COMPLIT 241 - Topics in Comparative Literature
Section: 001 Let's Get Lost: The Hip and the Cool in American Literature and Film
Term: FA 2008
Subject: Comparative Literature (COMPLIT)
Department: LSA Comparative Literature
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The American vernacular word "hip" comes from the Wolof word hepi, which means "to open one's eyes." Through the lens of hipness, the history of America and American culture can be read as a story of recognitions, reciprocal "eye-openings" between people with different viewpoints, experiences, and desires – in other words, as a story of getting hipped. But it is also a story about misrecognitions and miscommunications, sometimes comic and sometimes tragic, that can remind us of the risks and the difficulties of keeping your eyes open, of staying hip, without becoming too hip for your own good. By a parallel inheritance, the concept of "cool" in our popular culture and slang derives from a concept in Yoruba spirituality that associates serene and unflappable composure with social order, fertility, and just government. Hence keeping your cool means maintaining a sense of identity, perspective, and morality in a threatening and deceptive environment – not unlike that of America itself. Amidst the pleasures and dangers of the American landscape, the challenge of keeping your cool is matched by the perhaps even greater threat of becoming too cool for school, too aloof and high-minded to take part in the noble promiscuity that distinguishes our culture.

The story that unfolds between these twin concepts is marked by the urgent struggle to find a common viewpoint and a common language – a struggle to translate our experiences for each other, without losing that experience, or ourselves, in translation. At the same time, this story is marked by the ongoing fantasy of flight, the dream of perpetual escape and self-reinvention, that underwrites a good part of the American cultural imaginary. The title of a documentary on Chet Baker, jazz trumpeter and one of hip's more spectacular casualties, sums up the cool duplicity of this dream, both for better and for worse: Let's Get Lost.

In this course, we will examine what could be called the twin project of hipness and coolness in American life through its literary and cinematic forms of expression from the late 19th century to the present, with the ultimate aim of developing students' understanding of, and skills in, comparative methods of criticism. From the archetypally hip decision of Huck Finn to the unhip racial and social apocalypse of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, we will trace how hip exchanges take place across economic, sociopolitical, and linguistic divides, how coolness is negotiated and renegotiated in the face of new possibilities and new dangers, and how both concepts find differentiated expression in literary and cinematic artifacts.. The aim of the course is to hone students' capacities to read and perceive critically, to draw parallels and distinctions in a comparative and intertextual context, and to argue their insights effectively in writing. Class time will be balanced between brief lectures, guided discussion of the texts and films, and peer editing workshops of student writing.

COMPLIT 241 - Topics in Comparative Literature
Schedule Listing
001 (SEM)
MWF 12:00PM - 1:00PM
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