The Observed Life: Gossip, Secrecy, and the Circulation of Social Knowledge


The practice of gossip is as old as language itself, assuming a dominant role in our daily interactions and calling up powerful cultural embodiments from Virgil’s creaturely portrayal of the goddess Fama, covered with a multitude of eyes, ears, and tongues, to the disembodied voice-over and distilled malice of Kristen Bell’s Gossip Girl. Confronting the negative connection of gossip with women and its progressive denigration as a loose, idle, and unproductive mode of speech, feminists—and other subgroups/counterpublics—have sought to reclaim gossip as a form of subjugated and subversive discourse, resistant to and critical of majority culture. Other gossip theorists in the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and communication theory have explored how gossip functions both as an instrument of behavioral control and as a form of exchange in which information is lucratively traded for other goods in the social marketplace. We’ll be drawing on these theorizations of gossip and considering how useful they are for capturing its operations in different historical moments, across oral, scribal, printed, and digital media, and within changing legal and normative conceptions of public-private relations. Most important, we’ll be exploring gossip’s hermeneutic power as a narrative model, pressing the continuities between sites, protocols, and modes of gossip and works of literature which not only thematize its practice but reflect on their relation to its forms.

The seminar is designed to model the sort of flexible, multileveled analysis that I wish you to pursue in your Honors Essay. I do not expect to resolve the generic and methodological complexities we encounter, nor do I intend to marshal our texts into a definitive or unified narrative. It is my hope that the very heterogeneity of our reading might help to suggest the range of projects that can spring from our central theme.

Learning Goals
By the end of the semester you should be able to:

  • Bring local, dynamic, and form-sensitive interpretations together to pose questions, locate contradictions, and frame arguments.
  •  Glean essential and experimental ideas from academic writing that may be dense, abstract, or otherwise alienating, and interplay your own ideas with them.
  • Identify genuine intellectual problems and conduct original research, attentive both to the conventions of literary analysis and the boundaries of disciplinary thinking.
  • Find and incorporate relevant source materials into your writing, using appropriate scholarly resources such as books, journals, indexes, online catalogues, web search engines, and libraries. Learn correct citation methods (Chicago style, MLA), and use of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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