ENGL 690-01: Literature & Commodity Culture

Section Description:

This seminar focuses on depictions of “things” in a diverse group of U. S. cultural texts from the late-19th and early-20th century, a period widely recognized as pivotal for the emergence of a culture of mass consumption and an era of U. S. external imperialism and economic expansion. Surveying various representational forms–including literary and film texts, newspaper and magazine advertisements, and promotional and documentary materials about the display of “things” in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair–alongside a range of critical and theoretical writings, we will examine interrelations of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and nation in U. S. commodity culture. In particular, we will unpack the diverse desires and identifications articulated through commodities in U. S. cultural texts, and the complex ways individuals use commodities to construct (and deconstruct) individual and collective identities. In the final weeks of the semester we will turn to examples from early-21st century television and film, in order to consider crucial developments in U. S. commodity culture in our contemporary moment. Although the content of our discussions each week will substantially be shaped by the interests of seminar members, topics addressed will include: the “feminization” of the consumer, and the relationship between feminism and consumption, during this period; representations of “Americanization” through consumption in immigrant fiction and the links between commodity and nation; the international, imperial significance of images of American “abundance” and “conspicuous consumption” in advertisements and narrative prose; the relationship between consumption and “passing” in African American fiction, and the saturation of commodity culture, including advertising, with racial signifiers and meanings; the ways that commodity culture is haunted by gendered and racial histories of commodification (especially female sexual commodification and the commodification of black bodies under slavery); the complex relationship between cinema and commodity spectacle; and the expansion and intensification of commodification and what Henry Giroux calls “disposability” under contemporary neoliberalism—processes especially evident in visual cultural texts.