“The pen is mightier than the sword.” In this course, we will probe the complex relationship between writing and violence, metonymically hinted at in this popular saying, which reassuringly identifies writing as a more effective alternative to violence, but also – more troublingly – as a superior weapon. The complexity lurks in the word “might”, which – also troublingly – rhymes with “right”. What, then, does the relationship between writing and violence have to do with questions of power and potential, justice and what counts as normal? We will approach this question from three perspectives, considering writing about violence, writing on the side of violence, and writing against violence. We will try to trace the shadow of violence in the history of writing and to locate its function in the formation of classical genres and conventions of literature, in order to scrutinize their influence and transformation in contemporary writing, both fictional and non-fictional. Throughout, we will refer to different theoretical accounts of violence and test their value in understanding the potential of writing to serve or check, expose or veil, normalize or counteract, face or avert violence. Recognizing the capacity of writing to reflect on its own troubled relationship with violence, we may also ask how it can empower readers to respond critically to violence, in literature and in life.
Topics to be discussed may include the following: concepts of violence; violence and power; censorship and violence; literary history of violence (e.g. the role of violence in different genres); violence and identification; writing and passion; constitutive and conflicting perspectives on violence (victim/survivor, perpetrator, witness); writing and visual representations of violence; violence and entertainment; non-violence and writing.
The course intends to engage students in critical thinking and arguments about the relationship between writing and violence, based on an informed awareness of the role that violence has played in the formation of classic literary genres and conventions as well as the capacity of writing to critically expose and address causes and motives of violence. The course will offer students opportunities to develop their powers of critical analysis, argument and communication, in both speech and writing.
- Recognize the role of violence in different genres of writing and their formal function and significance.
- Question and critically interrogate representations of violence in writing with reference to relevant research and textual analysis.
- Express their own attitudes and responses toward violence in language and representation while reflecting on other viewpoints.
- Demonstrate a critical awareness of globalized discursive frameworks and how they relate to different perceptions and representations of violence.
- Recognize and demonstrate the critical capacity of literary and rhetorical analysis to respond to instances of violence in the world.
We will meet for three hours every week, divided into a two-hour and one-hour session. The longer sessions will be a combination of lecture and discussion, which may also include student presentations, while the shorter sessions are intended for a tutorial-style discussions and will also include student presentations.
Assessment is by 100% coursework, consisting of
Attendance and contribution to class activities and discussions: 10%
Oral presentation: 15%
Mid-term essay: 25%
Term paper: 50%
The following fictional texts will provide the core of our reading and discussion:
Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948), online at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/06/26/the-lottery
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (2018)
Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (2008), backed up by Shakespeare’s text (published 1603-1623)
George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945), online at http://www.george-orwell.org/Animal_Farm/index.html
Ursula Le Guin, The Word For World Is Forest (1972), online at https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-word-for-world-is-forest-1
Additional non-fictional, critical and theoretical texts will be introduced in the course.