The Americas: Identity, Culture, Power
This course is designed to offer you a novel and innovative alternative to conventional classes in the humanities and social sciences. Truly interdisciplinary, the course draws on faculty from ten academic departments and schools. This class is also genuinely comparative and hemispheric. Unlike traditional "American Studies" programs, which define their subject matter exclusively by the geopolitical boundaries of the United States, this course takes a hemispheric approach that also encompasses the "other Americas": Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
This course emphasizes three broad themes. The first is identity. Here we are interested in the shifting ways that individuals have conceived and experienced their identity and their relationship to larger communities. We are especially interested in the ways that identity has been defined along--and across--racial, sex/gender, age/generational, ethnic, geographic, religious, and national lines. Thus, we are concerned about the way political, economic, historical, and social forces have shaped identities. Using the tools of anthropology, history, literary criticism, political science, psychology, and sociology, we will examine the ways in which identity has been represented and studied both by "insiders" and "outsiders," as well as the processes through which identity has been repressed, celebrated, altered, multiplied, and extended.
A second major theme is culture. We are not only interested in the "high culture" of elite intellectual and artistic activity, but also in "popular cultures," "folk cultures," "political cultures," and "commercial mass cultures" and the complex relationships among them. While our course will pay close attention to the "hegemonic" cultures that achieve a degree of dominance at particular times and places, we are equally interested in various subcultures and countercultures that offer alternative forms of artistic expression and values and that have repeatedly challenged and transformed dominant cultures. We are especially interested in issues of cultural resistance, transformation, domination, and colonialism as well as the possibilities of post-colonialism.
A central issue that we will explore is the intricate connection between culture as expressed in the arts, literature, music, and philosophy and the more holistic and inclusive anthropological conception of culture as particular communities' ways of life. Drawing upon approaches offered by anthropology, art, literary criticism, musicology, philosophy, sociology, we will examine the complex process through which culture has been defined, disseminated, contested, and commercialized in the Americas. We are especially interested in the ways that cultures are created through hybridization, processes of mutual borrowing and differentiation, as well as through transnational processes of migration, urbanization, and myriad forms of "modernization." Our objective is not only to show how complex societies consolidate a "common" culture, but also how the Americas have produced a multiplicity of cultures. Such an approach is essential if we are to understand both the cultural commonalities and differences that belong under the term "American."
The course's third key theme is power. We are interested not only in relationships of dominance and hierarchy, but also in various ways that order has been contested and resisted. We will place special emphasis on the power of ideas, and the way that they are formed into coherent systems of thought by intellectuals and communities; expressed and communicated through media and the arts; commodified and experienced as everyday lifestyles by subcultural, countercultural, and minority groups; and mobilized into forms of action by social and political movements. Thus we explore the varieties and forms of modernism and modernity that have emerged in the American experience, since these are the sites in which the logic and practice of both domination and resistance occur.
The underlying issue that the course addresses is "sharing." All Americans do share certain common experiences, histories, values, and aspirations. To what extent, we shall ask, are shared cultural elements--such as identity, belonging, and belief--differentially experience as a result of such elements as ethnicity, gender, nationality, and race?