RH 189 & ENG 165 | On Lies, Lying, & Liars

2020 Spring

Ramona Naddaff, Linda Kinstler, & Ismail Muhammad

Lies and lying have recently been the subject of much intellectual debate, social and political anxiety, and ethical and psychological consternation. Yet contemporary discourses on lying often forgets that lies—like truth—have a history, and a long one at that. The history of lying is at the very center of the rhetorical, political, philosophical, and literary tradition. Lying and its many variants–deception, diplomacy, politesse–have long shaped our understanding of self, society, and identity.

This course examines the uneasy relation between lying and identity from Plato, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Proust to Derrida and beyond. In-depth readings from canonical philosophical, literary, political and historical works are interwoven with case-studies on particular (and often peculiar) liars—be they con artists, financiers, artists, or writers. While most writings on lies and lying tend to take seriously only the moral dimensions of falsity—“Is it good or bad to lie?” “Under what conditions is a lie morally permissible?”—we attempt to understand what is at stake for individuals when and if they choose mendacity.

This course is not only a reading-intensive course. It is also writing-intensive, designed to teach students how to write clear, critical, and persuasive prose across a broad range of genres. While we concentrate on the art of writing an essay, we also experiment with other modes of writing, such as the book review, the memoir, the op-ed, the blog post, and the email. Each week, we study readings on the essential elements of composition, analyzing the art of the sentence and the paragraph.