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American (Visual) Culture

Richard Chalfen
Department of Anthropology
Temple University
Philadelphia, PA 19122 USA

Fall Semester, 2002

The Truman Show offers a grand metaphor for contemporary American culture. Its message is that we are immersed in a media landscape of lifelike fantasies that serves the interests of those in power. If we want to be free and have a chance at an authentic life, it tells us, we will have to distance ourselves from the safety and comforts of our media-saturated culture, and be willing to live in the world as it is.”
(Ken Sanes, Salon, 1998)

This course satisfies the Core Curriculum requirement for three (3) semester hours in the American Culture category. We will study American culture in contexts of cultural and visual anthropology. Several theoretical problems will guide the lectures, readings, screenings, and discussions. For instance: What do anthropologists mean by “American culture"? How is this perspective similar to or different from what is said in other disciplines in the Social Sciences or Humanities? Is it legitimate to speak of (an) American culture? Where do we find it? How are we a part of it? How did we get it? And how does it get us? How would anthropologists from other countries study "us"? Or, is that the "U.S."? What are some relationships to popular culture, multi-culturalism, trans-culturalism, trans-nationalism, and where is American culture in relation to what is called “global culture”?

This semester we will focus on the question of “What does American Culture look like?” Can we find visual representations of such themes as multi-culturalism, multi-lingualism, racial and ethnic relationships, regionalisms, American value schemes, culture change? Can you see American Culture in everyday visual/pictorial forms? We will use a survey approach to forms of American media, to various ways of visualizing American Culture. Our objective is to examine how American Culture has been represented by professional image-makers as well as you and your own family members. In other words we will study the cultural significance of both mass media and “home media”. The central concern of the required coursework is how concepts of American Culture are shaped/formed/constructed/constituted but mainly represented in forms of mass communication -- sometimes best understood as popular culture, AND in how members of American families construct their own pictorial versions of American Culture.

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Required Readings

Packet: Readings for Anthropology CO64: American Culture

This packet is available from Docucare, located at 900 North Broad Street (call 215-235-8740 before going to make sure of availability and stated cost).

Recommended Texts

Creating America and the Saturday Evening Post.
by Jan Cohn (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1989)

Norman Rockell’s America.
by Christopher Finch, (New York: Abradale Pres s, 1975) .

Creating America and the Saturday Evening Post.
by Jan Cohn (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1989)

Norman Rockwell’s Amerca.  
by Christopher Finch, (New York: Abradale Press, 1975).

American Dreamtime: A Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies, and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity.  by Lee Drummond (Littlefield Adams Books,1996)

Life's America: Life and Family in Postwar Photojournalism.
by Wendy Kozol (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press,1998)

Dick and Jane: Learning and Living the American Dream.  
by Carole Kismaric & Marvin Heiferman (New York: Harper Collins, 1996)   
America Under Construction.
eds. Kristi S. Long and Matthew Nadelhaft (Garland Publishing,1997)  

The Comic Stripped American.
by Arthur Asa Berger (Penguin Books,1973)

Snapshot Versions of Life.
by Richard Chalfen (Bowling Green State Univ. Popular Press,1987)  

American Snapshots.
ed. by Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne (The Scrimshaw Press, 1977)

Gender Advertisements.

by Erving Goffman (Harper Books, 1979)

A Day in the Life of America. (Collins,1987)

The Visual Culture Reader.     
Nicholas, Mirzoeff (ed.) (New York: Routledge,1998)

Bearing Witness: A Photographic Chronicle of American Life
by Michael Lesy (New York: Pantheon, 1982).

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To contact Richard Chalfen, email: rchalfen@temple.edu