My Spring 2010 Course: The 70s: Paranoia, Technology, & Decline

I was slated to teach ENGL 2000: Literary Analysis (the basic how-to-read class required for all English majors at CU), but the low enrollment snake bit me and I am now teaching Modern and Contemporary Literature (a non-major class focused on, well, modern and contemporary literature).

For the past two semesters I have taught the class on the 1980s, the decade I am most concerned with in Corruption and Sameness. However, I get rather bored teaching the same class over and over. I varied the texts a bit from Spring 09 to Fall 09, but even so, I can’t get away from Blood Meridian and Watchmen and I can only teach them so often before they start to get stale to me, so I am mixing it up in Spring 10 with a class on the 70s: ENGL 3060-023 & -028: Modern and Contemporary Literature: The 70s: Paranoia, Technology, & Decline. Here is the reading schedule:

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And here is the text list:

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For several reasons I had difficulty constructing this class.

The first, and most obvious, was the short turnaround between the switch and ordering books. I had to do it quickly, which leads to more novels and less thought. Less thought for obvious reasons; more novels because they fill up space in a semester. (Weirdly, however, most of these novels do not fill up much space because they are so damn short, unlike most of the novels we all think of from the 70s–ie Gravity’s Rainbow, JR, Dhalgren–none of which is appropriate for a non-major course.)

Second, the 70s are still kind of a cultural blindspot for me, and, I think, American society. While there was an I Love the 70s on The Nostalgia Channel VH1 to match I Love the 80s, and bellbottoms come back every few years, the 70s seem less well-defined as a decade, and therefore not as amenable to “decade-ization” than the 60s, 80s, 90s, or 00s. The 60s had the counterculture. The 80s had Reagan and Thatcher, “greed is good,” etc. The 90s had Clinton, the mainstreaming of alternative music/Nirvana, etc. The 00s had Bush, 9/11. What did the 70s have. Of course, this blindspot may be my own, but the 70s are not about Vietnam (not to the extent that the 60s and 80s were), not about Nixon (not like the subsequent decades would be about their presidents), not about Carter, not about Ford. Of course, there are at least two problems with this line of thinking: 1) that we should think in terms of ten-year periods that begin with a zero and end with a nine; and 2) that any given period of time should be defined by some major personality or event or else it “doesn’t matter” (as much). In any case, my problem is not a bad one to have as it leads to (I hope) discovery and complex thinking.

But following from this problem is, third, how to frame the course. So I have chosen the title “The 70s: Paranoia, Technology, & Decline.” “Paranoia” seems an obvious choice, as Pynchon’s “Proverbs for Paranoids” can attest. “Technology” is not as clear a choice, for me, although it is of concern in the decade. I think the issue for me is that I am a child of the 80s and therefore think of tech in the sticks-to-your-skin/Bruce Sterling sense and the earlier tech of the 70s–clunkier, nascent, still showing signs of an industrial economy–just does not register as easily for me. So we get tape decks in The Conversation or cars in Crash rather than computers in TRON (recognizing the manner in which those computers are rendered in terms of older techs, of course). “Decline” is, I think, somewhat clearer to me. There was Nixon’s humiliation followed by Ford as the the first President to be satirized by new forms of television such as Saturday Night Live (in many cases for just being who he is; aside: I love his appearance on The Simpsons, especially when it’s in Spanish). Then we have Carter, who, fairly or not, is perceived and represented as a failure; that failure is coupled to a loss of American diplomatic/military dominance. These issues dovetail with the (faux or otherwise) nihilism of the punk movement. Of course, these issues do not start in the 70s and do not end there, and as a result I have decided to include several texts from the 60s and one recent text that show the way the 70s came to be and our current take on them. In any case, these are just a few thoughts on how I plan to approach the course.

The fourth issue follows from the third: what texts to teach. I am not nearly as familiar the cultural production of the 70s as I am of the 60s or the 80s. Rather, I know the stuff, but it just does not register as being part of a well-defined decade to me. Queen, in my mind, could come from any period; likewise Pink Floyd. These limitations are certainly idiosyncratic to me, but they do confound me. Thus the problem: the issues listed above only work if they appear in the texts and the texts only work if they cohere. In any case, I did not have a great deal of trouble identifying enough material to teach, but I did not generate as much as I would have for another course. Moreover, I am much more afraid of leaving out something crucial than I would be for the 80s or 60s. I don’t have any, for example, novels about Vietnam. I have The Deerhunter, and Michael Herr (excerpted), but no Going After Cacciato.  I have  Queen and Floyd and The Sex Pistols, but no The Clash and no women. No exploitation films, and no something else (here I run nito the limits of my knowledge). Of course, I can’t teach everything, and some things I can’t teach for reasons beyond not having enough time in the term: see, for example, the novels above or Coover’s The Public Burning, which I can only excerpt for fear of revolt.

So All I can do is hope to give some sense of the decade, some sense of its shape and concerns. Thus I am starting with Oates’ “Where are you going, where have you been?” and Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (PDF), two texts that precede the 70s but foreshadow the decline of the 60s. The former is a coming of age story which should play well as an “end to the 60s” narrative (especially given its relationship to Dylan). The latter not only works well with the next item on the list–The Crying of Lot 49–because of its concern with thermodynamics, but also with Ballard’s concerns in Crash. The end-of-the-60s theme thus continues with The Crying of Lot 49, which perfectly deals with the coming paranoia of the 70s: the idea that the counterculture is not winning or did not win pervades the latter decade it seems to me. Pynchon’s second novel should pair well with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (although I strongly considered Flow My Tears the Policeman Said in this slot). I don’t want to go through the whole list, but Tiptree and Ballard are both prescient in their concerns about technology and (especially in Ballard’s case) advertising/media culture; Russ and Jones are good cases I think of the changing concerns of feminists and minorities; A Scanner Darkly provides another view of Dick and, I think, one that represents an instructive aftermath of the specific paranoia of Do Androids Dream. . .; and ending the term with Inherent Vice offers a nice opportunity to reflect on the 70s from a contemporary perspective. I think the music (if a bit limited in its scope), the films (likewise), and the short texts (double likewise) do some work of filling in the novels leave in their wakes. I think there is a class here, albeit one that could use some revision down the road.

In any case, the problems I’ve listed here are always solvable through a little Google/Wikipedia action (for example, I did not know that Kathy Acker won a Pushcart for “NYC in 1979”; now I don’t have to feel as bad for not having Blood and Guts on the list). I hope this works.

Oh, and can I mention that I am most excited about Pynchon’s playlist for Inherent Vice? Check out the Pynchon Wiki’s set of links to Youtube videos and Wikipedia entries on musicians here.

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