History and Literature 90cj. Literature and Design

Instructor: David J. Alworth

Wednesdays, 3-5 pm | Location: Barker 218

Design is ubiquitous, complex, and all but impossible to define. It affects almost everything that we experience through our senses, and it permeates our lives, both waking and sleeping. Texts, images, objects, environments, minds, and social encounters are all shaped by design, which has a subtle yet definite power that often operates just below the threshold of conscious perception. And yet, design emanates from the conscious mind; in the most capacious sense, it designates, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, a “plan or scheme conceived in the mind and intended for subsequent execution; the preliminary conception of an idea that is to be carried into effect by action; a project.” With this definition in mind, you could construct a 500,000-year history of design, beginning with the primitive tools of proto-humans and extending to the open-source code on GitHub. Or you could begin even earlier, say, with God.

This course takes a more modest historical approach. It tracks the history of design from the Industrial Revolution to the digital revolution in the United States, and it gives sustained attention to the relationship between this history and American literature, broadly conceived. At least since Edgar Allan Poe published his “Philosophy of Furniture” in 1840, American authors have engaged with the objects and ideas of design thinking. Such engagement has taken many different forms since the mid-nineteenth century: simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from the technological, the industrial, and the machine; obsession with the distinctions among art, craft, and decoration; fascination with cities as designed spaces and with literary art as a designed (if not exactly designer) thing; and attention to the poetics of fashion, advertising, shopping, décor, bric-a-brac, trash, and other superficial matters. But engaging with such matters, superficial or otherwise, provokes deep and abiding questions for the literary authors on this syllabus––questions about the relation between economics and politics, about the cultural forces of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, about the status of art and aesthetic experience in a democratic society, and about the very definition of what it means to be human—all of which are highly relevant to us today, as we navigate through an increasingly designed, increasingly virtual world of lived experience.

N. B. This course may include a “design studio” component featuring book designer Peter Mendelsund. Stay tuned for more information.

Note: Honors English concentrators may use this course to fulfill their 90-level seminar requirement. 

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