College Of Arts And Sciences | Comedies and Tragedies of Communication
E103 | 0044 | Smith, C.


This course focuses on how two attitudes toward communication clash
and blend in everyday life.  The tragic attitude toward communication
suggests that people seldom if ever genuinely understand one another,
that our attempts to understand one another are thwarted by various
forces, and even that we don’t really have the desire to understand
one another.  As a consequence of this attitude, feelings of doubt,
confusion, anxiety, and fear are magnified.  What we don’t
understand, we may seek to destroy, thus getting rid of symptoms of
insufficiency or anxiety that trouble us and make us suffer.  One
particularly tragic attitude toward communication tells us to use
force rather than language to resolve conflict, to go to war when
understanding between parties falters.  And yet a tragic attitude
communication may encourage respect for the dignity of another person
or group’s difference, their unknowability.  The comic attitude
toward communication suggests that misunderstanding is a resource for
enjoyment, not conflict, fear, and aggression.  But the consequences
of this attitude are mixed, and include delight in the pain of
others, lapses in self-respect, and a paralyzing inability to
appreciate the severity of and urgency of certain situation.  While a
splendid corrective to the tragic attitude toward communication,
comedy has its own pitfalls.

Divisions between people which make understanding difficult, or even
impossible, may be met either tragically or comically.  Our
differences in race, gender, class, sexuality, and religious heritage
may be addressed with various attitudes.  When we select an attitude
toward difference, we begin committing to ways of acting, believing,
valuing, and knowing.  For this reason, tragedy and comedy are not
merely genres of human action nor is each merely a private impression
one has about other people.  Tragic and comic attitudes toward
communication furnish equipment for living, understanding, and acting
in the complexities of the social world.  We will consult various
resources to explore the cultural and communicative contexts in which
tragic/comic attitudes may be employed to get leverage on life and
situations.  History, fiction, film, non-fiction, virtual reality,
city streets, and coffee shops—all are sites at which you may
encounter and experience the tragedies and comedies of communication.

There will be two tests in this course, a mid-term and a final
examination.  Both will be take-home, essay exams.  In addition,
there will be two shorter writing assignments based upon class
readings, lectures, and discussions.  A variety of in-class exercises
will be performed, some of them asking you to imaginatively “occupy”
the perspective of a person you devalue and to try to see the world
through their eyes.  Is life tragic or comic?  What do you yourself
look like from other points of view?  The exams, writing assignments,
and in-class exercises will all ask you to entertain the complexity
of human social life and communication, and will supply you with the
opportunity to regard tragedy and comedy as lifestyle choices and
equipment for living as we approach the next millennium.