I teach a course in the spring entitled American Culture and Its Critics, which will bring together, I hope, the usual diversity of students from anthropology, journalism, English, and political science, in addition to the two sponsoring programs, history and American Studies. My search for texts that will be mandatory for the class brought me to one of those classic teacher conundrums. I can’t have the bookstore stock a dozen titles for the course (no, I can’t); but I also don’t want to spend a month scanning essays from critics. I chose as the core texts Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow; Denning’s The Cultural Front, and Kammen’s Visual Shock. I intend each book to do triple duty: to cover a chronological period of U.S. history; to introduce a different way of organizing cultural criticism (taste, politics, aesthetics); and to demonstrate how to write cultural criticism. I also use primary texts from critics across the American landscape, from the Puritans to postmodernists–John Adams to Melville to Bourne to Sontag to Zizek. And because I write about movie culture, I want to show a few films to suggest how criticism can move across mediums and can comment on the medium it uses (I like using Errol Morris’s more quirky films).
However…I am well aware how woefully inadequate this list is (even if you fill in the blanks) because it is based on particular people, most of whom wrote stuff down for publication. I want to include more music, visual representations (posters, cartoons), and mass media (television, internet), in this course but don’t want to lose control of the basic focus which, it seems to me, is to demonstrate how to organize criticism of American culture in order to get a sense of particular themes and debates that can be followed throughout the history of the United States. That is the reason I chose three books on the institutionalization of taste; the challenge to that organization of taste in the 1930s; and the implications of such challenges across cultural controversies in post-1945 America. That is my overtly didactic way of setting up the course so students an argument to contest.
I also want to punctuate this course with examples that will surprise students and force them to consider how criticism can be something subtle, playful, colorful, jarring, etc. I want them to get a clear idea of the difference between seeing music as a site (if you will) for understanding conflicts over taste and as a force that is challenge taste because artists simply disregarded assumed categories. I don’t think I can pull off a course in which I string together examples of cultural rebellion but I would like to introduce the spectrum of criticism across media. The audience for this blog is filled with cultural critics and those who write about them. What episodes should punctuate a course on American Culture and Its Critics?