Spectatorship and Performance in American Culture, 1800-1945

History 103D.004

Fall 2005
Instructor (text): 
104 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
Th 2-4

It has become commonplace to assert that the spectacles of violence we encounter on television or at the movies desensitize us and encourage us to experience real-life violence as voyeuristic spectators. In fact, movie-going, television watching, and other acts of modern spectatorship affect us in myriad and complex ways; they can both engage and alienate us, give us a sense of vicarious experience, horrify us, amuse us, and inspire feelings of sympathy, anger, and moral responsibility. In this seminar, we will attempt to gain a better understanding of the central role of spectatorship in modern life by tracing the emergence of new forms of visual performance and display, and new modes of watching among spectators in America between 1800 and 1945. Specifically, we will explore the ways in which innovative technologies such as the motion picture, new institutions of the visual, from popular museums to the vaudeville stage, and a variety of novel visual amusements and attractions, including world's fairs, sporting events, art exhibitions, department store displays, and amusement parks, transformed the texture of life in America. We will also examine consistent themes in the history of spectatorship, such as the central and often contested place of violence and sexuality, the struggles of African Americans, women, and other groups to assert their own identities through various forms of visual self-representation, and the relationship between spectatorship, advertising, and mass consumption.
Texts for this seminar include Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, Bluford Adams, E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture, Andie Tucher, Froth & Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium, Sharon Ullman, Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America, and Shane White and Graham J. White, Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. We will also analyze a variety of primary source materials, including autobiographies, fiction, photographs, art, and movies. Course requirements include weekly readings, active participation in discussion, three short reading response papers, and a final paper exploring one of the major themes, issues, or events covered in seminar.