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Fall 2009

'The Mirror of Custom': Comedy and the Arts of Living in Society

Instructors: Kathryn Bosher (Classics), Thomas Simpson (French & Italian), William N. West (English, Classics, and Comparative Studies)

As a mode, comedy can be critical, affirmative, adaptive, or all three.  It shows both a society's limitations and how they can be negotiated and lived within; it can point out the forces and actions that fracture societies, but can also be tolerant of the ways in which societies open themselves to change.  It can suggest flexibility, practicality, acceptance, contingency, or it can police norms and reject deviations from it.  At its most narrow, comedy can be brutally exclusive, punishing and rejecting those who do not conform to a society's demands. At its most open, though, comedy promises that there is place for everyone within a society.  Comedy shows that each community discovers tensions between its desires and its rules, what it demands and expects and forbids, and that the art of living within a society is the tempering of these competing demands in ways that do not destroy either the group or those within it. Perhaps most interestingly to us, comedy as a mode supplies us with the idea that a society can be transformed for the better rather than either being simply accepted or rejected.

Winter 2010

The Good Society and the Question of Species

Instructors: Susan Pearson (History), Laurie Shannon (English), Mary Weismantel (Anthropology, Spanish & Portuguese)

A search for "the good life" -- in and through optimal forms of a "good society" -- registers as a persistent concern across time and place. Social visions range, of course, from the pragmatic to the utopian and from the progressive to the traditional. Since the classical period in the West, however, working definitions of "society" have limited the engagements we term "social" to relations between and among human beings alone. While Aristotle characterized humans as "political animals," his extremely influential remarks denying animals a socio-political life may serve as one of the most explicit examples of rejecting the possibility of social participation across species. To cite only a very recent echo of this view, philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggested that "human politics is distinguished from that of other living beings in that it is … tied to language" and based "on a community not simply of the pleasant and the painful but of the good and the evil and the just and the unjust." For the most part, however, such exclusions of non-human animals from conceptions of "society" and political life simply go without saying. But as even these exclusionary formulations show, from the very beginning there is no "human" society without first taking up the question of animals, by whom "the human" is measured and the boundaries of social membership are set.

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