Monthly Archives: January 2010

Welcome to AMS179

We should begin the course by defining the terms in its title, Popular and Culture. Raymond Williams’s excellent book Keywords gives the etymology and development of these concepts, available on-line here. Your assignment for Thursday is to print out and read these two short articles AND search for an alternate definition of Culture. To make the latter part of the assignment more interesting, you may not use a standard dictionary or wikipedia.

For now, we might adopt a functionalist perspective on popular culture and think about what role it fulfills in society. We can think of pop as a means of escape, as dope, as a space for working out social contradictions such as class conflict, as a kind of dreaming, as pleasure, as a platform for the enunciation of ideas. We should think about what we do when we consume popular culture and how those activities relate to the concepts of leisure and free time. Is pop an autonomous space, an experience which gives us a sense of freedom or of equality (with other consumers of pop)? Or is pop a kind of cul-de-sac, a range of products and practices which effectively contain deeper desires for liberation from the routines of everyday life? These sorts of questions will lead us inevitably to another key concept for the study of popular culture, ideology.

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Welcome to American Autobiography (HUM470)

The term “autobiography” is an invention of the Age of Revolution– the late 18th and early 19th centuries– when Europe saw the advent of a cultural movement named Romanticism which was a response to the rationalist imperatives of the Enlightenment. In its broadest sense Romanticism sought to reach beyond Reason into a realm of spiritual and aesthetic transcendence, a program exemplified by many Romantic poets’ concern with heightened states of consciousness and artistic spontaneity. Romanticism was fascinated by the idea of the subjective perception of universal truth, and writers such as Wordsworth and Shelley taxed their own powers of observation and introspection in order to better represent the world in which they lived.  That autobiography as a literary form would come into prominence at this time, then, seems logical enough. And the project the genre of autobiography claimed for itself was nothing less than the construction of what we, the legatees of the Age of Revolution, consider more a matter of Nature than Culture: the autonomous self, or what some scholars have called the Bourgeois Subject. This notion, Linda Anderson has written, was “generated at the end of the 18th century but still powerfully present in the middle of the 20th” and held that  “each individual posses a unified, unique selfhood which is also the expression of a universal human nature.”

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The Questionnaire (HUM415, HUM470, AMS179)

Here it is, for those of you may have missed it:


1. legal name

2. preferred name

3. place/date of birth

4. are you a military veteran?

if so, what was your job/ period of enlistment?

5. are you fluent in more than one language/ did you grow up speaking more than one language? which ones?

6. what is your primary area of study?

7. what was the best non-required book you read in the last year?

8. what was the last film you saw in a theater?

9. name three musical artists, groups and/or genres you enjoy.

pick one. what about his/her/their music do you like?

Welcome to Contemporary Culture (HUM415-02)


Defining the contemporary period is an inexact project at best, and what counts as contemporary shifts between disciplines. Historians and philosophers tend to conceive of the period in larger terms: most world histories date the contemporary period as beginning with WWII. Philosophers are even further removed from our present moment and many date contemporary philosophy as beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. These periodizations are further complicated by dictionary definitions of “contemporary”: the Oxford English Dictionary defines “contemporary” as “belonging to the same time, age, or period; living, existing, or occurring together in time.” In this sense of the word, contemporary has more to do with the condition of being contemporaneous. All of us are contemporaries, as are the texts we’ll examine in this course.

My argument for periodizing the contemporary from the 1970s to the present is based on changes that have occurred in economic, social and cultural life. Some of these transformations are difficult to explain as they entail major shifts in production and consumption. The Fordist model of production, for instance, which was predicated on the existence of major industrial centers and full employment has given way to new methods generally grouped under the rubric of “postFordism” (Harvey).

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What Would Toussaint Do?

History’s only successful slave revolt, one which led to the world’s first black republic, a nation the United States would not recognize until about 60 years later during, it is important to underscore, its own Civil War, has come under the diamond-sharp critical eye of Pat Robertson. See what you think:

PAT ROBERTSON: And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.”

And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come. But right now, we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.

KRISTI WATTS (co-host): Absolutely, Pat.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, by the way, the nephew of Napoleon I, was born in 1808, 17 years after the start of the Haitian Revolution.

Captain from Castile

Film Review: Captain from Castile (1947)

Tyrone Power [The Razor’s Edge, Blood and Sand] stars as early 16th century (1518) Spanish caballero Pedro de Vargas, persecuted as a heretic by the Inquisition after he helps a runaway Aztec slave who claims to be of noble birth (Coatl, played by Jay Silverheels). Lee J. Cobb [Twelve Angry Men, Thieves Highway], sporting Technicolor red hair, aids de Vargas in escaping from prison only after de Vargas’s 12 year old sister is killed being tortured by the strappado. The second escape following so closely after the first establishes a symmetry between the characters of Coatl and de Vargas, whose natural dignity and manly rectitude, it is implied, cannot be contained– and indeed they are destined to meet again. Cobb seems miscast; as the corrupt cop in  The Man Who Cheated Himself or a mobbed-up trade unionist in On the Waterfront Cobb tended to play contemporary roles usually lacking any redeeming features. Juan Garcia, on the other hand, lives with a tragic secret, a fault-line beneath his confident and ambitious exterior which renders him one of the most damaged of Captain from Castile’s characters. Juan Garcia, it is revealed, strangled his mother to death to spare her from burning at the Inquisition’s stake, an act he insists was justified, one that tells us something about the world of early modern Spain– corrupt, priest-ridden– and, by extension, the postwar world in which the film was made. There is a hard-boiled sensibility to CFC, one appropriate to its 2nd act setting in a New World ransacked by rapacious conquistadors: confronted by the man responsible for his family’s disgrace and sister’s death, de Silva, Power’s de Varga forces the villain– a member of the dreaded Hermandad, something like the Catholic church’s secret police– to renounce his faith and then runs him through with a sword.

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