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Critic vs. Cliché

Semester and Year FA 2019
Course Number ELEC-GG2510
Section 001
Instructor Ben Ratliff
Days Thu
Time 6:20 PM - 9:00 PM
Units 4
Level G


Open to seniors with permission of the instructor (


“Clichés invite you not to think,” wrote the literary critic Christopher Ricks, “but you may always decline the invitation.” Clichés 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 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 cliché. What is the difference between cliché and idiom, meme, tradition, trope, archetype, stereotype? Where do they live and breed? What do they accomplish? If, as Adam Phillips says, “clichés are there to stop us being suspicious,” can they be much more than a writer’s bad habit--can they even be used for societal oppression? Or, conversely, can they bring people together? We will read criticism which notices the use of clichés in many forms of culture, by Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Margo Jefferson, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, D.H. Lawrence; we will also study its use in fiction (Paul Beatty), drama (Samuel Beckett), visual art (Kara Walker), poetry (John Ashbery) and music. Students will write critical essays in response to the readings, as well as to current cultural or social events, paying special attention to how clichés function in the subject itself and the discourse around it.


All Syllabi

Course Type

Graduate Electives (ELEC-GG)