Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session

Screenings: 1 session / week, 2–4 hours / session


One subject in Literature or Comparative Media Studies.

This is an intermediate-level course. The prerequisite is broad and flexible: ideally, you will have taken one or two previous classes involving analytical writing in the humanities, and have some experience with either film or literary analysis. You can fulfill this with previous HASS courses at MIT; summer studies here or elsewhere; or AP work in the humanities in high school. In addition, I am willing to waive the prerequisite on a case-by-case basis as long as you understand the nature of the workload and expectations for the course. You do not need to have formally studied literature and film; I will be talking about how to do close analysis of texts throughout the semester, and we'll practice it every week in our seminar discussions.

Course Description

This course focuses on novels and films from the last twenty-five years (nominally 1985–2010) marked by their relationship to violence and transgression. Our texts will focus on serial killers, torture, rape, and brutality, but they also explore notions of American history, gender and sexuality, and reality television—sometimes, they delve into love or time or the redemptive role of art in late modernity. Our texts are a motley assortment, with origins in the U.S., France, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Japan and South Korea. The broad global era marked by this period is one of acceleration, fragmentation and late capitalism; however, we will also consider national specificities of violent representation, including particulars like the history of racism in the United States, the role of politeness in bourgeois Austrian culture, and the effect of Japanese manga on vividly graphic contemporary Asian cinema.

We will explore the politics and aesthetics of the extreme; affective questions about sensation, fear, disgust, and shock; and problems of torture, pain, and the unrepresentable. We will ask whether these texts help us understand violence, or whether they frame violence as something that resists comprehension; we will consider whether form mitigates or colludes with violence. Although we're focusing on contemporary controversial work, this course will hopefully give you a ground for thinking about extremity across a variety of historical, national, and even disciplinary borders.

Finally, we will continually press on the central term in the title of this course: what, specifically, is violence? (Can we only speak of plural "violences"?) Is violence the same as force? Do we know violence when we see it? Is it something knowable or does it resist or even destroy knowledge? Is violence a matter for a text's content—who does what, how, and to whom—or is it a problem of form: shock, boredom, repetition, indeterminacy, blankness? Can we speak of an aesthetic of violence? A politics or ethics of violence? Note the question that titles our last week: Is it the case that we are what we see? If so, what does our obsession with ultraviolence mean, and how does contemporary representation turn an accusing gaze back at us?


  • Seminar attendance and active, engaged participation are the foundation of this course. Thinking together is what a seminar is; therefore, your participation grade counts for a great deal of your final mark. Because time spent discussing and analyzing course material in the seminar cannot be made up, and because we only meet twelve total times, one unexcused absence will affect your grade and two unexcused absences will result in failing the course. (If you are sick or have another good excuse for being absent, email me.) It should go without saying that completing all readings and required screenings before class is of the utmost importance; doing so with a careful eye, and coming to class ready to talk about and critically unpack course material, is part of that preparation. Your participation grade encompasses far more than attendance, including a rigorous set of film and reading notes and articulate engagement in class discussions.
  • There are nine film screenings scheduled for this class. They will last 2–4 hours and the material covered therein is required. In some weeks, the screened material will constitute all of your required assignments for this course; in others, the films may be part of the assigned work with theoretical / critical readings and / or novels. Viewing the material before class is required whether you attend the screening or watch the films on your own. Acquiring the texts on your own is an option, but the variability of delivery time is not an excuse for being unprepared. You should take extensive notes during screenings: these will be helpful for class discussions and your papers, and they force you to watch the films critically. I will often give directions before the screenings with guidance on things to watch for.
  • Because this course is a seminar, responsibility for the content and rigor of class discussions lies with its participants. I will open each class by contextualizing that week's material, and if there is conceptual or historical background information that I think might be valuable, I'll present that as well. This is not a lecture class, however, and your individual intellectual interests will shape most of our discussion time.

You will be placed in groups that will rotate responsibility for guiding our class discussion. The group designation is merely an ordering principle: questions should be conceptualized, formulated, and presented individually. When it is your week, you will be asked to come to class having written and posted a weighty discussion question on our course website by midnight on the day before each class meeting. (Think: 4–5 sentences, minimum, and a significant, open, complex question or two.) Questions posted after midnight will not make it into the class plan for the next day, and will count against your grade. At some point during the morning before class, everyone should read and think about these questions; they will form the basis of our class discussions. When it is your group's week, I will ask you to present your question (you can summarize, but most students read a copy of it)—and you should be prepared for me to ask you follow-up questions or expand an aspect of it as a way into discussion.

Required Texts

There are four required books for this class. You will want to acquire them immediately—especially American Psycho, which you will start reading very soon.

  1. Major texts
  2. Buy at Amazon Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. Vintage, 1991. ISBN: 978067973577.

    Buy at Amazon Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club: A Novel. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. ISBN: 9780393039764.

    Buy at Amazon Cooper, Dennis. Frisk. Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

    Buy at Amazon Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2004. ISBN: 9780312422196. [Preview with Google Books]

  3. Shorter readings can be found on the calendar.

Further Readings & Viewings

A lot has been written about violence and representation, violence in American culture, violence and the media, etc., just as violence has been a central topic to so many filmmakers and authors. The works on these lists are intended to supplement and extend your interests in the work we do in this course.

Further Reading (PDF)

Further Viewing (PDF)


There will be three papers for this course: two short papers (4–5 pages each) and one longer final paper (8–10 pages). I will provide a long list of topics and questions for each paper for you to choose from. These will be analytical essays (with a thesis, textual analysis as evidence, a rigorous conclusion), they will be comparative (asking you to think about multiple texts from our course), and they will ask you to reflect on or engage with critical and theoretical questions. I encourage everyone to come talk to me early and often about assignments—I am happy to comment on your thesis, or first paragraph, or conclusion, if you want feedback during the writing process.

* Professor Brinkema's Note About This Course

This semester, we will continually examine the concept of "violence" in order to make it more complex, more diverse, more complicated, and—quite possibly—more opaque by the end of the semester than it was at the beginning. We will ask about historical versus individual forms of violence, sanctioned and unsanctioned violence, psychic versus physical violence, and even about whether formal devices constitute a kind of violence on the aesthetic level. Therefore, it should not go without saying that we already know what "violence" is, and thus this note is to be taken as posing the very problem we will be exploring this semester.

That having been said: there is no question that some of the films and novels we will be studying include acts of rape, torture, brutality, assault, and representations of pain and fear. Some of the films are rated NC-17. Some of the material is gross, much of it is disturbing—and we will be examining and theorizing the disturbing (as an aesthetic, a politics, an ethics). This is not to dissuade anyone from taking the course, but if you're particularly sensitive and do not think that you can get through this material, you may want to talk to me. Everyone is welcome to email me, come to office hours, or make an appointment at any time during the semester.

I work on this material constantly, as it is my research specialty, and I will say two final things about extreme texts. First, they can also be funny or loving or gentle or moving, and you should attend to the positive affective side of this kind of material as well. Second, violence catches us off guard. Be open to being surprised by your reactions: they may range from boredom and indifference to being bothered that you're bothered by something seemingly trivial. Attend to the affective (i.e. emotional, physical, visceral) experience of reading and watching this material: it's something that literary and film critics write and think about, and this semester, it's one of many ways to approach the texts. In addition, I often find that when I think and write analytically and curiously about disturbing material, it produces a new, often surprising relationship to it, makes it possible to tarry with dark things.

Literature Faculty Policy on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—the use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted and in all oral presentations. This includes images or texts in other media as well as materials collected online. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For guidance on attribution, consult*

* A teachable moment: The text in this paragraph was not created by me—it is the official policy of the Literature Section and all Lit faculty have it in their syllabi. So, to denote that I didn't write it, I should in theory put the entire paragraph in quotation marks and use an endnote / footnote to write the following citation: Literature Faculty Policy on Plagiarism, online text, available at, accessed September 1, 2013. If I had encountered this material in a book written by Jane Smith, I would cite it as:
Smith, Jane, "Literature Faculty Policy on Plagiarism," in Plagiarism Policies, ed. John Smith (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).