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American Popular Culture

 

Key information

  • Module code:

    5AAEB073

  • Level:

    5

  • Semester:

      Autumn

  • Credit value:

    15

Module description

The focus of this module will be on critically evaluating the place and meaning of American popular culture in contemporary life. In order to do so, we will look at the complex historical and transnational roots of American popular culture. For example, we will consider how ambivalent Puritan attitudes towards “worldly delights” has shaped wider cultural perceptions of popular culture, and the politics of imported (and distorted) African cultural traditions that became a feature of Plantation life and shaped centuries of music production and consumption. We will also discuss how American ideals, both constitutional (such as freedom of the press, and also the right to keep and bear arms) and mythic (the American Dream, the frontier, individualism) have influenced the place and content of popular culture in the US.

This module will teach you how to perform close readings of popular cultural practices and forms, and how to contextualise those forms at the national and transnational level. Forms we will consider include the Penny Press, tabloids such as The National Enquirer, Hollywood Film, music videos, television shows, social media and digital platforms, theme parks, video games, and comics. But we will also examine popular phenomena, practices and events such as slave and plantation music and dance, blackface, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, quilting, drag performances, African-American “Indians” in New Orleans Mardi Gras, the 1963 March on Washington, and festivals such as Woodstock.

We will be seeking to understand how self- and collective understanding today is produced culturally; how power operates through such culture; how freedom is realised and constrained; how cultural values and tastes are produced and reproduced; and how injustice is both perpetrated and resisted in popular culture (many people know that The Simpsons, for example, is replete with critical parodies of bourgeois values, cultural prejudices and global capitalism; but not many realise that the production company uses cheap labour in Korea). This will be an interdisciplinary course drawing on American cultural studies, history, media studies, political theory, and literary theory. Popular culture as an 'object' of inquiry belongs to no single discipline, not least because it plays a significant role in many aspects of the contemporary life of social groups and individuals living in a multicultural and extremely diverse modern America, one which is increasingly 'globalised' and connected - in many senses - to other societies around the world.

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/english/modules/level5/5aaeb073.aspx

Assessment details

Presentation (15%), 1 x 2,500 word essay (85%) 

Educational aims & objectives

The focus of this module will be on critically evaluating the place and meaning of American popular culture in contemporary life. In order to do so, we may, for example, look at the complex historical and transnational roots of American popular culture. We may consider how ambivalent Puritan attitudes towards “worldly delights” has shaped wider cultural perceptions of popular culture, and the politics of imported (and distorted) African cultural traditions that became a feature of Plantation life and shaped centuries of music production and consumption. We may also discuss how American ideals, both constitutional (such as freedom of the press, and also the right to keep and bear arms) and mythic (the American Dream, the frontier, individualism) have influenced the place and content of popular culture in the US. This module will teach you how to perform close readings of popular cultural practices and forms, and how to contextualise those forms at the national and transnational level. 

We will be seeking to understand how self- and collective understanding today is produced culturally; how power operates through such culture; how freedom is realised and constrained; how cultural values and tastes are produced and reproduced; and how injustice is both perpetrated and resisted in popular culture. This will be an interdisciplinary course drawing on American cultural studies, history, media studies, political theory, and literary theory. Popular culture as an 'object' of inquiry belongs to no single discipline, not least because it plays a significant role in many aspects of the contemporary life of social groups and individuals living in a multicultural and extremely diverse modern America, one which is increasingly 'globalised' and connected - in many senses - to other societies around the world. 

Learning outcomes

  1. Articulate key debates around American popular culture such as the relationship between popular culture and high culture, the role of popular culture in social life, the tension between production and consumption.
  2. Understand major trends in popular culture in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st century and the relationship between these and earlier forms.
  3. Contextualise contemporary American popular culture within a wider social, political and economic framework, both national and transnational.
  4. Analyse the significance of American popular culture both at home and abroad.
  5. To be able to apply key theories in American Studies, Cultural Studies and Sociology to American popular culture. 
  6. Compare and select different theoretical methods (to be demonstrated through critical commentary and essay);
  7. Communicate reading and research effectively, through oral presentations and discussion (seminar presentation, formative and unassessed);
  8. Develop and sustain an argument, drawing on appropriate resources (to be demonstrated through final essay).

Teaching pattern

One hour lecture and one hour seminar, weekly