San Francisco Modernism

This course studies the cultural life of the city from its days as a Spanish settlement named Yurba Buena to the present. It treats the historical and cultural life of the city as coextensive with modernity (modern capitalist development, including "progress" and its ideologies, which we generally refer to today as globalization). Because the city of SF is bound-up with modernity, it is something that is still happening, something that we are all participating in and working through. This course thinks the city as a history of the present. 

Robbo · November 6, 2019

This is a fun class where we learn about the cultural life of the city, including the dirty stories from the 19th century, the gossip, and the unique characters of San Francisco. But we will also think seriously about place and exclusion, the genocide of native peoples, and the history of race in the city, particularly with regard to  Chinatown and the Chinese Exclusion Act. We will also study gender and its constructions, sexuality, nature, commodification, prostitution, image and spectacle as they relate to everyday life in SF modernities. Significant cultural works, places, and events, will be studied in relation to the city.

What is San Francisco modernism? The term modernism is defined differently by different people. Since it’s impossible to accurately represent entire periods of human history, for the purposes of this class, when we talk about modernism, we are primarily talking about a concept that seeks to think an entire series of cultural practices, techniques, and relations specific to the 19th century that inform and shed light on how we got to our present moment. Thus, our questions and concerns will be based on contemporary experiences. Our work, in that sense, remains grounded in often urgent problems of the present—for example, race, gender, sex, and class—in relation to their material history. In other words, how modern practices, techniques, relations, and even discourses specific to the 19th and early 20th centuries informs where we are now.

How do we read the unique forms of human expression, such as art, architecture, music, literature, photography, film, and politics associated with this city and their relation to modern life? We will explore these and other questions by tracing our own unique history of the present of San Francisco. Rather than a simple chronological re-telling of dates, facts and major events, we will endeavor to creatively enter into the historical life of the city, thereby changing and expanding our conception of San Francisco. Close attention will be paid to major historical events and cultural locations in the life of the city, such as the gold rush, immigration, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, Chinatown, the Chinese Exclusion Act, modernity, world’s fairs, censorship and the beat generation, vice and sin, literature, and photography. By the end of the semester, students should come away from the course with a greater knowledge of the cultural history of San Francisco, and, hopefully, a new experience of the city in relation to its past.

Everyone is welcome in this class. The online forums are, above all, a space where students are allowed to have a voice. It’s really important, especially with what is going on in the world, that we support each other and strive to be respectful of our differences, our contributions, and our points of view. From the subject matter we will study, to many of the primary texts used in the course (written by women and sexual minorities), to the work we will do in the online forums, this is an inclusive class.

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