Montana State University

From 'chick lit' to Brad Pitt, MSU professor studies the pulse of American life

March 10, 2005 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Robert Bennett. MSU photo by Erin Raley   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Bozeman- Robert Bennett is an amiable fellow given to easy smiles. And why not? While other professors at Montana State University study slime or the insect brain, Bennett researches architecture, jazz, California culture, the literature of shopping and even film icon Brad Pitt.

An MSU English professor, most of Bennett's work falls in the category of American Studies as he investigates the many strands of the warp and weft of contemporary American life.

"My work is sort of a patchwork," Bennett acknowledges with a characteristic grin. "It's not life in an ivory tower. It's more about the collective unconscious."

Because his field crosses disciplines, Bennett examines contemporary life as though it might be the scene in a toy snowball, gently shaking the globe and examining the changing scene. Through this approach, he has developed an eclectic set of research interests.

"Robert Bennett's interests range from the poets of the Beat generation, through the architecture and art of post-WWII New York City, to the pop culture genre of "chick lit" and the shopping novel: pretty much any area of American cultural expression" says Michael Beehler, chairman of the MSU English Department. "To all of these areas he brings an insightful critical mind and an infectious humor and passion. His work is gaining a national reputation, and he's now working on the semiotics of American skyscrapers, investigating what that tells us about American culture."

Not only is there variety in Bennett's research, but also in the types of media he uses in his work. Grabbing rays of culture in print, sound and in pictures, Bennett molds the information into a synthesis of depth and texture.

For instance, while others may view the brightly-colored shopping novels that clog airport bookstores as mere mind candy, Bennett's work on the subject leads to his conclusion that the shopping novel is the latest reincarnation of Americans attempt to re-invent themselves.

"It's kind of like Jane Austen meets 'Sex and the City' meets 'Bridget Jones Diary,'" Bennett says of the shopping lit genre, including "The Devil Wore Prada," and the Shopaholic books. He says the books are an example of "Third-Wave feminism," several generations removed from the feminism of the 1960s and '70s.

"Shopping is the great American pastime, and it's not just about shopping, but creating and becoming who you want to be," he said. He contends that the books follow the literary lineage of the classic, "The Great Gatsby."

"Gatsby was an American who went out and bought himself a new identity," Bennett says.

Not all of Bennett's work is plumbing seemingly superficial trends for deeper meaning. His doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara was about the place of skyscrapers and architecture in American life and was later published into the book "Deconstructing Post-WWII New York City: The Literature, Art, Jazz and Architecture of an Emerging Global Capital."

Bennett said he first began thinking about the subject while listening to the song "Little Boxes," by Malvina Reynolds.

"We build conformist spaces and it leads to a conformist culture," he says. Bennett's choice of subject matter was prophetic.

"I finished my dissertation on Sept. 11, 2001," Bennett recalls, the same day the World Trade Towers were destroyed. He also taught a class at MSU on American Neocolonialism the same semester that the U.S. invaded Iraq. "It was a really weird feeling."

A consummate Westerner, Bennett grew up in L.A., Boise, Seattle and earned his bachelor's and master's degree from Brigham Young University. So naturally, the West is also a fertile research field. He is studying the phenomenon of mega suburbs in the West, which he calls "Tract Homes on the Range." It's a subject that Bennett continues to study face-to-face now that he lives and works in Bozeman. He is married to Chris Stoddard, an MSU professor of agricultural economics/economics.

So, a conversation with Bennett that begins with discussions on the writer Ken Kesey and the Beat Poets, quickly moves to the new book "Collapse," which opens with a chapter on Montana. Then it's on to the film and book, "High Fidelity," which Bennett likes because it portrays the "questions of a generation, how to balance falling in and out of love and going out and seeing the world." And there's Brad Pitt, whom Bennett studies because he "represents both the ideal all American postmodern hero and the postmodern counter-cultural rebel par excellence."

It's a dizzying synthesis of ideas, the microscopic eye of a scholar examining bits and pieces of life.

"Literature reflects our culture and if that is where our culture goes, it's worth discussing," says Bennett, who is on research leave this spring. He is using an MSU College of Letters and Science Research and Creativity Grant to work on a new book, "The Architecture of Ambition: Cultural Representations of American Skyscrapers." He plans to use a characteristic variety of sources on the book, ranging from "King Kong" to Chuck Palahniuk's wildly successful book and film, "Fight Club."

During his leave, Bennett has found time to chair the committee examining the controversial faculty locker rooms in the upcoming remodel of the MSU health and physical education complex. Bennett thought it would be an easy committee assignment, but the subject turned knotty and public when members of the MSU faculty wanted their own faculty locker room.

"Which is wonderful, because it's all about how people perceive space," Bennett says, pointing out the obvious connection to his research on architecture. "It's great when it all works together."

Contact: Robert Bennett (406) 994-5195