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Going Shopping: Consumer Culture in the United States

ENGL 016.308
instructor(s):
TR 9-10:30

A deceptively simple part of our everyday routines, "shopping" can be both a source of pleasure and a cause of anxiety, a freedom to be celebrated and a compulsion to be scorned, an expression of our individual tastes and the basis for the most far-reaching of our social relationships. Why do we have such mixed feelings about buying things and participating in what is often referred to as our consumer culture? What is the relationship between this consumer culture and ideas about what makes life in the United States distinctive? What are our rights as consumers, and what are our responsibilities? This seminar will examine some of the familiar features of our consumer culture from new perspectives. First, we will look at the historical roots of a mass consumer market to see whether some of the concerns and contradictions that we consider unique to our times might be part of a larger story. Next we will consider some of the ways that people use the things they buy to make meaning in their lives. Finally, we will look at some of the problems that critics of consumer culture have brought to our attention-including materialism, conformity, and concealed exploitation-and weigh these concerns against the promises and possibilities that other writers have applauded. In our discussions and exercises, we will analyze a range of materials including fiction, memoir, journalism, cultural criticism, documentary film, and advertisements. Reading assignments may include selections from such historical and contemporary observers as David Brooks, Kate Chopin, Douglas Coupland, Don DeLillo, Betty Friedan, Daniel Harris, bell hooks, Naomi Klein, Robert and Helen Lynd, Ann Powers, James Twitchell, and Thorstein Veblen.