Communication and Culture | Writing Media Criticism (Topic: Zapping the Zeitgeist)
C306 | 12231 | Friedman, S.

MW, 4:00PM-5:15PM, C2 203
Required film screening: M, 7:15PM-10:15PM, C2 100

Instructor: Seth Friedman

Even though the decade is an arbitrary historical period, the
mention of any ten-year epoch in recent U.S. history is likely to
evoke shared conceptions of the zeitgeist (i.e., the spirit of the
times): the 1970s are often equated with the countercultural
revolution, Watergate, and disco; the 1980s are widely regarded as a
time in which traditional family values returned, communism was
defeated, and greed reigned supreme; the 1990s are typically
associated with the rise of hip hop, the maturation of Generation X,
and the dot-com boom. As these examples begin to suggest, though,
notions of the zeitgeist are often contradictory: the 1970s are
characterized by both dramatic social upheaval and the continued
dominance of elites; the triumph of capitalism in the 1980s helped
to end the Cold War at the same time that it brought about domestic
economic disasters; youth in the 1990s were at once considered to be
slackers and technological wizards primed to take over the world.

Undoubtedly, our propensity to simplify history in this manner has
been shaped by popular culture. Conceptions of the 1970s as the age
of disco, for instance, are largely attributable to the success of
Saturday Night Fever (1977), a film that many people believe
captured the essence of the moment. This class will explore why
understandings of media texts as reflectors of their times are
fraught with issues. Specifically, we will raise a series of
questions that center on the problems associated with zeitgeist-
influenced media criticism: Is it possible to distinguish between
where media texts come from and what they become part of? In what
ways do media texts construct our identities and other aspects that
comprise the always contested terrain of culture? Do media critics
tend to focus on anomalies when identifying the texts that are said
to define a period? How do factors, such as industrial motives,
censorship codes, and technological developments, influence
production decisions? How do larger contextual changes impact the
ways that audiences interpret and evaluate media texts at specific
historical moments? To respond to these questions, we will determine
why a number of seemingly persuasive analyses of selected media
texts from a variety of contexts that are widely perceived as being
products of their times are troublesome. We will also examine how
scholars have employed more nuanced methods for explaining the
connections between production decisions and broader changes. Since
this is an intensive writing course, you will learn the benefits and
constraints of zeitgeist-influenced media criticism by composing a
series of essays. First, you will write a short paper that makes
direct connections between a media text and the spirit of the times.
Next, you will write another short paper on the same text that
reveals the limitations of your initial analysis. Finally, you will
write and revise a term paper on a set of media texts that reveals
the many reasons why your objects of study appealed to some
producers and audiences during the period.

Readings will include: Aaron Baker, Raymond Borde, David Bordwell,
Etienne Chaumeton, Thomas Elsaesser, Jonathan Gray, Tom Gunning,
bell hooks, Susan Jeffords, Henry Jenkins, Douglas Kellner, Geoff
King, Derek Kompare, Siegfried Kracauer, Jason Mittell, James
Naremore, Ray Pratt, Stephen Prince, Robert Ray, Marita Sturken,
Diane Waldman, Justin Wyatt, and others.

Screenings will include: M (1931), The Woman in the Window (1944),
Chinatown (1974), The Conversation (1974), Taxi Driver (1976),
Saturday Night Fever, Full Metal Jacket (1987), Die Hard (1988), JFK
(1991), Slacker (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), Hoop Dreams (1994), He
Got Game (1997), Arlington Road (1999), and The Matrix (1999) as
well as episodes of Beavis and Butt-head, Lost, Roseanne, Seinfeld,
The Simpsons, Welcome Back Kotter, and The X-Files.