English 165

Special Topics: Genres of Free Speech

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2017 Lavery, Grace
MW 5-6:30 183 Dwinelle

Book List

The Book of Lamentations; Augustine: Confessions; Foucault, Michel: Fearless Speech; Pope, Alexander: The Dunciad; Shakespeare, W: King Lear; Silverman, Sarah: Jesus Is Magic; Simpson, O. J.: If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer; Solanas, Valerie: SCUM Manifesto; Walker, David: Walker's Appeal


We endure a difficult relation to free speech. Most arguments on the topic, whether for or against, focus on the capacity of language to harm others, directly or indirectly, and therefore concern the scope and nature of necessary prohibitions of speech. In this class, we will approach the topic quite differently, and ask how we recognize free speech, whether in ourselves or others; how we differentiate it from “unfree” speech; and how it may variously enable or jam the operations of power. First, we will pursue these questions in philosophical, theoretical, and psychoanalytical registers, and inquire whether free speech is desirable (with Kant), whether it is psychologically possible (with Freud), and whether the public telling of unpopular truths may weaken, rather than regulate, the democratic institutions the practice apparently serves to uphold (with Foucault). We will quickly, however, move on to consider the more practical and more literary-historical matter of genres of free speech, and examine the literary modes most associated with risky truth-telling. These will include: the jeremiad, in which the ruin of a civilization is prophesied, at risk to the prophet’s position and reputation (Lamentations, David Walker); the comedy, in which the privileged figure of the fool is empowered to disclose unspeakable political truths (King Lear, Sarah Silverman); the confession, in which a guilty party discloses the nature of his crimes under condition of aesthetic absolution (O. J. Simpson, Augustine); and the polemic, in which an apparently outrageous discourse articulates the social location of subjects outside the bounds of mainstream opinion (The SCUM Manifesto, A Modest Proposal). The class will therefore assess through historical examples Plato’s famous exclusion of poets from his ideal Republic, and will maintain an occasional focus on the frequent (and, indeed, often jeremiadical, comic, confessional, and/or polemical) evocations of free speech in our contemporary historical and institutional climate.

The texts for this course will be available at University Press Books, on Bancroft Way.

This section of English 165 is open to English majors only.

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