Violence in Literature

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard for all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting… Most of the games we now play are of ancient origin, but sport does not seem to have been taken very seriously between Roman times and the nineteenth century… Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest.”

George Orwell

Given the prevalence of violent crime and our national rate of incarceration—the highest in the world, accounting for 25% of the world’s prisoners while nationally we represent only 5% of the global population—it seems integral that young Americans explore, analyze, and discuss the impacts of violence. In this course, we’ll do just that, understanding the term ‘violence’ to apply to physical, verbal, and psychological terror, war and its varied aftermath, sexual violence and assault, and a myriad other forms of representation. In this course, we’ll bring these national issues to light and discuss them honestly and openly through educated and informed dialogues. We’ll understand violence as something of an unfortunate social legacy; from the most primitive cave drawings to our cultural obsession with Breaking Bad, violence has endured as a thing of wonder and absolute repulsion, and this class will attempt to determine why. In particular, we’ll read and analyze literary works that represent and converse with violence, and we’ll ask—of the texts and of each other—what the function and effect of that violence might be, and furthermore, whether “violence” is even a sufficiently coherent and capacious category within which to characterize so many practices. Texts include Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp, Kerry Howley’s genre-bending Thrown, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder, along with numerous short stories, excerpts, and literary journalism from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dorothy Allison, Tobias Wolff, Zadie Smith, Tim O’Brien, Joshua Barajas, Louise Erdrich, Cormac McCarthy, Roxane Gay, Kelly Sundberg, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, Luke Dittrich, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Stephen Pinker, and Werner Herzog. Students will also discuss the ways in which we, as Americans, respond to violence, whether in literature or music, painting, photography or film, and how cultural and artistic expression serves to critically engage these issues. Students will read work representative of many genres, watch several short films, and otherwise examine the role of violence in American and, very occasionally, global culture. We will invariably jump around, and our syllabus is subject to change in the interest of studying unfolding national events, but this is, in short, a class that does not flinch, and many of the assigned readings, viewings and film screenings will deal with difficult and occasionally graphic subject matter. While these materials will be presented in a sensitive, controlled and safe manner, students must be prepared to engage and converse intellectually, critically, and with a great level of maturity.

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