I am finishing a book on "glamour" in modernist literature that looks at glamour as an aesthetic category specific to the twentieth century. My work considers the glamorization of the primitive, same-sex desire, and death in the early decades of the century and proposes a lineage that explains the effects of glamour on its object and viewing subject. I am particularly interested in those authors who pursue the contemporary sublime in their work, including Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Rhys, William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens. Her theoretical interests include visual culture, post-structuralism and the various identity studies (queer, gender, race) that emerge from it. I teach courses in modernism and other twentieth-century literatures. My graduate courses have included, or will include, a consideration of the "nothing" that drives modernism ("Regarding Nothing"), twentieth-century expressions of the sublime ("Sublime Variations"), and the technological framing of the primitive in the early twentieth century ("Modern Primitive").
My work has largely focused on the ways in which history, form, and affect converge in literary and cultural phenomena. In Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe, I argued that Poe was an prescient theorist of mass cultural dynamics in America, and that he was a prescient theorist because he was an imaginative practitioner—participation in American mass culture proceeding (stealth thesis) as a theory of that participation. I am currently completing a manuscript called On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty from Hobbes to Melville. It’s a book about Anglophone representations of non-European sovereign figures, and how these representations allow Anglo-Americans to express, repress, project, or otherwise disavow, contradictions between the ideals of sovereign legitimacy and liberal individualism. As with the book on Poe, I am concerned here with the ways in which affective states—pity, admiration, contempt—at once structure and are structured by the convergences of form and history falling under labels like "genre," "trope," "topos," etc. I am especially keen in this book to interrogate an influential line of thought in contemporary left social theory according to which sovereign violence and humanitarianism share a genealogy. I explore some contemporary versions of this argument in a forthcoming article called "Torture and Hyperbole."
My work is informed by a variety of theoretical approaches (deconstruction, psychoanalysis, systems theory, phenomenology, new historicism, science studies) and I regularly teach theory, philosophy, and criticism at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I have published essays on trauma theory, systems theory, contemporary film, race, and the concept of the archive, and I have taught graduate seminars in topics ranging from "Race and Sovereignty" to "Melville and Criticism" to "Lacan." My undergraduate teaching ranges from early American literature, nineteenth-century American literature, to special topics courses on "The 1930’s" and "Black Humor in 20 th-Century American Literature." I have directed or served on dissertations with topics like "Law and Native American Autobiography," "The Phenomenology of Possession in Antebellum American Literature," "Naturalism and Schizoanalysis," "Naturalism, Modernism, and Urban Narrative," "Modernism and Waste," and "Film Theory and Affect."
I am involved in various interdisciplinary groups, and have run a Seminar of Science, Language, and Culture that has invited N. Katherine Hayles, Susann Oyama, Andy Clark, Brian Massumi and others to campus for Colloquia. I am a longstanding member both of the American Studies Program, and the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and I have regularly convened or sponsored more or less informal reading group projects, ("Geography and Urbanism," "The 18 th-Century Black Atlantic," "The Phenomenologies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty").
I focus my research on American literature and culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, with an emphasis on the turn of the century. My current projects include "Novel Appetites: Eating and Meaning in Modernizing America," which looks at eating as a means of self-formation and boundary crossing in various writers from this transitional era (such as James, Chesnutt, Cahan, and Yezierska), and "Maladies of the Will," a more temporally sprawling endeavor that asks about the pathologies and uncertainties that result from modernity’s dual conceptualization of persons as wholly self-willing and as unprecedentedly determined by internal and external forces. I have two forthcoming articles related to this latter project: "Obsessional Modernity: The ’Institutionalization of Doubt,’" coming out in Critical Inquiry, which looks at the flurry of representations of obsessive-compulsive behavior in recent fiction, TV, and film in relation both to historical depictions of these symptoms and to the humanities/sciences divide; and "Poe’s Imp, Melville’s Formula," in the journal Fictions, a reading of ideés fixes in Poe's "Imp of the Perverse" and Melville’s "Bartleby."
I also have an ongoing interest in women as emblems of modernity (a major theme of my first book, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism [U. of Chicago Press 2004]) and I have a couple of pieces coming out on this subject as well. "The Biological Clock: Wharton, Naturalism, and the Temporality of Womanhood," to appear in American Literature, is part of an ongoing investigation into figures of technologized women in the modern era; and a contribution to the Blackwell Companion to American Fiction, 1900-1950 will focus on the modern woman’s story as it takes shape in often neglected "middlebrow" American writers from this era such as Edna Ferber, Robert Grant, Jessie Fauset, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Booth Tarkington, and Zona Gale.
Back in the day, I also published a lot of record reviews in such venues as Spin, The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Minneapolis Citypages.
For the most part, I work in two related areas of research. On the one hand, I keep up with feminist criticism and theory. Sandra Gilbert and I are working on the third edition of the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, and we are also co-editing a new Norton Reader of Criticism and Theory. I’ve also written a sort of revision of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: what would Virginia Woolf have made of the current situation of women? This is a question I try to answer in my book Rooms of Our Own. On the other hand, I also remain interested in issues related to the Holocaust. After the publication of Poetry After Auschwitz, I continue to write essays and teach courses on the impact of the Shoah on the cultures we inhabit.
At its core, my work has centered on the issue of influence. My primary research area concerns the historical production, dissemination and reception of various printed texts (a field that has come to be known as History of the Book studies), an interest motivated most fundamentally by a desire to understand how printed material functions as an agent of influence. How do books and other forms of printed material persuade, threaten, cajole, incite to action? How does reading material help shape ideas which drive individual and corporate behavior? In a more focused way, I am interested in the intersection between print and religion. Much of my own work deals with the power of print in various religious contexts.
In my research, I am currently at work on two longer projects. First, I have been doing extensive work in contemporary American religious publishing, where I have been examining how several religious communities – most notably the Mormons and the Jehovah Witnesses – continue to innovate in areas of printed communication in order to form and frame their religious communities. I have done quite a bit of writing recently on religion and print in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Second, I am working on a biographical project concerning the nineteenth-century Princeton Theologian Charles Hodge. Here again, I am interested in the issue of influence and how single individuals are able to exercise immense influence upon the societies in which they live. Using the work of the sociologist Randall Collins in part, I am interested in tracing Hodge’s influence not only through the massive amount of printed material he produced, but through the over 3000 students he taught during his lifetime, many of whom became important leaders in a wide variety of American institutions and settings.
My teaching is diverse, but at the graduate level I have recently taught seminars in antebellum American popular literature and studies in the theory and methods of history of the book scholarship. For more information about me and my work, please visit my website.
While I use some of my time trying to figure out issues of sexual and social modernity, much of my current concerns have hovered around U.S. urbanism and urbanity. My first book, Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (University of Chicago Press, 2007), tracked how modern artists and writers tweaked the standard formulas of "city mysteries" or "slumming" literatures in order to undermine the genre’s promise of subcultural revelation. Here I brought together an assortment of pieces by Jane Addams, Willa Cather, Richard Bruce Nugent, Carl Van Vechten, Djuna Barnes, and Wallace Thurman to explore how each refused the modern will to sexual knowledge regarding emergent U.S. underworlds. My new project, Another Country: The Cultural Politics of Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York University Press, under contract) tackles a complementary metropolitan narrative—the rural-to-urban flight to the city. It charts how U.S.-based queer artists wield what I call "rural stylistics" in order to fashion critiques against lesbian and gay metro-norms. Across decades and media, these stylistics include the anti-urbanities of 1970s journals by radical faeries and rural lesbian-separatists; the non-metronormative aesthetics of modernists such as Cather, Charles Demuth, and James Weldon Johnson; the southern backwardness of queer photographers such as Alabama-based artist Michael Meads; the fashion critiques of queer of color performance artist Sharon Bridgforth; and the shared critical rusticities of a few early twenty-first century graphic novels.
I’ve found that this research often bleeds into the undergraduate classrooms that I organize around special topics such as "Voyeurs/Vices/Vogues," "Masculinities and American Modernisms," and "Sex, Gender, and Modern American Literatures." It also crops up in several upper-level graduate seminars that I have conducted under titles ranging from "Sexologies" to "Regional U.S. Sexualities." And it has appeared—or, better, informed—some recent editorial work on "Reconceiving Regional Modernisms" as well as a new critical edition of Ralph Werther’s 1918 sexological memoir, Autobiography of an Androgyne (Rutgers University Press, 2008).
I started out as a modernist, with a book on role-playing and masks in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. I was then very under the spell of the literary anthropology of Helmuth Plessner, most particularly the notion that—since we are what we make of ourselves—our possibilities for being different from the norm (Plessner’s word for this was "eccentricity") are sheer endless. I am still attracted to Plessner’s theory—especially when we think of it as powerful antidote to cultural orthodoxy and nationalism. Nations have to be capable of imagining themselves "otherwise," as the philosopher Richard Kearney has said, and I have always been drawn to hybrid, bicultural, multilingual and sometimes marginalized figures such as Louis Agassiz, John James Audubon, and (lately) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the first white male to be kicked out of the canon, a poet who spoke nine languages fluently and was able to read perhaps a dozen more. I’m also fascinated by Steven Shapin’s insight that the "cultural dopes," the hard-working practitioners of culture, might be more important to study than the "isolated knowers who fabricate culture out of thin air."
My The Poetics of Natural History (1999) revives a largely neglected body of work by 19th century writers and artists, with a special interest in the intersections between textual and visual representations of American nature. My recent books Longfellow Redux (2006; paperback 2008) and Public Poet, Private Man (published by Harvard’s Houghton Library) offer a provocative cultural re-reading of America’s most popular and (today) most neglected poet. The method I use is an eclectic mix of cultural studies, History of the Book, and translation studies, combined with a profound commitment to accessible prose, instilled in me by my revered postdoctoral advisor, Daniel Aaron.
One of my other interests is editing – see my Library of America edition of John James Audubon’s Writings and Drawings, due out soon in a second edition, and a new Audubon edition, on which I am collaborating with the staff of the Field Museum in Chicago. In a future life, I would like to be able to edit the complete diaries of Annie Fields. On the IU campus, I am closely attached to the Lilly Library, one of the finest rare books libraries in the world and a boundless repository of sources also for the Americanist. I look forward to introducing graduate students to the delights of working with manuscripts and rare books.
Lawrence Buell’s version of ecocriticism – a form of Plessnerian "eccentricity" that questions the centrality of the human subject to representations of nature—has crucially shaped my own understanding of nature writing in both the United States and Canada. The most recent outcome of that side is an innovative new anthology I have co-edited with my colleague Alan Braddock at Temple University, A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Essays on American Art History (forthcoming in 2008), the first sustained attempt to apply ecocritical thought to the history of American art. For the last four years, I have also been working on a book, under contract with the University of Virginia Press, about the nineteenth-century anti-Darwinist, Swiss-born Louis Agassiz, which also seeks to understand the beginnings of graduate instruction as well as popular science writing in this country. In addition, I have been writing, jointly with Professor E. M. Kroller of the University of British Columbia, a book about an Ontario-based, influential family of scientists and writers, the McIlwraiths.
My general field is twentieth century American literature and culture. I am particularly concerned with exploring the political (utopian) hopes expressed by our society through its projects in science and technology. Race, as both a social and an analytic category, stands for what is most often at stake in the histories I engage and the readings I produce. My first book, Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space, is an incisive engagement with the science writing and science fiction produced by the modern spaceflight movement. As a history it takes seriously the (sometimes progressive) hopes of those scientists and engineers who wrote the space age into being as a great cultural project. As a critique it turns a cold eye on those narratives of disciplined futurism to which I, as an ordinary native of the 1960’s and ’70’s, was (and still am) vulnerable. My general research agenda is to recoup the liberatory potential of sciences and narratives ordinarily prescribed as closed to non-white, non-male, non-middle-class people. (Have I covered it all? By no means, the exclusions one might consider are finite but unbounded. Race, however, is a commodious term in which much else is implicated).
My current project is concerned with philosophical and social narratives emerging from SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), a relatively new science founded by astronomers and astrophysicists in the late 1950s. SETI science brings my research down to earth, so to speak, focusing on the expressive work of writer-scientists who explore the universe from home, building both new knowledge and the audiences for it. This work follows the general thrust of Astrofuturism in that it exploits my fascination with the process of how new sciences emerge that speak from and to the cultural circumstances and political imperatives of our time. However, my concern in this work is less with the making of the future (even though this is never far away) and more with the genesis, structure and meaning of the evolutionary narratives we employ to explain its emergence. If we can sustain disciplined arguments in the existence of life and intelligence elsewhere then how do we search for it and why? What effect would it have on us to encounter an actually alien race, a species unrelated to our biology and history, who could talk (and, perhaps answer) back? On what basis could we understand one another? How would such a discovery effect “our” persistent claims of privilege in cultural and natural life? Would human beings mature, even follow the lead of older, wiser beings to some blessed age? Would we fail instead, having been removed as the pinnacle of creation, falling into extinction? As it argues for its place SETI asks these questions and proposes extrapolations worthy of thought. It should not be surprising that the hypothetical scenarios produced within SETI are a consequence and, in some cases, a self-conscious dissent from the legacy of terrestrial exploration. Therefore, it is the historical tradition of race and empire that sets the stage for SETI and sparks my engagement with this interaction between science and literature.
My teaching is divided between my core area of science and literature and more traditional courses in twentieth century American literature. Currently I am teaching a Ph. D. seminar on the function and implications of evolutionary narrative in robotics, artificial intelligence and SETI. Recent graduate courses include general surveys in science fiction, fantasy and utopian literature. These classes are as much about British initiatives in these genres as they are about American traditions. In speculative literatures, as in science, national borders exist but are not able to contain influence and exchange. For undergraduates I teach classes in twentieth century American and African-American fiction, mostly around urban literature and culture. And, naturally, courses in science fiction and science fiction cinema. Future plans include courses in African American writing in science fiction and fantasy, African American film, visual culture (i.e. comic books and graphic novels), science writing, and American Studies.
My current book project, Playing in the White: Black Writers, White Subjects, considers how postwar African American authors represent whiteness. White life novels like Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwannee and Richard Wright's Savage Holiday are uneasy additions to the African American canon because they explore the lives of white characters. By undermining expectations of what constitutes the province of black literature, they demand that we move beyond conventional reading practices. My interest in representations of whiteness extends to 21st century novels by American writers of various backgrounds.
In my first book, The Shadow and the Act (University of Chicago Press, 2009), I connected writings on jazz to the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, particularly its support for more freedom for individuals and more democratic societies. In that work, I examine the way that Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka responded to and elaborated on that philosophical lineage, showing how they significantly broadened it by addressing the African American experience, especially its aesthetics. Ultimately, I argue, the trio enacted pragmatist principles by effectively communicating the social and political benefits of African Americans fully entering society, thereby compelling America to move closer to its democratic ideals.
I work in the field of contemporary American literature and culture, with particular emphasis on science and speculative fiction, gender and queer theory, and feminist science studies. My research and teaching bring together the study of subject formation with paradigms drawn from posthuman theory that shift focus to the ecological, embodied, and affective. In both instances, my aim is to interrogate the emerging episteme heralded by the Anthropocene in its differential distributions of gendered, sexed, and racialized valuation and vulnerability.
In my first book, The Lyric in the Age of the Brain, I investigate how contemporary poets writing since the cognitive revolution have reframed the timeless problem of body and mind, at once cultivating and critiquing our tendency to regard the mind as a part of nature—as mechanistic, as chemically and evolutionarily determined, and as an object of science. I argue that the discourses of mind science, in ratifying and promoting physiological accounts of inner life, have transformed how we imagine the deepest emotional and intellectual sources of poetry, and that American poetry's themes, forms, and very self-conception have adapted in response.
In both research and teaching, I am interested in contemporary and historical Latina/o literatures and in 19th and 20th-century American literature. Broadly speaking, my work explores the relationship between race, gender, and the nation, and how notions of belonging at all levels are shaped by regional, national, and transnational networks.
Located at the intersection of performance studies, queer studies, and American studies, my research and teaching are broadly concerned with the ways that social relations are imagined and reimagined through American performance practices. I am currently completing a book about the relationship between cabaret performance and African American literature in the 1920s and 1930s. This book looks at how various writers and performers used the cabaret to critique the sexual and racial normativity that organized the Harlem Renaissance and Progressive-era politics of racial uplift. I am also interested in modern and contemporary American drama as a reflexive institution of American modernity, one that allows performers, writers, and directors to use theatrical innovation and experimentation to address and redress the social conditions of modern American life. I have published articles on nightlife and the Harlem Renaissance, the history of American cabaret, and contemporary theatre and performance. I regularly teach courses on modern and contemporary American drama, dramatic theory, queer performance, and performance studies.