ENGL 537 A: Topics In American Studies

American Fictions of Violence (w/Engl 452)

Meeting Time: 
MW 10:30am - 12:20pm
DEN 307
Dietmar O Schloss
W/ENGL 452

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Norbert Elias, a German sociologist of Jewish descent, is best known for his study Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, first published in 1939. Elias describes the civilizing process as a process of pacification and rationalization: Out of the contest of numerous rivalling territorial magnates in the late middle ages, a centralized state emerges in early modern times which commands a monopoly in the legitimate use of violence and taxation. This process of state formation goes hand in hand with a change in behavioral standards (refinement of manners) and feelings: While in the earlier stages of the civilizing process, individuals are prone to vio-lence and cooperate only under threat, in the later stages they learn to manage their passions and become socially minded. In Elias's scheme, the democratic state with its highly devel-oped bureaucratic and legal apparatus pre-empts the need for violence establishing ideal conditions for enlightened self-control and peaceful cooperation.

While Elias's sociology has been frequently used to explore the state formation in Europe, it has rarely been invoked in discussions of the nation-building process of the United States. Elias's model of a progressive pacification and rationalization does not seem to square with the American development. In fact, historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner (frontier thesis) have suggested that American democracy is not the product of a gradual amelioration, but the result of regular disruptions of the civilizing process. Many historians would also argue that in the United States, the institution of state has never acquired the authority and power that it has attained in Europe. There have always been areas of American society where the state has not succeeded in upholding its monopoly of violence (the frontier, the Wild West, the ghetto). The question is whether we should consider these 'spaces of decivilization' in the US as an aberration or whether we should assume that civilization in the US proceeds on the basis of a model different from the one suggested by Elias. It is also striking that American literature and culture has always had a fascination with these spaces of decivilization and the violence and disorder that reign there. In fact, genres such as the western, the gothic, the thriller, and the conspiracy tale provide psychological spaces of decivilization which seem to satisfy deep emotional needs.

In this course we will study works of American literature from both a sociological and an aes-thetic perspective: 1) How do these works portray the civilizing process in America? How is the sphere of the state rendered? How do they motivate the breakdown of civilized forms of behaviour? 2) How do these works represent the "spaces of decivilization"? Why are these spaces so attractive to enlightened, democratic audiences? Our examples will be taken from different periods of American literature. The following works will be studied: "A Narrative of the Captivity … Of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" (1682); Jean de Crévecoeur, Letters of an Ameri-can Farmer (1782); James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826 ); John Ford (dir.), The Searchers (1956); short stories and essays by Edgar Allan Poe; Quentin Tarantino (dir.), Kill Bill (Part I, 2003); Richard Wright, Native Son (1940); Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996), and Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006).

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Last updated: 
March 24, 2016 - 11:25am