Comedy and Cruelty

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This course is under review for 2021. Course registration will open to accepted students once courses are confirmed.

Course Description

This course is designed specifically for English Language Learners interested in further developing their English skills in a challenging college-level academic setting.

Is comedy possible in the twenty-first century? Ours is an age of disappointment, plagued by unprecedented violence and crisis, and the familiar tools of satire (insult and shame chief among them) have all but lost their edge in the face of daily life. But does this necessarily mean that ours is a tragic age? This course will give us an opportunity to investigate the conditions that allow a tragic situation to become a comedic one. We will consider a body of work that finds in comedy a form uniquely capable of responding to the traumas of life in the twenty-first century. Of special interest will be works that seek to unsettle the line separating comedy from tragedy and, more specifically, comedy from horror. Although there is much about the forms and logic of comedy worth questioning, our primary preoccupation will be to attend to the cultural work of comedy and the role cruelty plays therein. As anyone who has ever been on the wrong end of a joke can attest, there is an uneasy proximity between comedy and cruelty. If one pleasure particular to comedy consists in laughing at the pain of others, can comedy be mobilized for responsible ends? Is comedy necessarily anti-social, or can comedy provide the tools for revolt? It is my hope that by the end of this course it will be clear that, despite all appearances to the contrary, our current political moment (whatever future generations may call it) is, perhaps, a time for laughter.

The core of our reading will come from a selection of (mostly) recent films: Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019), Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018), Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). We will thus devote some of our time to discussing the theory and practice of film analysis in order to understand how films think. We will place these films in dialogue with one another and in doing so concentrate on what their differing approaches to similar problems reveal about their competing visions of modernity. While film will play a central role in this course, we will also look to television to see how the discourses being placed under scrutiny by the films mentioned above play out on a smaller scale in episodes of Key and Peele (2012-2015) and Atlanta (2016-present). To give our inquiry greater historical breadth, we will begin by watching excerpts from early Hollywood comedies by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Preston Sturges. In order to help us develop a critical vocabulary to think and write seriously about comedy, over the course of our time together, we will turn to selections from political, psychoanalytic, philosophical, and literary writings on humor and violence by Sigmund Freud, Frantz Fanon, Sianne Ngai, and Lauren Berlant, among others. Although readings will take us from the early twentieth century to the present, our overriding question will remain the same—why, exactly, are we laughing?

This course is designed to be, in part, an introduction to close reading, a critical practice that remains central to the task of thinking across the humanities. To that end, a number of short written assignments organized around close reading will be assigned. The generic diversity that characterizes this course will allow students to familiarize themselves with the various ways of reading texts and images. As we will be dealing with works of non-fiction (primarily examples of criticism and theory) in addition to fiction, students will also immerse themselves in the many ways of thinking about the ideas driving this course. The work we will do during our time together will therefore prepare students for the kind of analytical work expected of them throughout their undergraduate careers.

As a result of completing this course, students will be able to think critically about a variety of genres (i.e. film, television, novels, theory, criticism, and visual art/media) and express these thoughts within a recognizable academic framework. Special attention will be paid to forming arguments, intervening in pre-existing debates, and writing briefly and coherently about complex texts.

Prerequisites: This course is designed for high school students of any level. The only true prerequisite is that anyone interested in enrolling in this course keep an open mind as we will be dealing with texts that ask a great deal of us as readers and thinkers.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEEL0807
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

[email protected] for English Language Learners

A select group of non-credit courses in the liberal arts and sciences supplemented with English language learning, two weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For University-bound English language learners completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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