Spring 2006
Art, Addiction, and Modernity
ENGL 059.001
TR 3-4:30

How did modernity become modernism? Through the accelerating intoxications of aesthetic experience, as self-consciously developed in literary, filmic, and other graphic and plastic works about drug addiction. The very term “addiction” seems to enfold compulsion and expression, even as it evokes some of the characteristic features of modernity: transgression, alienation, consumption, derealization. We’ll study how modernity’s features become modernist themes: the ethics of pleasure, the aesthetics of criminality, and the embodiment of subjectivity. We’ll begin with a brief survey of the history and discourse of drug production, trade, and use in early modern Europe, Asia, and America. We’ll then proceed to more recent and contemporary works in which addiction is crucially related to the possibilities for self-understanding and moral action that art affords. In addition to pushing back boundaries of style, structure, and content, many of these works apply uncomfortable pressure to conceptions of the good life and to modern ideologies of liberalism, individualism, and utopianism. This is perhaps especially true in the current political and cultural climate, characterized by the escalating "war" on drugs; the medicalization of illegal drugs such as marijuana; the mass marketing of legal psychotropics such as Prozac; and the ascendance of chemical/biological models of personality—not to mention the urgent debates over drug and alcohol use on college campuses, including our own. Likely works include memoirs, fiction, essays, and poetry by Thomas de Quincey, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Christina Rossetti, Louisa May Alcott, Sigmund Freud, Jack London, Carl Van Vechten, Italo Svevo, Jean Cocteau, Aldous Huxley, Eugene O'Neill, William Burroughs, James Baldwin, and Lesley Stern, and films by D. W. Griffith, Otto Preminger, Paul Morrissey, Gus Van Zant, and Lisa Chodolenko.

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