Inventing the West
“Tell me, haven’t you ever thought that the west might lie in the opposite direction”— Diamela Eltit, ""Los vigilantes"" So much of today’s cultural debate invokes “the West” as if we all know what the term means. Is it a place, a concept, an identity? West of where? This course will look at different and often counterintuitive modes of representing the West in reference to both the western United States and the broader geopolitical or even metaphysical idea of the West. Borrowing from the critical vocabulary of “orientalism,” we will study the contradictory ideas and practices associated with the concept and lived reality of the West, as both an imagined space of open possibility and an imperial project of settler colonialism. Given our location in California, we’ll place an early emphasis on ecology and environment in the deserts and mountains of the Southwestern United States to California’s central valley and the coast. Intersecting with these environments, we’ll take up questions of migration and labor, from the Great Migrations of African American people to Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th-century or the shipyards of the Bay Area in the 1940s, to the ongoing migration across and contestation of the US-Mexico border. From there we’ll reorient this locally familiar understanding of the West and interrogate its shifting meanings from writers and artists in Germany, Japan, Egypt, France, Senegal, and elsewhere.