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Narratives of the Consumer Age

ENGL 016.304
instructor(s):
TR 3-4:30

Why do we have such mixed feelings about participating in what is often referred to as our consumer culture? When did we begin to identify ourselves as consumers and what impact has this way of thinking had on our self-definitions? What is the relationship between consumer culture and ideas about what makes life in the United States distinctive? Using literary and cinematic narratives as our guides, this seminar will explore how our habits as consumers can be both sources of pleasure and causes for anxiety, freedoms to be celebrated and compulsions to be scorned, expressions of our individual tastes and the basis for the most far-reaching of our social relationships. 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 are part of a larger story. We will consider some of the ways that people use the things they buy to make meaning in their lives. We will consider 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 others have applauded. Readings will include fiction, memoir, drama, and journalism by authors such as Bruce Barton, Kate Chopin, Don DeLillo, Barbara Ehrenreich, Edna Ferber, Betty Friedan, Lorraine Hansberry, Sinclair Lewis, Anne Moody, Ruth Ozeki, and Sloan Wilson. Films may include portions of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, A Raisin in the Sun, Salesman, Clueless, and The Target Shoots First