BA American Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
The Visual Culture of US Empire

Course unit fact file
Unit code AMER30522
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


From Singer sewing machine trading cards to Christian micro-lending websites and televisual depictions of torture, the United States has consolidated its formal and informal empire by visually projecting its military and economic power.  In this class we will study these visual tools of empire, tracking the rise of the mass production of still and moving images alongside changes in racial, gender, and sexual regimes that bolstered and justified U.S. imperial expansion. We will consider how photojournalism, Hollywood cinema, war propaganda, and recent social media ventures have helped Americans imagine the rest of the world as lacking maturity and guidance, while reinforcing a self-image of innocence and benevolence. We will track how US visual culture attempts to incite desires for American consumer goods (and even “the American dream”) abroad, while also attending to counter-visual strategies of resistance and anti-imperialist solidarity.


  1. To trace how changes in visual technology, production, distribution, reception, style, and genre were tied to structural developments of US empire in the arenas of policy, economics, and militarization.
  2. To analyze visual cultural texts using a variety of theoretical tools and historical contexts
  3. To evaluate analytical methods for studying visual texts in their historical context.
  4. To encourage students to construct sustained and coherent arguments of a standard appropriate to final year degree work.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  1. Explain the major developments in US expansion in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries
  2. Connect those developments to changes in image technology, production, distribution, reception, style, and genre
  3. Summarize and analyze scholarly secondary sources, identifying central arguments and evaluating methods and conclusions.
  4. Analyze primary texts in historical context, making original arguments that build on and refer to scholarly conversations.
  5. Present and explain a creative visual project in groups.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students will learn critical skills
Group/team working
Students will practice collaborative work
Students will learn creative thinking skills
Oral communication
Students will improve their oral communication
Written communication
Students will improve their written communication

Assessment methods

Essay 60%
film project (video or screenplay) 40%



Feedback methods


Feedback methods

  • Oral feedback on video project
  • Written feedback on essay
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)



Recommended reading


Set Reading:

Wafaa Bilal, Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life, and Resistance Under the Gun

Gregoire Chamayou, Drone Theory


Recommended Preliminary Reading:

Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography

Mona Domosh, American Commodities in an Age of Empire

Brian Hochman, Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology

Susan Meiselas, Susan MeiselasNicaragua

Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of US Imperialism

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Molly Geidel Unit coordinator

Return to course details