English R1A

Reading and Composition: How Taste Matters: Self-Curation, Public Identity, and the Modern Aesthetic Life

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
3 Fall 2014 Ciacciarelli, Helen
MWF 1-2 222 Wheeler

Book List

Forster, E.M.: Howards End; James, Henry: The Portrait of a Lady; Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Other Readings and Media

Additional readings and excerpts:  Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste; John Ruskin, Unto This Last;  Friedrich Schiller, On The Aesthetic Education of Man; Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy; Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy; Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America

Films:  Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World (2001); Sofia Coppola, Marie Antoinette (2006)



In 1862, Ruskin wrote of the state, “Economists usually speak as if there were no good in consumption absolute. So far from this being so, consumption absolute is the end, crown, and perfection of production; and wise consumption is a far more difficult art than wise production.” In an age of consumer culture, in which the things we choose to buy and the brands with which we associate ourselves make a statement about who we are, it seems difficult to understate the prescience of Ruskin’s basic premise that identity rests upon “wise consumption.” Over 150 years after the publication of Ruskin’s Unto This Last, our attachments not only to tasteful consumption (the clothes we wear, the books on our shelves, the music we enjoy, the degrees we earn, the places we’ve traveled) but to how we publish the acts of consumption as information, self-advertise, and arrange data into collections in the digital public domain factors largely into our sense of individuality. This course interrogates the ways in which the construction of our own identities are predicated on the ideology of taste, namely the belief that judicious consumption and personal preference ultimately lead to the creation of a self that projects beyond the sum of its parts. We will locate our own historical moment in a comparative framework, conceptualizing various literary figures as prototypes of the hipster: the fin-de-siecle dandy of English aestheticism, the dilettante elitist in 19th century realist fiction, and the intellectual liberal of the Edwardian novel. Furthermore, the class will apply concepts in discussions from historical discourse and critical theory, such as “commodity fetishism,” “culture,” “cultural capital,” and “highbrow/lowbrow culture,” to explore the emergence of cultural and socio-economic distinctions and their bearings on the contemporary practices of self-making. In deconstructing class myths and the cultural connotations of our tastes, we will also conduct more creative experiments with phenomena of the digital era: Instagram filters, selective Facebook “likes,” public Spotify listens, and reports of our experiences with self-conscious curation. In a word, our aim is to investigate the essentially paradoxical enterprises of modern subject formation: the meticulous everyday fashioning of public personae that are simultaneously real and imaginary, meaningful and precarious.

This course is designed to help students build their skills of argumentation, critical reading, and expository writing. The university requires students in English R1A to compose a total of 32 pages of writing. Students will hone their analytical skills through formal essays, in-class exercises, drafts, peer-review editing, workshops, and shorter response papers. 

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