AMST-361 American Gothic
Fall for 2017-2018
"American Gothic" inquires into the nature and use of the Gothic genre in American culture. Every genre – detective, western, horror -- asks certain questions about culture while foreclosing others. Traditionally the Gothic genre exploits scenes of fear. What questions, then, about individuals and about societies, does a discourse of fear make possible?
There are many ways to think about the American Gothic, and this course will examine its religious heritage. We will begin with the theocratic civility of the Puritan immigrants, and focus, in particular, on the nightmare theologies of Jonathan Edwards. We will then look at the inversion of this language in fantasists like Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft, and Stephen King. We will consider the social uses of this debased-religious discourse in the creation of nationalist racial fantasies, and we shall examine how violence can be a social tool, sanctioned if not always legal – for example, in the ceremony of lynching. We will consider, if not directly examine, the political uses of a theologically-based language of fear, in speeches and in nationalist hymns and poetry from Abraham Lincoln through Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and beyond. How do presidents and leaders – Bush, most recently, as well as bin Laden – use religious language to justify fear?
These are the foundations of the American Gothic we shall study: Theological formulas, rhetoric, and ritual, although legally “unspeakable” in the US, are, to the contrary, spoken everywhere in civic and popular life. Similarly, fantasy is considered “marginal,” yet American markets and ideals are structured by fantasy, just as the public rituals of politics – scandal, confession, fear, are energized by barely-remembered theological history. Religion remains a habit, disguised and secularized, very much evident in our economy of entertainment. For instance, the language of God and apocalypse are central terms in American popular culture, while a similar church-rhetoric -- “Redeemer nation” and “Good Christian people” -- organize our political rhetoric. “Under God” inscribes our money as well as our oaths. Sentimentalized, these terms undergird policies of social fear and the politics that support them. Public moments of confession, and an energy around prohibition and taboo, construct categories of deviancy. These, in turn, make possible the public spectacles of “Don’t Ask Don’t tell” and the public confessional “telling.” Similarly, the promise of secrets and spectacle are major features – not only of contemporary Horror but of commercial markets as well. That is, deviancy and taboo must be secret and hidden, yet available in book, on TV, and in News as spectacle and scandal for all.
How does the Awe-ful -- traditionally, the experience of God -- become the Awful? How does the language of God and public piety give us a rhetoric of dmonization? Finally, who are our monsters, and what are they for? How is social violence hidden, and justified, in religious ritual and language? Subjects for the course will include various essays, novels, sermons, as well as media and texts from contemporary American culture. We will explore the beginnings of commercial Gothic production in the early part of the 20th century, starting with Orson Welle’s radio classic, “War of the Worlds.” We will also spend time with cinema work dating from the sixties (Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist). We will consider popular culture and the cult of the dismembered body in films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Lastly we will think about the way religious fear still controls our imagination, in images of the apocalypse. We finish the course with Oliver Stone’s The World Trade Center. Who profits from the sale of private emotions? What happens when we are invited to be voyeurs into someone else’s life?
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