St/Lit Crit Theory (Theorizing the Comic)

“There are three things that are real: God, human folly, and
laughter.  Since the first two pass our
comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.”

                        (The Ramayana, as
told by Aubrey Menen).



Theorizing The Comic:

This course will use the structure “Modern/Postmodern” to
organize an exploration of literary theory. 
The thematic of “The Comic” will give students a focus for this
exploration and suggest how theory becomes critical practice.  Key primary texts will provide sites for that
practice.  Recent historical accounts of
theorizing about The Comic make a major division into “modern” and “postmodern”
statements.  Students in the course will
read some of those theoretical statements alongside more broad pronouncements
about the terms “modern/postmodern” and apply them to the primary texts. We
will start with some classic statements about The Comic that predate the
modern/postmodern debate to prime the pump.


Student Learning Outcomes

This course has several goals: first, to develop skills in
argumentative writing by addressing issues connected with the complexity of
understanding theory in general, and theory about comic art and comic laughter
in particular; second, to develop skills in researching the relevant issues;
third, to appreciate the variety of comic art by focusing on craft–the tactics
and strategies used to create successful comic art.  Overall, students should gain proficiency in
critical thinking and research skills as well as an appreciation for the complexity
of theorizing about comic artifacts.



participation, and quizzes (10%)

3 Reading
Responses 1-2 pp. (15%):

3 Research
Summaries 1-2 pp. (15%)

Proposal 1 page (5%):

Paper 12 pp. plus works cited (30%):


Final exam


The research summaries focus on the secondary material, and
the reading responses focus on primary material, with some attempt to use
theoretical statements.  These short
writing assignments will function as drafts for the research paper, that is,
students will be invited to use their short writing as foundations that can be
elaborated.  In this way, students will
experience the layering of materials that occurs in a research project as well
as have practice in revising.  Feedback
on the short assignments will help to guide students toward the topic for the
research paper.  The proposal will
provide a more formal moment for feedback. 
Drafts of the research paper will be handed in early enough for more
feedback before the final due date.


This course is writing intensive.


for a Reading/Viewing List


  • Beckett, Samuel: Mercier and
  • Chaplin, Charles: Modern
  • DeLillo, Don: White Noise
  • Emshwiller, Carol: Carmen
  • Kubrick, Stanley: Dr.
  • Pynchon, Thomas: The Crying
    of Lot 49
  • Other possibilities:
  • The Colbert Report
  • The Simpsons
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force
  • Comic memes, e.g “I Can Has



N.B.  We will NOT read all of the following: these
titles are only meant to suggest a possible range from which the critical foci
of the course will come.


  • Plato, Philebus
    [excerpt] [47a – 51a]
  • Aristotle, The Poetics
    [excerpt] [1449]
  • Addison and Steele, Tatler
    #12, 63, 242; Spectator #23, 35, 47, 249, 381


  • Umberto Eco, “The Comic and The
  • Sigmund Freud, “Humour” and/or
    “Jokes and the Species of The Comic”
  • Suzanne Langer, “The Great
    Dramatic Forms: The Comic Rhythm”
  • Northrop Frye, “The Argument of
  • Wolfgang Zucker, “The Clown as
    the Lord of Disorder”
  • Jim Holt, “You Must Be Kidding”
  • R. B. Gill, “Why Comedy Laughs:
    The Shape of Comedy and Laughter”
  • Dacher Keltner, “In Defense of


  • Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity vs.
  • Jean-Francois Lyotard,
    “Defining the Post-Modern”
  • Jan Hokenson, “The Late Modernist
    Conception of Comedy: Premises and Elisions”
  • Jerry Flieger, “Postmodernism:
    A Case of the Comic”
  • Patrick O’Neill, “Entropy: The
    Loss of Certainty,” from The Comedy of Entropy: Humour/
  • —. “Humour: Reconstructing a
    Spectrum,” from The Comedy of Entropy
  • Kirby Olson, Intro from Comedy
    after Postmodernism
  • Susan Purdie, Intro from Comedy:
    The Mastery of Discourse
  • Georges Bataille, “The
    Unknowing: Tears and Laughter”