2013-14 Catalog

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Offering Description

Consuming Cultures


Fall 2013, Winter 2014 and Spring 2014 quarters

Karen Gaul anthropology , Rita Pougiales (F) anthropology, education , Julie Russo media studies, gender & women's studies, sexuality and queer studies
Fields of Study
American studies, anthropology, community studies, cultural studies, history, media arts, media studies, political economy and sustainability studies
Preparatory for studies or careers in
history, anthropology, media, sustainability and cultural studies.

In Land of Desire, the historian William Leach writes, “Whoever has the power to project a vision of the good life and make it prevail has the most decisive power of all.” Since the early 20th century, the pleasures of consumption have dominated prevailing visions of the good life in the United States. Innovations in mass production and mass media went hand in hand to link pleasure and prosperity with acquiring the latest commodities. Leisure has also been central to those pleasures, often in the form of tourism, fashion and entertainment, as people consume not only goods but experiences and ideas about what it means to be successful and happy. This program is an inquiry into these features of American consumer culture, particularly the values of convenience and authenticity that characterize the objects and desires it produces and exchanges.

Students in this program will study the history and logic of U.S. consumer culture. We will consider the forces that have shaped each of us into consumers in this capitalist society, from representation and ideology to material and technological development. Sustainability will be a critical lens for our inquiry, as we consider the raw materials, labor and waste streams inherent in goods and in cultural experiences. Life cycle analysis of objects—from their origins in nature to their presence on retail shelves, personal spaces, garbage bins and landfills—will help us build a broader context for understanding the materiality with which we all engage every day.

Our historical arc will be sweeping: from hunter-gatherers nearly two million years ago, to the origins of animal and plant domestication, to the formation of colonial settlements which created unprecedented challenges and opportunities, to the modern era. We will explore the patterns of resource use, social inequality and relative sustainability. We will examine how habits of conservation, thrift and re-use that were endemic to pre-modern societies transformed in tandem with the unprecedented energies of industrialization. We will investigate the theory and economics of post-industrial capitalism to better understand the impact of new media and technologies on the ways we produce and consume in the present day. We will also examine how curiosity about foreign and mysterious cultures in the context of globalization paved the way for tourism in which cultural authenticity is a central attraction. We will study the relationship between consumption and sustainability, pursuit of the good life through self-help and imported cultural practices such as yoga and meditation, between entertainment industries and communication networks, advertising and buying habits, spending money and self-worth. These contexts will enable us to destabilize and interrogate notions of what feels "normal" in the ways we engage as consumers today, including as consumers of knowledge in increasingly digitized institutions of higher education.

Students will have the opportunity to examine ingrained routines of daily life, become conscious of the origins and meanings of their own habits and desires, and thereby become critical thinkers and actors in consumer culture. Our activities will include reading, writing papers and participating in seminar discussions on program topics, learning ethnographic research methods, experimenting with multimodal and collaborative work, viewing relevant films and participating in field trips. In fall quarter, we will build foundational skills and introduce key concepts and themes; winter quarter students will begin to develop their own research agenda; and in spring quarter, they can apply theory to practice in research and/or community-based projects. 

Spring quarter readings emphasize responses to consumer culture through alternative practices and collectives. Texts on on intentional communities include True Wealth by Juliet Schor, Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community by Karen Litfin, The Transition Companion:

Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, and Little House on a Small Planet. Texts on virtual communities include From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy by Lawrence Lessig, and selections from the anthology Digital Labor. These and related topics comprise an 8 credit academic block taught on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Students enrolling for 16 credits should be prepared to engage in substantial independent learning or work in the community (faculty can structure or guide this piece for new students). One option is a media production intensive that includes a series of technical workshops and a collaborative project. Program learning activities include: seminar responses and essay assignments, field trips, digital media workshops, yoga and awareness practices. Field trips may include Procession of the Species, visits to Fertile Ground, NW Ecobuilders Guild, the Arbutus School, and intentional communities in the PNW, and/or a tour of tiny homes.

Schedule and Location
Online Learning
Enhanced Online Learning
Greener Store
Required Fees
$150 in fall for field trips and entrance fees; $50 in winter for entrance fees.
Offered During

Program Revisions

Date Revision
March 10th, 2014 This program will accept new enrollment, Freshmen through Seniors, without faculty signature.
February 28th, 2014 This program will accept new enrollment with faculty signature.
April 3rd, 2013 This program is now accepting Freshmen through Sophomores.
January 9th, 2013 Rita Pougiales is joining the teaching team for fall quarter; Nancy Koppelman will not be teaching this program.