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124263 KO Critical Media Analysis (2016W)

Epic Fails: Bad Culture, Cult, & Community

6.00 ECTS (2.00 SWS), SPL 12 - Anglistik
Continuous assessment of course work

Recent years have a seen a new prestige attributed to the art of the ‘bad’. The opening of the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts lead the way for a series of exhibits celebrating the creative potential of failure: 'Fail Better', 'Permission to Fail', 'Canceled: Alternative Manifestations & Productive Failures'. The internet has enabled the rise of cult communities dedicated to celebrating the aesthetic potential and group pleasures of the comic misfire, from public screenings of notorious films (The Room, Troll 2), through anti-comedy (Andy Kaufman, Neil Hamburger), to lo-fi meme aesthetics, fan-fics and YouTube communities (Bad Movies). Blurring the lines further, many of these misfires have become the subject of more traditionally successful mainstream texts, from Meryl Streep’s recent portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins to James Franco’s The Masterpiece. If Matthew Arnold explicitly excluded the ‘bad’ from Culture (as ‘the best that has been thought and said’) at the end of the 19th century, and Susan Sontag heralded a ‘new sensibility’ in the 1960s in which ‘the distinction between “high” and “low” culture seems less and less meaningful’, we seem to find ourselves at a moment in which the pleasures of the ‘bad’ centre the canon. The moment is ripe for such an inversion of perspective, as the critical field is organised increasingly around the liberating, de-subjugating, communal enjoyment of the ‘bad’. Roxanne Gay’s 'Bad Feminist' reinvigorates contemporary feminist debates by exploring the ways in which gender identity and inequality are shaped by the ephemeral, the trashy, the popular. Douglas Mao & Rebecca L. Walkowitz’s 'Bad Modernism' teases out the contradictions in modernism’s commitment to badness, as its status as a subversive aesthetic intervention is undermined as soon as it is accepted as ‘good’ or valuable. Capturing the critical Zeitgeist, Mark O’Connell’s 2015 monograph Epic Fails offers a detailed, scholarly ‘History of the Worst Thing Ever’.


Note: The time of your registration within the registration period has no effect on the allocation of places (no first come, first served).


max. 30 participants
Language: English


Classes (iCal) - next class is marked with N

Monday 10.10. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 17.10. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 24.10. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 31.10. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 07.11. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 14.11. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 21.11. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 28.11. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 05.12. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 12.12. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 09.01. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 16.01. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 23.01. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17
Monday 30.01. 12:00 - 14:00 Raum 5 Anglistik UniCampus Hof 8 3E-O1-17


Aims, contents and method of the course

In this course we will retrace these variously subjugating and transgressive ideas of the inferior, the ephemeral, and the ‘bad’ and explore how they allow a Culture Studies perspective to move out towards the margins of culture for the politics, identities, communities, and ways of living situated there. Students will gain a detailed literacy in the first principles of Cultural Media Analysis by exploring the genealogy of modern distinctions between ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’. Together, we will discuss relevant questions: Are these distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ essential or non-essential? What is their history? How is this history organised by ideology and power relations? In what ways are our concepts of the ‘bad’ shaped by normative categories of gender, sexuality, class, and race? How can we theorise the pleasures of the bad, its potential for transgressive politics and its amenity to subcultural group identities and ways of living?

Central to these theoretical inquiries will be Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of taste as an ideological category, Umberto Eco’s analysis of ‘Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage’ and definitions of camp aesthetics from Susan Sontag to Richard Dyer. However, this vantage also allows us to review, in detail, a number of crucial Culture Studies perspectives and aesthetic lenses, from subcultures, bricolage, and culture jamming, through the cultural injunctions of Leavisism, the Frankfurt School, and postmodernism, to Richard Hoggart’s pluralistic emphasis on the communal and everyday and Raymond William’s ‘Structure of Feeling’. Together, by taking a closer look at the cults and communities that arise around ‘bad culture’, we will gain greater insight into the ways in which we reveal ourselves to one another and forge communities.

The syllabus is open to student input and feedback depending on individual research projects and presentations, but the central outline of the course is as follows. We will begin with the cult of Amanda McKittrick Ros, whose ‘purple’ prose was so beloved by Lewis and Tolkien that they would hold ‘sporadic Ros reading competitions, in which the winner was the member who could read from one of her novels for the longest without breaking into laughter’. Ros will allow us to consider not only the aesthetic and social conditions of cult communities, but also the ways in which such phenomena can be marked by gender, class, and race. We will also consider similarly received texts in diverse genres, such as the infamous The Eye of Argon, the ‘worst fantasy novel ever’ which has become the subject of a science fiction convention party game in which the winner is the person who can read the story aloud the longest without laughing. Considering Bad Culture and Modernism, we will discuss the intentionally bad puns of Myles na gCopaleen, James Joyce’s pastiches of bad-writing in “Eumaeus”, and the aesthetic of comic failure that underpins Samuel Beckett’s prose and plays. Turning to post-modern cultures, we will consider the rise of mass culture and genre – from comic books and romance novels to trashy B-movies (Ed Wood) – and the cults/communities that arose around them. After a discussion of Pop Art and Outsider Art, we will look at the camp politics of Rocky Horror Picture Show and John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray), the countercultural scenes of avant-garde music and comedy that embrace the bad as a critique of mainstream culture (The Shaggs, ZCR, Tim & Eric, Neil Hamburger, On Cinema at the Cinema, Decker). Finally, we will turn to the present Remix Culture, to discuss lo-fi meme aesthetics, online fan-fics, viral hits, YouTube communities, and contemporary modes of culture jamming and culture hacking.

Assessment and permitted materials

Presentation, discussion, essay, poster.

Minimum requirements and assessment criteria

Examination topics

Reading list

Selected Primary bibliography

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 1984).
Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art (New York: Praeger, 1972).
Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (eds.), Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays on Popular Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).
Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment (London: Routledge, 2002).
Umberto Eco, ‘Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage’, in Faith in Fakes: Essays, trans. William Weaver (London: Secker and Warburg, 1986), 197–200.
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays (Harper Perennial, 2014).
Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds.), Bad Modernisms, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).
Mark O’Connell, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever (The Millions, 2015).
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966).
Raymond Williams, ‘The Analysis of Culture’, in John Storey (ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. 2nd Edition (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 48–56.

Association in the course directory

Studium: UF 344, BA 612, BEd 046
Code/Modul: UF 4.2.5-426, BA07.3; BEd 08a.2, BEd 08b.1
Lehrinhalt: 12-4260

Last modified: Mo 07.09.2020 15:33