Race and Order in the New Republic
This course meets the public discourse requirement in the Department of Rhetoric. Through the examination of various media, from texts to film, and audio media, we will explore the connection of narrative to discourse in American culture. We will start with the question of what is American popular culture, and whether there is a discernable cultural identity in our society. If so, is there a connection to the issue of race in American history that is deeply imbedded in our cultural identity?
Jane Smiley in a Harper’s article in 1996 wrote the following regarding the role race plays in American society. She was commenting on what she perceived were the shortcomings of Samuel Clemen’s Huckleberry Finn:
“…Americans always think racism is a feeling, and they reject it or they embrace it. To most Americans, it seems more honorable and nicer to reject it, so they do, but they almost invariably fail to understand that how they feel means very little to black Americans, who understand racism as a way of structuring American culture,…”
What does it mean to suggest that race could be viewed as a way to “structure” our culture, and is there evidence to support such a contention? In the attempt to make sense of this question, I will propose a connection between the concept of “cultural trauma” or collective trauma, and our popular cultural identity, its formation, and how that connection relates to contemporary popular culture in America. We will start with readings on culture and the theory of cultural trauma, to provide a context. Then we will move to historical and cultural narratives beginning with James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pioneers; America’s first popular and iconic fictional work. By using this historical romance novel as a guide to interpret issues underlying early American cultural identity, the class will view the development of American society and culture as a “formal problem.” That is, the novel poses a symbolic and thematic problem involving the three principal racial groups in early North America (i.e., the Native Americans, the European-Americans, and the African-Americans). They are symbolically structured into a theme of social and political order in the new nation that discloses unresolved issues in the nation’s founding and modernity. All subsequent readings in the class will be viewed in the context of that formal problem and Cooper’s solution—the patriarchal American Western. There will be an emphasis on what the symbolism of the American Western reveals about our society and culture. Ante-bellum readings will be matched with more contemporary cultural artifacts and symbolism in film clips and documentary media. This class is focused around the discussion of course materials so preparation for class and reading materials in advance is required. Readings include original texts in American literature and letters (e.g. My Bondage, My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Huckleberry Finn by Samuel Clemens, along with readings from D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Willliams, the New York Review of Books, etc.). There will also be historical articles, theoretical material, and criticism collected in a course reader that will assist in analyzing both American history and the source materials we will be using. Film clips (ranging from the “Big Bang Theory” to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”, James Cameron’s “Avatar” and “Terminator II”, to Sixty Minutes and the PBS “The American Experience”) will supplement formal reading material in each class.
There will be a take-home midterm essay, an essay/project making use of course materials and themes, and a take-home essay final exam. Attendance, participation in discussions, and office hour visits are part of course grading. Early in the semester, there will be a mandatory Friday night pot-luck dinner and/or film gathering. I will provide you with dates in the syllabus.
Classes begin with film clips and may involve student presentation of reading materials before we break into a full discussion. We will be open to all perspectives, no matter how controversial or widely shared. But we will be respectful of one another, and speak in language not aimed at individuals or personalities, but at issues.
James Fennimore Cooper, The Pioneers;
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick;
Frederick Douglas, My Bondage, My Freedom;
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn;
Course Reader from Copy Central on Bancroft Way that includes excerpts from Joel Martin’s Sacred Revolt, and other materials.