Spring 2019

Hyperbole: Sense, Sensation, Spectacle

Hyperbole—flagrant rhetorical exaggeration—was defined by the Roman philosopher Seneca as the affirmation of the incredible or false to arrive at the credible or true. Given the term’s etymology, which literally means “over-throwing” or throwing beyond, it should not be surprising that many have found in it a revolutionary potential. Aristotle associated hyperbolic vehemence with anger and youth. What are the advantages and disadvantages of overstatement versus understatement, immoderation versus moderation, in the search for truth? On the one hand, hyperbole has been viewed as a path or method to attain truth, as though overreaching were the only way to arrive at the facts of the matter. On the other hand, hyperbole often seems unreliable because one cannot always trust bodily sense and sensation, much less an immoderate speaker’s temper. When reaching toward the credible, hyperbole links itself with sense-as-truth, though perhaps a truth found at the level of sensation, of sense as embodiment or affect. When inflating toward the boastful, however, hyperbole collapses into spectacle. Across historical periods and discursive conditions, hyperbole has been characteristically split between—or articulated along the fissures that mark—these modalities of representation.

Is the problem with hyperbole in the world, in an incredible truth, or in us, in our recourse to outrageous styles of representation? This semester we will pursue the question of hyperbole, tracing sense, sensation and spectacle along the division between world and representation. We will examine its appearance in many guises, under the rubrics of camp, poetics, performance studies, popular culture, media theory, affect theory, genre studies, and beyond.  Over the course of the semester we aim to scrutinize a set of practices that have been and continue be used to pump up audiences, to diffuse tragedies into comedies, to skewer normativity, and to reach by overreaching what otherwise seems unreachable.