Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Explorations in Cultural Complexity

ENGL 790.401
instructor(s):
W 2-4

It is a commonplace to say that the contemporary world is an unprecedentedly 'complex' one, whether we look at the macro-level of international relations or at the micro-level of everyday life. The contemporary moment - ie the early 20th century - has been described in terms of a series of 'posts': post-Cold War, post-modern, post-colonial, etc. Various trends characterising the contemporary global condition are processes of 'globalisation', rapid technological change, the emergence of militant fundamentalisms, increased cross-border movements of people, and so on. Overall, then, it seems increasingly difficult for us to have an adequate description and understanding of the world we live in, and correspondingly, how we should act within it. For scholars of culture and communication, this situation amounts to a sense of intellectual uncertainty about the theories, concepts and research directions we could meaningfully pursue.� This course will address this uncertain state of affairs by focusing on the notion of 'cultural complexity' as a possible framework for understanding the present. We will be reading an interdisciplinary range of authors who have attempted to map the contemporary world using a complexity approach to culture and society. While complexity theories have initially been developed in the so-called new physics (eg chaos theory), these theories are increasingly being adopted and applied to the social world. A core concern within the course will be the complex relationships and entanglements between the 'global' and the 'local' in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world. A central outcome of the readings and group discussions will be a much clearer understanding of the epistemological and methodological strategies needed to conduct cultural communication research in the face of overwhelming cultural complexity in such a world. That is: how can we produce meaningful knowledge that responds positively to the challenges of cultural complexity and that avoids reducing complexities to premature simplifications? Students will be expected to produce a research paper applying the issues discussed in the course to a topic of their choice.