English 117: Reading Popular Culture

Middlesex College 110, Mon 3-5, Wed 4-5.

UWO 2003-2004. Dr. Doug Mann, UC 209.


Pop culture is all around us. It leaps from magazine headings, glows from the cathode ray tubes of our televisions, and flickers across the screens of our mall multiplexes. We swim in it like fish in water, usually oblivious to its effects. Yet how often do we really think about it critically? In this course we'll do exactly that, reading a wide variety of elements of popular culture through the lense of five theories: mass culture critics, the Frankfurt School, structuralism, feminism, and postmodernism, with the theoretical lectures highlighted by a few preliminary pop cultural examples. We'll then use these critical readings of pop culture to explore a wide variety of "texts" in popular literature, film, music, television, on the Net.

 

Books and Other Texts

·         Dominic Strinati. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1995.

·         James Redfield. The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

·         Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. The Rules. New York: Warner Books, 1996.

·         Stephen King. Carrie. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

·         Ian Fleming. Thunderball. Penguin, 2002.

·         Helen Fielding. Bridget Jones' Diary. London: Picador, 2001 [film tie-in].

·         Courseware Reader: Fairly short, contains articles for the Winter term plus old lecture outlines.

...Plus the music, films, and TV shows presented in class listed below. There is a moderate amount of reading in this course, but much of it is popular literature. Note that several weeks have minimal readings or no readings at all, giving you time to catch up or read ahead.

 

Workload

·         First Mid-Term Test (2 hours, November 10): 30%

·         Second Mid-Term Test (2 hours, February 16): 30%

·         Final Exam (3 hours, entire course, with some emphasis on last six weeks of material): 40%

 

Important/Please Read: The only valid reasons for missing a test are illness or a family tragedy. In each case you'll need some sort of proof - if ill, a dated non-generic doctor's note with a phone number listed indicating your reason for missing the test. If you miss a test for any other reason, expect to receive a 0. If you miss a test for a legitimate reason, and provide some proof, you'll have to write two short formal make-up essays totalling about 8-9 typed pages to replace the test some time in the 3 weeks after the test. Please schedule your work and extra-curricular activities to make time to study for and attend these tests. Work in other courses, social events, and travel plans are NOT valid excuses. Further, you may only do one set of essay makeups - if you miss both tests, you fail. Note that the Department of English requires students to pass both their term work and the final exam as separate units in order to pass the entire course.

 

The questions on the tests will assume that you have a moderately detailed general knowledge of the texts and lectures. Each test will ask you to write a number of interpretive essays on the major pop cultural theories and texts we've studied in the course that illustrate both your knowledge of these texts and of the theoretical approaches discussed in class and in Strinati's book. It will be assumed that you've read Strinati and the articles and books listed below, seen the films and TV shows shown in class, and attended most if not all of the lectures.

 


 

Synopsis of the Course [the test dates are firm; the other dates are estimates]

 

1. Theory One: Mass Culture and Popular Culture [September]

A look at the distinction between High and Mass Culture made by theorists like Arnold and Leavis. The study of pop culture and the Americanisation of the world. Text: Strinati Chapter 1.

 

2. Science Fiction: The Case of Star Trek

Is Star Trek pop culture masquerading as serious thinking, or a genuine attempt to bridge the gap between mass culture and more serious concerns? What would Arnold & Leavis say about it? A look at all five series: Star Trek, The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, Enterprise. Texts: Episode original Star Trek: "Balance of Terror." Star Trek website: http://www.startrek.com.

 

3. Theory Two: The Frankfurt School and the Culture Industry

Is pop culture a product of a cultural industry? Does pop culture stupefy us, making us one-dimensional people? Standardization, predictable plot structures and celebrity culture. Adorno's critique of pop music. Benjamin on the work of art in the mechanical age. Strinati Chapter 2.

 

4. Popular Music as Art? [October]

The charges against pop music. Texts: Early rock and roll. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. Reggae. Punk. Public Enemy. Tragically Hip. Beck. Dance. N'SYNC. Britney Spears. Continue Strinati Chapter 2.

 

5. Astrology, Cults, and New Age Spirituality

How popular culture absorbs spirituality. The Frankfurt School's critique of the supernatural as irrational. The migration of Eastern religion into Western pop culture in The Celestine Prophecy. Text: James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy [book]. Website: http://www.celestinevision.com.

 

6. Self-Help Books and Advice Columns

Has consumer capitalism made us the cultural dupes of experts out to profit off our ignorance? Or are self-help books helpful guides? Some romantic rules for the post-feminist woman. Text: Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, The Rules [book]. Website: http://www.therulesbook.com.

 

7. Theory Three: Structuralism and Semiotics [November]

The way narratives are structured by pop culture. De Saussure, Lévi-Strauss and Barthes. The Birmingham School on subcultural style: mods, skinheads, punks, etc. Barthes. Strinati Chapter 3.

 

˛˛˛˛˛ November 10: Midterm Test 1 ˛˛˛˛˛

 

8. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The heroic mono-myth in ancient sagas and the modern cinema. Joseph Campbell on Star Wars. Ulysses' trials and tribulations revisited: Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (Joel Coen, 2000) [film].

 

9. Shaken, Not Stirred: The Spy Story

The name is Eco, Umberto Eco: structuralism visits Mr. Bond. Breaking down the structure of Bond stories in terms of Eco's stages and the hero's journey. Mike Myers' Austin Powers as comic deconstruction of the spy story. Texts: Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964, 114min) [film]; Ian Fleming, Thunderball [book].

 

10. A Bloody Knife in the Moonlight: The Horror Story [January]

The basic structure of the horror story. Three types of monsters. Screen psycho killers: Michael Myers, Jason, Freddie. Scream as a postmodern horror film. Texts: Scream (Wes Craven, 1996, 111min) [film]; Stephen King, Carrie [book].

 

11. Theory Four: Feminism

The three waves of feminism. Liberals, radicals, socialists, postmodernists. Images of women in the media: subordinate roles & sexual objectification. Angela McRobbie on teen magazines. Shulamith Firestone critiques the culture of romance. Text: Strinati Chapter 5.

 

12. The Pop Culture of Romance [February]

How does popular culture picture romance? Do these portrayals deny women agency, make them subservient to men? The dilemma of the post-feminist woman. Texts: Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones' Diary [book]; Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron,1993,105min) [film - may be cut if we're behind].

 

˛˛˛˛˛ February 16: Midterm Test 2 ˛˛˛˛˛

 

13. Theory Five: Postmodernism

Modernism. The consumer economy, our media-saturated culture. The seven main themes of postmodern culture, with some preliminary examples. Texts: Start reading Strinati Chapter 6. Doug Mann, "What is Postmodernism?", Philosophy Today, No.23, September 1996 [in the courseware package].

 

14. Video and Comic Book Culture [March]

A look at the integration of the aesthetics of comic books, music videos and computer games into pop culture as a whole. Texts: Batman, Superman, The X-Men, Spiderman, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy [summaries, clips]. Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) [film]. Strinati Chapter 6.

 

15. Parody, Irony and Quotationalism in TV Comedy

Has cutting-edge TV comedy gone postmodern? Quotationalism & hyper-irony as its central tropes. Text: Episode of The Simpsons. Reading: Carl Matheson, "The Simpsons, Hyper-Irony, and the Meaning of Life," The Simpsons and Philosophy, ed. William Irwin, Mark T. Conrad & Aeon J. Skoble, Chicago: Open Court, 2001 [courseware package]. The Simpsons Archive: http://www.snpp.com/episodeguide.html.

 

16. Virtual Reality and our Hyperreal Culture

The Matrix as a religious parable, as Cartesian dualism, as a desert of the real. Baudrillard's idea of the Third Order of the Simulacrum. Is our culture mostly virtual? Are we lost in hyperreality?

Texts: The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) [film]. Readings: Doug Mann and Heidi Hochenedel, "Evil Demons, Saviors, and Simulacra in The Matrix", conference paper 2003; Doug Mann, "A Short Introduction to Jean Baudrillard" [courseware].

 

17. Scepticism about Meta-Narratives: Paranoid TV

Stories about hidden places and alien abductions as expressive of paranoia about the powers that be and a loss of faith in founding meta-narratives. Texts: Episode of The Prisoner and/or The X-Files [TV]. The Invaders, The First Wave. Reading: Doug Mann, "Truth, The X-Files, and the Postmodern Condition", The Mid-Atlantic Almanack 7 (1998), 17-27 [courseware package]. X-Files website: http://www.thexfiles.com. First Wave website: http://www.scifi.com/firstwave/.

 

18. Society is a Fraud! [April, time permitting]

Richard Linklater's film Waking Life (2002) as a final case of how popular culture can explore serious themes like the nature of language, existentialism, modern society as a spectacular fraud, evolution, love & death. Texts: Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2002) [film]; Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), edited selections [courseware].

 

˛˛˛˛˛ Final Exam ˛˛˛˛˛

 

 

Policies (please read these over)

Marking and Teaching Assistants: There will be 5 teaching assistants in the course who will grade the tests and the exam. I'll give out their names and contact information in class. If you are unhappy with a test grade, here's the procedure to follow: first take a week to cool down before you talk to anyone (to avoid nasty confrontations). Then arrange to meet with the TA who marked the part of your test you think was unfairly graded to discuss your grade - I'll get them to initial each question. They have final say on specific test grades other than in exceptional cases (although I may adjust their overall grades to promote consistency between markers). If you are still unhappy with your grade and make some sort of case for its unfairness, I'll reread the test, but will ignore the TA's grade and remark it as I see fit, getting the TA to tear off or white out the old grade. Note that in this case your grade may actually go down, so you should be absolutely sure about the justice of your appeal before taking it this far.

Class Attendance and Behaviour: All announcements having to do with test and exam structures and any changes in the course materials will be given during class. You'll be tested in part on the lecture materials and class discussions, along with the readings AND the music, films and videos. It's up to you to make sure you keep up to date on such things by attending class - although I've included most of the lecture summaries from last year in the courseware booklet, these are meant to be study aids and shouldn't be seen as replacing the lectures - in some cases they will be changed or added to. Find a friend to partner up with to cover notes from missed classes. If attending class or not having access to web-posted notes is a problem for you, please drop this course. Also, please try to keep background chatter down during lecture out of respect for both the instructor and for students who wish to listen.

E-Mails: I would like to conduct as much of class business as possible in person to avoid misunderstandings and the ever-worsening problem of e-mail congestion. Please don't email me complex questions about the content of the course or how to structure and write an essay - it's far more effective for both of us if you come to speak to me or to one of the teaching assistants in person about this sort of thing. Also, I reserve the right to not reply to e-mail complaints concerning grades or requests for extensions on assignments - once again, present these in person! The same standards of civility apply to electronic communication as apply to personal conversations or letters. If I receive a rude or impolite e-mail I will ignore it and delete all future e-mails from the offender unread. In short, don't rely on e-mail for any communication you think is important - e-mails are a poor replacement for direct verbal communication and can lead to serious misunderstandings and bad feelings.

Plagiarism (for makeup essay writers only): Here's the official word: "Plagiarism: Students must write their essays and assignments in their own words. Whenever students take an idea, or a passage from another author, they must acknowledge their debt both by using quotation marks where appropriate and by proper referencing such as footnotes or citations. Plagiarism is a major academic offence (see Scholastic Offence Policy in the Western Academic Calendar). The University of Western Ontario uses software for plagiarism checking. Students may be required to submit their written work in electronic form for plagiarism checking." Here's the unofficial word: don't do it! See the English Department's "Information for Students" handout for more information on this and other administrative issues.

Passing the Course: To repeat what was said on p.1, you need to pass both your term work AND the final exam as separate units to pass the course. If you fail your term work you can still write the final, but will receive a maximum final grade of 48%. You must have a legitimate reason for missing a test and doing makeup essays; if you miss a midterm test entirely, you have in effect failed the course. It's up to you to pick up your tests and make sure you've passed your term work.