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American Studies

American Studies

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Graduate Studies

The Program in American Studies offers an interdisciplinary approach to the histories, literatures, philosophies, music, visual cultures, social formations, economics, and politics of the U.S. Compelling matters of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, environmentalism, technology, the arts, region, religion, the built environment, citizenship and activism take their proper and vital place in the curriculum of study.

American Studies supports graduate students at Vanderbilt in several ways: it offers a Graduate Certificate program; sponsors a finishing year dissertation fellowship in conjunction with the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities; funds two students to attend the “Futures of American Studies Institute” at Dartmouth each summer; and runs a spring conference in conjunction with the American Studies graduate workshop.

Spring 2014

AMER 300: American Tragedy (in Theory)
Fay, Jennifer

This course concerns the unlikely intersection of American Studies, a resolutely modern and geographically located field of study, and tragedy, an ancient dramatic genre often viewed as incompatible with the modern world. By some accounts, tragedy is the ethical violence that befalls kings, queens, and their progeny in trials of sovereign power, and thus the United States' "exceptional" democratic status may render a distinctly "American" tragedy both temporally and temperamentally impossible. With these challenges in mind, this seminar will trace the status of American exceptionalism within the institutional lifespan of American Studies (from its Cold War beginnings to our post-Americanist third wave), while exploring the efficacy of a theoretical and affective vocabulary rooted in the history of tragedy. Is America the exception to European tragedy? Is America the tragic exception to the promises of democracy?

Tragedy raises interesting questions about feeling and identity, especially in the context of our neo-liberal age. Is the tragic affect available to the common person, and can it be ordinary? What narratives are available when tragedy is not a catastrophic event but an on-going state of affairs? How does the tragic narrative—of Oedipus and Antigone, for example—reflect gendered experience, and of what use are these narratives for us today? Is there a distinctly feminist tragedy? How might tragedy offer a useful paradigm as distinct from melodrama and trauma? Alongside literary and cinematic works that begin to address these questions, we will likely read from a range of philosophically-inflected meditations on tragedy, from Plato and Aristotle, to Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, Butler, Berlant and Žižek. As we may discover, "tragedy" and "American Studies" are sufficiently hard to define that they may exist, in the most prosaic sense, only "in theory."