I’m excited to be teaching a new course in contemporary American literature and culture: “PLASTIC! Surface, Substance, Selfie.” It’s a seminar in the major that I developed as the University of Wisconsin-Madison English Department‘s 2017-2018 Mendota Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow. The course, which explores the material and metaphorical significance of plastic in American drama, poetry, fiction, film, visual art, performance, and pop culture, is also featured on UW’s Center for Visual Cultures website.
We began the semester with excerpts from Jeffrey L. Meikle’s American Plastic: A Cultural History, Roland Barthes’ “Plastic” from Mythologies, Kirsty Robertson’s “Plastiglomerate,” and Allison Cobb’s Plastic: An Autobiography — and, of course, Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”
Here’s the course description:
“From commodities and explosives to surgery and synapses, plastics saturate
the scene of 20th-21st century American culture. We’ll consider the conceptual,
aesthetic, and political dimensions of manufactured plastics and biological
plasticity to reflect upon the relationship between self, society, and environment. Interrogating tensions between nature and artifice, surface and depth, and performance and materiality, the course will survey a plastic landscape that produces the Barbie doll as well as the cyborg. Looking at videos, photos, plays, poems, and performances by pop stars such as Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga and writers and artists such as Kate Durbin and Adrian Piper, we’ll explore the ways these plastic performances of material self-molding complicate social constructions of race, gender, and sexuality. Course requirements include two formal essays and a visual essay.
Formally, plastic carries a double potential: a predetermined mold producing a rigid replica, and an inherently flexible and adaptable material. Culturally, plastic evokes negative connotations of superficiality and inauthenticity, as well as the subversive pleasures of camp, drag, melodrama, and high femme style. As the sign of the plastic arts, particularly sculpture, plasticity suggests the unification of (static) being and (continuous) becoming via the artist’s creative vision, yet mass manufacturing, consumer culture, and giant floating trash heaps position plastic as the ultimate agent of environmental destruction. Our interdisciplinary inquiry will engage performance studies, visual cultures, queer theory, critical race studies, eco-criticism, and transfeminist science studies to analyze the complexities of plastic and plasticity in pop culture, artistic production, and everyday life.”
I’ll be posting updates throughout the semester on my Twitter page.