Teaching Metropolis in the Country

A lingering question I have is about effectively integrating places into the teaching of literary criticism. I refer not only to real existing places that are represented in literature either directly or in more or less veiled forms, but also to the places where we encounter literature. It’s a big question in ecocriticism, and one that I intend to take up in my own work later on down the road. For now, rather than delving into the theoretical issues of this question, I want to share some thoughts on a writing course I taught at Cornell in 2011 and 2012 called “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture.” Because this course was meant to fulfill a first year writing requirement, all content was selected first and foremost in the service of the objective of guiding students from high school to college level writing. I designed the course to include a range of texts ranging historically from Tieck’s Life’s Luxuries and Stifter’s Tourmaline to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The idea was to give the students ample opportunity to explore different problems in their writing by setting a wide variety of texts in dialogue with one another.

One thing that was important to me in creating the syllabus was that  “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” not become reified terms, that is, that we don’t talk about them as if they were things “over there” that we needed to drive five hours to New York City to experience. And here’s where place comes in. We were a group of American and international students who grew up in all types of human settlements doing this class at a campus in a small town surrounded by farmland. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for visitors to our neck of the woods to have difficulty seeing only farmland. For instance Jon Stewart, whose comedy sometimes suffers from a certain metropolitan provincialism, came to Cornell and quipped that “Ithaca is in the middle of nowhere . . . On the way up I didn’t pass anything I couldn’t milk.” But if he had looked past the cows, he would have seen a part of the world that is living with the very real and difficult legacies of its commercial and industrial past, as opposed to  New York City’s overgrown ahistorical backyard.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Ruins of the Ithaca Gun Factory near Cornell, since demolished.

Without making the course about Ithaca itself, I selected readings that complicated the city/country dichotomy. With Tourmaline we looked at Vienna and the liminal space of its suburbs. We looked at maps to explore the city/country dichotomy as a social condition that shaped some of the aesthetic problems we were writing about. The first chapter of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz was an easy way to introduce the critique of mass culture, but he also begins the book by talking about a socialist settlement in the desert as representing a kind of alternative future for the city itself. And W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn together with Wilhelm Raabe’s Stopfkuchen (Stuffcake or Tubby Schaumann in English translation) allowed for conversations and assignments on the surprising connections between supposedly remote places and global networks of power and injustice that we might otherwise think of as a relation of metropolitan core to colonized margin.

Chapter six of Rings of Saturn was especially useful for getting around the danger of reifying “Metropolis,” “Modernity,” and “Mass Culture.” The chapter begins with a small iron bridge over the river Blyth, a river that used to be a major shipping lane but has been silted up. The narrator sees only rotting barges, and “nothing but grey water, mudflats, and emptiness” (138). It turns out that the bridge was for a narrow gauge railway (the railway being, of course, the symbol of industrial modernity par excellence). The bridge leads the narrator to a history of China from the Opium Wars to the death of the Dowager Empress, a calamitous history in which Europe was deeply implicated. The bridge doesn’t just “bridge” England’s eastern coast with China, but as an object from this history infects the surrounding landscape. The narrator moves on to Dunwich, once an important port city claimed by the ocean where “you can sense the immense power of emptiness” (159, “den gewaltigen Sog der Leere” in the German), and goes then to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The novel weaves together seemingly infinite constellations of history and culture, at times I suspect even making fun of itself for doing so. This poses a challenge for teaching, because with such a text it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. But it’s a rewarding text to include in a course that thinks about both historical and aesthetic problems that spring from the urban experience, because it hangs on to more global contexts while also pushing assumptions that readers bring to a text. In class we spend time talking about the extensive work the novel does in teaching us how to read it (the first chapter is a kind of field guide to the rest of the novel), and then mid-way through I ask the students to turn to the back cover of the English edition, look at the label “fiction,” and tell me what they think.


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