies, together and apart in a time of pandemic,” pp. 1-4*

Judith Butler, Performative Theory of Assembly. “Introduction,” pp. 1-23*

Rodney Diverlus, “Black Lives Matter Toronto: Urgency as Choreographic Necessity”, pp. 62-68*




TWO: From Crowd to People: The Age of Revolution


W Jan 20

Arendt, On Revolution, pp. 1-25, 37-48, 80-88, 99-105*


M Jan 25

Arendt, On Revolution, pp. 145-158, 171-177, 184-200*

Recommended: Jason Frank, “Sympathy and Separation: Benjamin Rush and the Contagious Public,” in: Constituent Moments*


 W Jan 27 *SUBMIT midterm*

Read: Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (89-91, 106, 117-138, 159-179, 183-184, 194-195)

Recommended: Lori Marso, “Defending the Queen”


M Feb 1

Edmund Burke. Excerpts from Warren Hasting’s impeachment Trial.*

Lida Maxwell, “Justice, Sympathy and Mourning in Burke’s Impeachment of Warren Hastings”*

Rob Goodman, “Edmund Burke Could Help with Impeachment,” The Atlantic, September 2019  


W Feb 3

C.L.R James, The Black Jacobins (preface; prologue; 6-26; 81-126)

Recommended: listen to the “15 Minute History” podcast about the Haitian Revolution


M Feb 8

The Black Jacobins 145-162; 194-198; 289-292, 316-321, 346-356, 370-377

David Scott Conscripts of Modernity, chapter 2*


W Feb 10

Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto*

Cedric Robinson, “C.L.R James, and the Black Radical Tradition,” pp. 170-186*


M Feb 15 (no class- President’s Day)


THREE: Crowds and Subjects


W Feb 17

Foucault Discipline and Punish chapter 1*

Friendship as a Way of Life”*


M Feb 22: *Final prompt distributed*

Frantz Fanon Black Skin White Masks: forward (vii-x); Introduction (xi-xviii); chapter One (15-19); chapter 5 (89-119); conclusion (198-206)


W Feb 24

Watch: “The Battle of Algiers”*

Jacques Rancière, “The Cause of the Other,” pp. 25-33*


M Mar 1st

Simone de-Beauvoir, The Second Sex (selections)

Recommended: Lori Marso, “Violence, Pathologies, and Resistance in Frantz Fanon* (reading Fanon and Beauvoir together)


W Mar 3rd

The Second Sex (selections)


M Mar 8th

Bonnie Honig, “Care and Concern: Arendt and Winnicott,” in: Public Things 37-57*


W Mar 10th Conclusion *FINAL PAPER DUE*



Catalog Description: 
Continuation of POL S 308 and POL S 309, focusing on material from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries.
Department Requirements: 
Political Theory Field
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
October 12, 2020 - 11:51pm