Seminar in 20th Century American Literature: Dams, Pipelines, and Shipping Containers

Dams, Pipelines, and Shipping Containers: Contemporary Art and Infrastructure
Section 01
Andy Hoberek
Course Description

Those of in English have all heard undergraduate students in courses we've taken or taught refer to the "flow" of a work of literature. In her new book Immediacy: Or, the Style of Too Late Capitalism, forthcoming in January, Anna Kornbluh takes this category seriously, asking why it has become dominant in high art, streaming television, and fiction, and seeking out alternative works that “prioritize distance, personality, and big ideas instead.”

It is interesting that “flow” has become a vernacular aesthetic category at roughly the same time that that the centrality of logistics—the science of storing and moving goods as efficiently as possible—to our economy has become increasingly visible. Commentators often point to the standardization of shipping containers around the time of the Vietnam War as the key development in the rise of logistics. But as the historian of the trucking industry Shane Hamilton has noted, we can see it even earlier in the development of forklifts and standardized pallets following World War II—a development that decreased the time and number of workers necessary to move goods in warehouses, making possible the frozen food industry and, not incidentally, paving the way for the eventual rise of Amazon.

In this seminar, we will explore the connection between contemporary works of culture and the seemingly very different, very material world of forms of infrastructure designed to maintain and regulate flows of resources and goods. Dams, for instance, play a role in a surprising number of contemporary works, from novels like Richard Powers’ 2018 The Overstory and Namwali Serpell’s 2019 The Old Drift to films such as Jia Zhangke’s 2006 Still Life and Kelly Reichardt’s 2013 Night Moves to Calista Lyon and Carmen Winant’s 2022 video installation Breaking Water to the third season of the television series Atlanta. Pipelines, similarly, are central to both the Water Protectors movement that began at Standing Rock in 2016 and to Daniel Goldhaber’s 2022 film adaptation of Andreas Malm’s 2021 book How to Blow Up a Pipeline—surely one of the few thrillers based on a theory book published by Verso. In considering such works, our task—following Kornbluh—will be to ask if they share anything at the level not only of content but of form, and can thus tell us something important about how art exists in relationship to the contemporary world.