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Critic vs. Cliché

Semester and Year SP 2017
Course Number ELEC-GG2510
Section 001
Instructor Ben Ratliff
Days R
Time 6:20 PM - 9:00 PM
Units 4
Level G


Open to advanced undergraduates with permission of the instructor (


“Cliches invite you not to think,” wrote the literary critic Christopher Ricks, “but you may always decline the invitation.” Cliches can be bad for language, thought, and action, in that they serve efficiency and an abstract idea of power, and lead the user away from the truth. But we all use them, and to avoid them entirely may be impossible. Which makes the work of the cultural critic, part of whose job is to locate and question them wherever they occur, that much trickier and deeper. In this advanced writing seminar, we will move toward a sophisticated relationship with the cliche. What is the difference between cliche and idiom, meme, hype, tradition, archetype? Where do they live and breed? What do they accomplish? If, as Adam Phillips says, “cliches are there to stop us being suspicious,” can they be much more than a writer’s bad habit--can they be used for bullying and societal oppression? We will read criticism which notices the use of cliches (or received wisdom) in culture, by Gerald Early, Hannah Arendt, Margo Jefferson, and others, as well as some fiction (Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout) and satire; and writings on the subject of the cliche itself by critics, linguists, sociologists and others (Christopher Ricks, Orin Hargraves, George Orwell). Students will write critical essays in response to the readings, as well as to current cultural or social events, paying special attention to how cliches function in the subject itself and the discourse around it.


All Syllabi

Course Type

Graduate Electives (ELEC-GG)