Departmental Theme: Marxism in the U.S. and the Insecurity of “Progress”

Today, we are happy to feature some thoughts on the departmental theme, Security/insecurity, from one of our American Studies instructors, Sean Cashbaugh, who is currently teaching a course on Marxism in American Culture.


In the first section of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously explore the historical emergence of capitalism via the rise of the bourgeoisie, the class that wrestled the western European world away from feudalism and built it anew in capitalist terms. Upon reading it, one gets the sense that Marx and Engels were in awe of the bourgeoisie, impressed with their historical accomplishments, but also utterly terrified, as they were roundly critical of the incredible costs of their incessant drive for profits, and their drive for new means of generating them. In a famous passage, they write:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.  All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

I’ve always read this passage as a description of what life under capitalism feels like. It’s a commentary on the profound sense of insecurity economic “development” and “progress” generate, on the sense of disorientation and uncertainty felt by those subjected to and exploited by the whirlwind of capitalism’s expansion. Though Marx and Engels wrote of the tumultuous world of 1840s Europe, it’s not hard to think of life in twenty-first century America in these terms: when information travels at light speed, when economic forecasts seem dismal, and when there’s no foreseeable end to U.S. led military conflicts, it’s difficult to imagine anything “solid” at all. I suspect it’s a feeling that resonates with the youth of today, especially when secure images of the future seem difficult to sustain in light of the aforementioned pressures.

Since its emergence, Marxism has grappled with these processes, and Marxists have attempted to understand and change such conditions. Marxism has a long history in the United States – it is difficult to imagine the twentieth century looking as it did without it – but it’s a history that many have ignored, suppressed, or dismissed as irrelevant or downright dangerous, a threat to national security. In Marxism and American Culture, we engage with this history in America, exploring the writings of Marx, as well as their reception, circulation, and transformation in the United States. Ideologies of race, gender, and nationality shape this history. To explore it in all its complexity, students in my class read diverse works of Marxist theory from throughout the American twentieth century, such as the writings of C. L. R. James and Subcommandante Marcos.  We read novels that draw upon, expand, and critique Marxist themes like Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio: From the Thirties. I also push them to think through Marxism: they examine popular cultural texts like Jaws and we consider what Marxists have argued about such texts. In the end, it is a course that seeks to explore and complicate the relationship between two things: this “thing” called “Marxism” and this “thing” called “American Culture.” As my students have said, those “things” resist any certain definition, and the relationship between them is less stable, less secure than you would expect.

Departmental Theme: The American Superhero and American (In)Security

Today we’re very pleased to share with you this reflection from Andrew Friedenthal, one of our Assistant Instructors here in AMS, about integrating the 2013-2014 departmental theme, SECURITY/INSECURITY, into his teaching this semester:


In my class, The Myth & History of the American Superhero, the departmental theme of security/insecurity is inherently a part of the course material. The history of the superhero in America is inextricably linked to a history of feeling insecure, from two young Jewish men creating Superman in response to Nazi aggression overseas to a renaissance in superhero films in the years following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Superheroes are often called our “modern myths,” but what they actually are is simpler than that – they are symbols of our hopes and fears, our highs and our lows, our feelings of safety and apprehensions about infringements on that safety. In a sense, they embody our feelings of security and insecurity about yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

As a class, we watch the 2012 blockbuster film THE AVENGERS and then spend a significant amount of time teasing out its political implications.  A movie that features shadowy government organizations, the wide-scale destruction of Manhattan, and a man wrapped in the American flag cannot help but be rife with echoes of our contemporary struggle with issues of security in a post-9/11 world.

Departmental Theme: The Music of [In]security

Marconi "Velvet Tone" Phonograph Record Sleeve - 1907

As part of our department’s 2013-2014 theme, we’ve compiled a collaborative Spotify playlist containing songs that relate to notions of security and insecurity. Today, we feature a few of those selections introduced by members of our departmental community, who opine on the relationships between sound and security. So kick your Wednesday off with some tunes and a little fancy scholarly footwork that sheds a little more light on some well-known (or not-so-well-known) favorites. The depth of some of these songs may surprise you. Enjoy.

And, if you’re a Spotify user, be sure to subscribe to the playlist at the link above.

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Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, “Nowhere To Run” (1965)

Ostensibly about the difficulty of walking away from a bad relationship, the jarringly upbeat “Nowhere to Run” is more of a ghost story.  The phantom lover haunts dreams, the bathroom mirror, and other people’s faces.  Reeves knows its time to go, but she can’t find a way out.  GIs took over the song as a metaphor for the quagmire of Vietnam.  Today, considering the quagmire of bankrupt Detroit, the Vandellas’ joyous romp through an auto plant in their promotional video offers an almost spectral image of a distant, happier past. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Steve Earle, “Rich Man’s War” (2004)

Steve Earle makes an appearance on the list. His “Rich Man’s War” is part of the most recent incarnation of Earle—a songwriter with politics on the sleeve and class consciousness in the heart. But it makes me think of an earlier, Appalachian-inspired Steve Earle—that of the “Copperhead Road,” bootlegging, fast cars, and law-breaking days. That Steve Earle had it the other way around, class on the sleeve and politics in the noisy heartbeat underneath. To my ears, both bring more layers to the question of security/insecurity. To “Are we secure or are we insecure?” Earle adds, “Did we build this prison ourselves?” and “How do we get out of this cycle?” As his “Satellite Radio” puts it: “Is there anybody listening to earth tonight?” Because it might just be us who are here to figure it all out. – Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

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Bruce Cockburn, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984)

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.   Everything about Cockburn’s piece screams the eighties—from its cheesy keyboard patches to its scathing critique of the US pursuit of the strategy of supposedly “low intensity conflict” in Central America.  The pacifist folkie’s mounting frustration leads to dreams of high-powered vigilantism two years after the first Rambo movie and two years before the Iran-Contra affair made Ollie North a household name. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Jeff Buckley, “Grace” (1994)

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” the title track from the artist’s only self-released album, embodies the emotional volatility of nineties alternative rock. At once a driving hard rock anthem and a surprisingly tender expression of a man’s resignation to his own demise, “Grace” is a nexus among uncertainty, alienation, and shrill-but-powerful panic stoked when death knocks at the door. Such themes are well at home in the disaffected Gen-X musical world also inhabited by the pre-emo likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But fear not. That messy snarl of ostensibly inevitable misery is ameliorated, at least in part, by the power of love (no Back to the Future allusion intended, although Marty McFly certainly had reason to feel insecure). Much as love provides some semblance of stability, the raw finality of death is, sez Buckley, perhaps the greatest source of security we can hope for. – Carrie Andersen

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Departmental Theme: Dr. Randy Lewis on Surveillance and Security

We’re delighted to share with you this write-up from Dr. Randy Lewis about integrating the 2013-2014 departmental theme, SECURITY/INSECURITY, into his teaching this semester:

This image is definitely not Photoshopped.

Surveillance on campus. This image is definitely not Photoshopped.

Because I’m writing a book about surveillance, I’ve had an easy time working the departmental theme of security and insecurity into my teaching. A few weeks ago at the AMS film series, I spoke about surveillance and cinema before a screening of David Fincher’s The Gamewhich will figure in one chapter of my book. And throughout the fall semester, I’ve been teaching a new grad seminar on surveillance that I’m excited about. Working from an interdisciplinary perspective that brings the sociologically-based research of surveillance studies into conversation with humanities scholarship related to art, film, history, architecture, and affect, the course explores the psychology, poetics, and politics underlying the institutionalization of insecurity. With terrific students from AMS, journalism, and anthropology, we have been asking what is driving the vast market for surveillance on an affective and ideological level? What are the hidden costs of living in a “control society” in which surveillance is deemed essential to neoliberal governance? And what are the strategies for creative resistance that enable new forms of biopolitics in the age of surveillance?

We’ve talked about everything from post office peep holes to Big Data, from border militias to Minority Report, not to mention “Every Breath You Take,” Sting’s creepy ode to stalkers (and to think he named his band “The Police”!). Even if I’m starting to feel a bit like Dale Gribble, it’s been been a thought provoking semester of security and insecurity thus far (which is probably what Mack Brown would say as well!).

Security/Insecurity in the News, Nov. 8 – Nov. 22

Certified safe

It’s that time again: here are some news and links relating to security and insecurity from the last two weeks.

How Many of Your Memories Are Fake? (The Atlantic)

The Truly Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York Magazine)

Haulin’ Data: How Trucking Became the Frontier of Work Surveillance (The Atlantic)

What are cities doing to humanity? (io9)

Bartitsu, the Sherlock Holmes art of self-defense, is coming back (The Atlantic)

How do reporters deal with dark news? (NPR)

Are robots the harbingers of a new libertarian age? (Politico Magazine)

Forum: the cost of being an artist (The New York Times)

Link Round-Up! Security/Insecurity in the News, Oct. 25 – Nov. 8


Hey folks! Here’s what’s what in the news world re: security and insecurity.

Sex Machines: a new game takes the human-machine relationship to its logical extreme. (Slate) 

Frank Rich writes on the politics of 12 Years A Slave (New York Magazine)

The secrets of the world’s happiest cities: what makes a city a great place to live – your commute, property prices or good conversation? (The Guardian)

What 1984 can teach us beyond the dangers of surveillance (Salon)

Ender’s Game vs. The Hunger Games: a military analysis (Wired)

The power of patience: teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention (Harvard Magazine)

The New York Times forum on the future of the humanities (New York Times) 

Police in Washington DC are monitoring gunfire with acoustic sensors on rooftops (Washington Post)

Is there an ‘angst canon’ of books that teenagers read? (BBC News Magazine)

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Security/Insecurity in the News, Oct. 11 – 25


Hey everybody. Here’s what’s been going on in the news in the past two weeks re: security/insecurity.

Our forward-charging culture sees regret as a sign of weakness and failure. But how else can we learn from our past? (Aeon Magazine)

Were brutalist buildings on college campuses really designed to thwart student riots? (Slate)

Are we alone? The search for life among the stars (The Atlantic)

Think you can live offline without being tracked? Here’s what it takes. (Fast Company)

The image of Bruce McCandless’ spacewalk two decades ago still amazes. It was the first untethered walk ever—and was among the last. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Antibiotics can’t keep up with ‘nightmare’ superbugs (NPR)

24 extraordinary photos of the making of the atomic bomb (Buzzfeed)

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