Capstone: 2018 Cohort

The Immigrant Journey: Push Factors in American Emigration

Adam Tarshis

To fulfill my AMCS capstone requirement, I took Professor Sunita Parikh’s Immigration, Identity, and the Internet course. Professor Parikh’s course piqued my interest for two main reasons. First, its focus on a frequently-debated political issue that was becoming even more contested within our current political climate. Second, it brought forward a new variable to consider within the framework of the centuries-old issue of immigration—namely modern technology’s impacts on the today’s immigration experience. The course looked at the entire immigration process from initial push and pull factors encouraging emigrants to leave their home country as well as the process of assimilation once they arrive.

My capstone project focused on a single immigrant journey; that of a 34-year-old man, his wife, and young son who choose to leave the United States for Singapore when he accepts a promotion with his multi-national company. The project traces the family’s entire immigration journey beginning with the husband’s search for a new job and the factors than push the family to accept the promotion he is offered with his company halfway across the world. Dissatisfied with the United States’ present political climate, concerned about the opportunities for them and their young son living in a city like St. Louis, and ready to move forward in their careers, the family decides after much consideration to emigrate. Singapore’s own foreign-worker and immigration policies, which particularly favor well-educated workers like the protagonists of this narrative, make immigration into the country accessible.

The project takes a multidisciplinary approach to documenting the immigration and assimilation process informed in part by my own time in Singapore as well as further research into the nation’s immigration and foreign employment regulations. Singapore’s population is made up of nearly twenty-five percent foreign workers and expats, and they draw significant numbers of foreign workers with their straightforward employment pass regulations and high quality of life.

While the most common immigration experience to come to mind is often people from less developed countries moving to the United States or Western Europe in search of better opportunities, a growing number of Americans—particularly those in various business industries—are seeking global opportunities in Asia; home to the fastest growing cities in the world. Whether we realize this now, America is facing greater competition in retaining some of its top talent as globalizing forces continue to both encourage transnationalism and make it more accessible. This will have a profound impact on American cities, where I have focused my American Culture Studies major.

As an urban scholar, I wanted to better understand the impacts of globalization on a more urban-specific level. Cosmopolitanism in both American and international cities is rising to unprecedented levels as national borders become less and less relevant, and this may shape the ways in which American cities develop in the future. My multidisciplinary approach to cultural research in combination with my business major has enabled me to view these global changes from multiple perspectives in order to better understand their impact.


Direct Engagement and Discomfort: How Claudia Rankine and Adrian Piper Manipulate Visuals to Subvert the Racial Imaginary

Anna Deen

This capstone examines the role of visual imagery within poet and cultural critic Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, and philosopher and conceptual artist Adrian Piper’s artwork, Mythic Being. Working forty years apart, these two artists manipulate visual images by retouching photographs, translating video footage into textual descriptions, and so on, in order to directly engage with their respective audiences. Rankine and Piper address their audiences by using disruptive tactics that mirror direct action strategies present in contemporary protest movements like Black Lives Matter. By giving audiences the opportunities to question their own biases and roles as active participants in engaging with issues of race, gender, identity, and citizenship, Rankine and Piper’s literature and art has the power to alter both individual and cultural perspectives.

A central concern of this project is the popular perception that visual images, especially photographs and video footage, are accurate documentations of reality. Unfortunately, this perception gives visual images the power to reinforce cultural narratives and personal worldviews, including malignant ones regarding gender stereotypes, racial biases, etc. In light of such perceptions, I closely analyze and raise questions as to how Rankine and Piper manipulate visual images to combat these issues. How are visual images manipulated in ways that prevent against their misappropriation? How can visual images act as evidence for narratives that counter popular perceptions of reality? How can audiences be held accountable as spectators, witnesses, and active participants in both establishing and dismantling ideological structures of racism, sexism, and so on? I ultimately argue that by manipulating these visual images, Rankine and Piper assert the ability to subvert problematic narratives while giving their audiences the opportunities to create new ones.

As someone with a background in English Literature and Communication Design, this capstone has been a culmination of my academic journey over the past four years, stemming from questions as to how poetry, prose, photographs, and performing arts can effectively engage with social issues to interrogate the stories our society tells. It was through the interdisciplinary field of American Culture Studies that I drew from a diverse range of scholars, such as Jacqueline Goldsby and Susan Sontag, to examine the relationships between text and images in creating, establishing, navigating, and deconstructing power dynamics. This project ultimately emerged out of my interest in exploring how the relationship between literature and art impacts cultural discourse today, especially in an increasingly digitized world. 


The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Public Art and the Personal Negotiation of Memory

Will Eisenberg

My experience as an AMCS major culminated in a project that grew out of the capstone seminar Art, Government, and the Dilemmas of Cultural Policy. The paper, entitled The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Public Art and the Personal Negotiation of Memory, explores the significance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and the ways that it allowed people to confront the complicated memory of the Vietnam War. The questions that I grappled with in writing the paper ranged from the Wall’s place in American funerary tradition to how the vestiges left behind at the Wall was cathartic for allowing individuals to establish a personal narrative of the war. In examining these questions, I set out to argue that people’s ability to create a personal memory of the war, contrary to the highly politicized reactions to the Vietnam War, is what has made the Vietnam Veterans Memorial such an effective piece of public art. I arrived on this topic after reading about the political controversy that arose following the Wall’s establishment; in addition, after visiting the Wall a few years ago and having had a visceral reaction to its beauty, I knew that I wanted to dig deeper into the history and artistic significance of the memorial. Furthermore, one subject that I have developed an interest in throughout my time as an AMCS scholar is the cultural ramifications of war; studying further the Vietnam Veterans Memorial gave me an opportunity to explore the Vietnam Wars impact on cultural policy in the United States.

The argument and methodological approach for my paper relied largely on both challenging and building on Kristin Ann Hass’ suppositions in her Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After becoming familiar with existing scholarship on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I used a database which catalogues all of the items left at the VVM since its erection in 1982. This approach was useful and justified in answering the questions that I initially had, because it allowed me to juxtapose my own analysis (examination of the items) with the existing theory about the Wall. In doing so, I was able to understand how the Wall is viewed in dominant culture as well as reorient this perspective by giving importance to the highly individual processes of grief that together make the Wall so effective. For instance, while I note that Hass accurately delineates the Wall’s reimagining of a memorial in the context of funerary traditions, I examine the items left at the wall to challenge her supposition that political items left at the wall (Medals of Honor, dog tags, etc) are not essential to “transcend[ing] the fractious reality of that war and discordant memories of the war;” moreover, I found that the most important aspect of the Wall and items left at the wall was their commitment to political objectivity. Ultimately, I concluded that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so special because it refrains from political commentary, and its existence as a tabula rasa on which people could forge a personal memory of the dead.

In order to successfully complete this project, I had to incorporate ideas from a variety of disciplines. For example, a historical approach to understanding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was necessary in contextualizing the complex place of the War in American history. Additionally, politics played an important role in comprehending why the Memorial was controversial; and finally, I had to take an artistic approach in analyzing items left behind at the wall. Otherwise, I would have been unable to situate these items as lenses through which to understand how the Wall functions as a site of grief, which helps settle the political controversy surrounding the Wall.

Ultimately, this project was rewarding to work on, as I feel that it allowed me to bring in disparate facets of my education as an American Culture Studies. My initial interest in the major was that it allowed me to keep a hand in subjects from a variety of disciplines: politics, history, literature, and culture. In other classes, I have had the opportunity to examine the intersection of a number of these subjects, but I had not yet been able to incorporate all of them in a single assignment. Having a personal interest in art and art culture, this project gave me the opportunity to apply this interest in an academic pursuit, allowing me to bring in politics, history, and material culture in a way that I had always wanted to.


Differing Displays: A Look at Caribbean and West African Art Exhibitions at the St. Louis Art Museum

Morgan Brooks

Museum exhibits have a potential to both educate and empower their viewers. While some exhibits are successful at doing both, many fail to create engaging displays that reach the full potential of impacting people’s lives beyond their time at the museum. I am comparing two art exhibits from the St. Louis Art Museum to show how the engagement of the community and responsibility to the cultures being represented are influenced by the formation of the exhibit. The first exhibit I am discussing is the 1988-89 exhibition of Caribbean Festival Arts, which was envisioned and created by the St. Louis Art Museum to be a multi-sensorial and engaging experience for visitors. The second exhibit, a 2015 show titled Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa originating at the Cleveland Museum of Art, uses traditional modernist museum displays to create an experience of appreciating the formal elements of the art. I will be looking at the museum’s perspective, the display strategy, the events and programming coinciding with the exhibit, and the press response on a local and national level to determine the strengths and weaknesses of both display methods. I am using the four points of comparison to claim that CFA presents the art as works of individual and intentional artists, where the Senufo exhibit leads viewers into seeing the art as a product of a culture, rather than ascribing agency to the individual artists. Ultimately, I am arguing that the modernist displays of art by people of color has colonial implications and strips away the appeal to diverse communities by reinforcing racial hierarchies of culture rather than contextualizing the art as an interpretation and expression of the artist's social/political/economic environment. I am acknowledging that a museum setting can never truly or accurately represent a culture, but CFA shows a much better approach that is more sensitive because of the contextualization and involvement of artists/performers from the country represented.

This project incorporates different disciplinary perspectives. I am incorporating elements of literary analysis to look at press responses and how the exhibits were talked about by the museum. I also use a historian’s perspective by utilizing archival sources to support my claims. Elements of visual analysis are also important to my project to link aesthetics to their political effects. My experience in anthropology also informs my outlook by helping me consider the ethics of displaying cultures and the importance of maintaining cultural relativity and pushing against ethnocentrism. Altogether, this combination of different disciplinary concentrations allows me to combine my interests into a culminating project that I find meaningful. By focusing on these two exhibits, I am creating original content that can be used to promote more inclusive museum environments and more responsible representations of culture that can be applied on a larger scales beyond individual exhibits to museums in their entirety.


Gentrification, Representational Space, and the 125th Street Business Improvement District

Michael Lukauskas

Harlem, along with various other primarily low-income minority neighborhoods across the United States, has undergone extensive change in recent years as property values have risen and demographics have shifted within the neighborhood. Proponents of these changes argue that this is the most effective way to revitalize previously blighted urban areas and point to positive byproducts of the changes—reduced crime, cleaner streets, and increased commercial activity, for example—as evidence of success. Despite this however, many residents of Harlem oppose these changes and complain that the neighborhood they once cherished is fading into memory.

This paper explores the role of local economic institutions in facilitating neighborhood change as well as scrutinizing that change through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s social theory. Specifically, this paper examines the gentrification process in Harlem by documenting changes along Harlem’s unofficial “main street,” and subsequently analyzing both how crucial institutional actors shaped this process and how these changes affect Harlem as a “representational space.” Ultimately this paper argues that recent changes in Harlem reflect efforts to remove signs of Harlem’s blighted past and attract new consumption interests to the neighborhood. Furthermore, this paper argues that the BID was not accountable enough to the interests of residents and questions whether greater measures of oversight or accountability are necessary in employing BIDs as a development framework.

Relying on photos of Harlem taken repeatedly over a period of forty years by Camilo Jose Vergara and compiled in his “Invincible Cities” database, contemporary news reports, and retail data provided by the 125th Street Business Improvement District (BID), this paper assesses the scope of changes undergone by 125th Street, paying special attention to efforts and projects executed by the local BID. Thereafter, this paper uses Lefebvre’s theoretical framework of social spaces to analyze 125th Street before and after the changes, in the process answering the question: Why do neighborhood residents oppose changes which ostensibly might benefit them? Pairing close examination of Vergara’s photographs with analysis rooted in Lefebvre’s theoretical framework allows for a greater understanding of the public life of Harlem residents and allows for the ability to address aspects of resident experience that are not easily explainable in terms of dollars and cents. In the concluding section, the paper’s findings regarding Harlem’s gentrification process are used to scrutinize the role of the BID as a developmental model, considering questions of both accountability and scope.

My project was born out of a combination of my personal experience and my academic interest in the ways that socioeconomic privilege affects community development. Growing up with a variety of advantages in a neighborhood which was, at various points throughout its history, greatly disadvantaged, encouraged me to probe why certain interests and voices are elevated past others. Throughout my time with the department, I have constantly sought to understand both the cultural underpinnings of certain policies, as well as the ways that policy can shape and influence the development of certain cultures. My project reflects my own and the department’s own commitment to multidisciplinary understandings of complex issues by providing a culturally-based answer to questions of policy, governance, and development.


An Exploration of Heroin-Related Crime

Jennifer Karr

I completed my Capstone project, “An Exploration of Heroin-Related Crime” in the context of Professor Flowe’s “Race and Drugs in American History” course. In this seminar, I learned about topics such as the racial construction of drug use, criminality, violence, and the growth of America’s prison industrial complex. The knowledge that I gained from class materials, lectures, and conversations fueled my desire to further explore the interconnectedness of these subject matters.

For my Capstone project, I decided to focus on the drug heroin, and more specifically, on the national heroin epidemic of the 1970s. This epidemic was most visible in New York City, which in the early 1970s, was home to approximately half of the nation’s heroin users, three-quarters of which were African American and Puerto Rican. At the same time, New York witnessed an explosion of crime that threatened civic life in the city. Residents were quick to point a finger at the growing group of heroin addicts, giving way to the stereotypical image of the heroin junkie as a criminal. President Richard Nixon capitalized on the public fear of heroin users to launch an offensive War on Drugs, at which point he declared drug abuse to be America’s greatest public enemy. However, while heroin users did engage in a disproportionate number of street crimes, there is much debate regarding the causal relationship between heroin use and crime.

My capstone project utilizes a combination of primary and secondary materials to explore the direction of this causal relationship and analyze the various federal and local reactions that ensued. By examining archived newspaper articles, previously conducted studies, and sociology books like Eric C. Schneider’s “Smack: Heroin and the American City,” I hoped to understand how social constructions of the criminal heroin user led to the adoption of punitive policies that drove mass incarceration, which has had enormous economic and social costs on society. The multidisciplinary approach with which I conducted my research led me to conclude that the nation must address the sociological factors contributing to inequality in social settings, which plays a large role in the uncontrollable proliferation of heroin use and crime that continues to jeopardize the wellbeing of our nation.

“An Exploration of Heroin-Related Crime” is a culmination of my studies in AMCS as well as my personal and academic interests. The flexibility of the AMCS Major has allowed me to select from a wide variety of courses, many of which I chose for their associations with sociology and/or the law. Following my graduation this spring, I will be attending three years of law school where I will develop the skills necessary to achieve my long-held dream of becoming a lawyer. Eventually, I hope to use the knowledge I gain in law school to advocate for necessary changes in the criminal justice system.


5 Reasons Why: Examining Images of Mental Illness in 13 Reasons Why

Sabrina Getrajdman

After long consideration, and many ideas later, I discovered that all of my thoughts about a capstone topic had two overarching similarities: they dealt with teen television, and how teen television approaches difficult issues. After experiencing challenges with my first proposal, I did what I always do when under stress: I turned to television. It was through television, the medium I wish to discuss in my capstone, that I found my answer. For the past year, the series Thirteen Reasons Why, has been a subject of many news reports. The show, originally celebrated for being one of the first depictions of teens struggling with mental health on television, has recently suffered extraordinary scrutiny for the ways in which it portrayed teenage mental health. I was drawn to this topic not only due to the fact that it perfectly fit the criteria I was looking for in a capstone, but because I too suffered with anxiety and depression as a teen in high school.

Mental illness is a subject that has been greatly ignored by the media. In recent years, there has been an emergence of films and television series tackling the difficult issues, but mostly towards an adult audience. 25% of all teenagers suffer from mental illness, contributing greatly to the overall number of individuals battling these crippling diseases.

In March of 2017, Netflix debuted its new teen series 13 Reasons Why, which centers on the issue of teen suicide. Following its release, the series received worldwide attention for its representation of issues greatly ignored in the media. While some praised the series for its depiction of “realistic” teen struggles, it was widely criticized for the ways that it depicted self-harm and mental illness.

For my capstone, I analyzed the ways- or better yet lack of ways- in which mental health is depicted and addressed on Thirteen Reasons Why. I sifted through the criticism and critically analyzed the series in order to understand the key issues with the shows discussion of suicide. While I acknowledged the fact that the series is the first of its kind to depict such an important issue, the crux of my paper, however, was spent analyzing the negative portrayals of mental health by the series. I consulted secondary sources detailing suicide statistics, the relationship between media and human behavior, and matters of mental illness more broadly, to support my key arguments. In this paper, I ultimately argue that the central issue with the series is that it fails to explore the integral relationship between suicide and mental illness. Fundamentally, it does so in its failure to mention the causal role of mental health in suicide, ignorance of the impact of graphic images of suicide, use of blame rhetoric, representation of suicide as a revenge tactic, and contribution to anti-therapy stigma. While the series marketed and praised itself on tackling the prevalent issues of depression and mental health more broadly, at its core, it failed to actually acknowledge the impact and the true presence of these issues in relation to suicide. The series exploited these taboo subjects in favor of spectacle and entertainment, rather than for the opportunity to raise awareness and help viewers.

My methodology consisted of media studies, cultural critique, literature review, and a bit of psychology research. It combined the many fields of media studies, cultural studies, psychology, and marketing. This project perfectly rounded out my pop culture concentration within AMCS, and reflected the study of the relationship between media (specifically television), popular culture, marketing, and human behavior that characterizes the focus of my courses and assignments within my 4 years in the major.