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.


All lectures begin at 6 p.m. unless otherwise noted, and are held in the Daniel Family Commons, which is located in the Usdan University Center.

The Work of Art in the Age of Half-Hearted Reproducibility


CATHERINE DAMMAN • Andrew W. Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow, Wesleyan University 

This Face is Not For Us: Thinking Escape in Queer Visual Narratives 


KATHERINE BREWER BALL • Wesleyan University

The History of Extra, or The Sound of Hyperbole in Three Scenes


ROGER GRANT • Wesleyan University

Etcetera: On Hyperbolic Description


CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON • Arizona State University

Plato on the Possibility of a Reality-Based Community


TUSHAR IRANI • Wesleyan University

Only Connect: On Blackness and Brownness


TAVIA NYONG'O • Yale University

Marking Time: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration


NICOLE FLEETWOOD • Rutgers University

Hyperbole as community performance: an unbelievable breakthrough from STS


STEVE WOOLGAR  • Oxford University and Linköping University

Truing Psychology and What about its Objects?


JILL MORAWSKI • Wesleyan University

The Gimmick as Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form


SIANNE NGAI • University of Chicago

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News


KEVIN YOUNG • Director of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and  Poetry Editor ofThe New Yorker Magazine