SoSe 16: American Alienation: Discontent and Disappointment in U.S. Culture
When the “American Dream” proves elusive, its flipside comes into view. Dissatisfaction, discontent, and disappointment form the shadow that trails the characteristically American belief in societal ... read more
When the “American Dream” proves elusive, its flipside comes into view. Dissatisfaction, discontent, and disappointment form the shadow that trails the characteristically American belief in societal and individual progress. Estrangement or separation from the good life (however one wishes to define it) therefore represents an important impetus of U.S. cultural production: “Alienation,” Blanche Gelfant wrote in a 1973 article, “is the inextricable theme of American literature.” While the term has lost currency with critics since the seventies, alienation and negative affects like displeasure continue to figure as potent and productive cultural forces. Focusing on the contradictions inherent in the pursuit of happiness, one encounters the kinds of narratives that replace progress with stasis, hope with despondency, and contentment with frustration, but also those that document the will to protest, resist, and rebel.
Conventionally, the decade following the Second World War is regarded as the historical moment when, faced with the collectivist ethos of the Soviet state, the American ideal of individual fulfillment through material accumulation truly comes into its own, and the promise of prosperity emerges as the domestic face of “an imperial power making the world safe for consumer capitalism” (Pankaj Mishra). This course will therefore take the postwar era as its starting point, and move from the 1950s to the present. Along the way, we will discuss texts that point to the persistence of social and economic inequality or express frustration with a society that understands the “good life” exclusively in material terms, and thereby call into question the U.S. national myth of material progress and individual freedom.
Readings will range from novels by Saul Bellow and James Baldwin to rap lyrics and television shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Mr. Robot.