Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor; Chair, Department of English; Department of Visual Arts; Committee on the History of Culture; Coeditor, Critical Inquiry

In the past, my research has focused on popular literary genres (e.g. science fiction, the Western), on recreational forms (baseball, kung fu), and on the ways that mass-cultural phenomena (from roller coasters to kodak cameras) impress themselves on the literary imagination. Rather than assuming that historical contexts help to explain a particular literary text, I assume that literature provides access to an otherwise unrecuperable history. That is, I assume that the act of literary analysis (including formal analysis) can become an "historiographical operation" all its own.

Currently, I work at the intersection of literary, visual, and material cultures, with an emphasis on what I call "object relations in an expanded field." I'm asking how inanimate objects enable human subjects (individually and collectively) to form and transform themselves: How do individuals try to stabilize the "significance" of their lives through the act of collecting? What role do objects play in the formation of gender, sexual, ethnic, and national subjectivity? How are subcultural formations mediated by objects? What kinds of fetishism have yet to be explained by the logic of either commodity fetishism or erotic fetishism? My approach to such questions makes use of psychoanalysis, materialist phenomenology, and the anthropological discourse on the "social life of things," and I've tried, in a piece called "Thing Theory," to point out how things and thingness might become new objects of critical analysis.

The book I'm currently in the midst of includes a wide range of case studies, addressing, for instance: the "poetics of accumulation" and the National Cabinet of Curiosities (before it became the National Museum in 1876), the art criticism of Horatio Greenough, and the proto-anthropological understanding of Pueblo pottery; the fiction and journalism of Djuna Barnes, the photography of Man Ray, and the museal responses to 9/11.

I teach courses that are focused on a conceptual question, along with more traditional courses, framed historically. In the past few years I've taught courses on Whitman, on "Urban Fiction and American Space, 1880-1910" (Eng. 459), and on "Modernity and the Sense of Things" (Eng. 292/692 / CMS 274, with Miriam Hansen). More recently I taught a seminar on "Romantic Fetishism" (Eng. 655), which surveyed much of the discourse on fetishism (from, say, Comte to Copjec) as a way to pose new questions about both canonical texts (Walden, Moby-Dick, &c.) and less-than-canonical domestic fiction (Sedgwick's Home, Kirkland's A New Home, Who'll Follow?).

I taught a seminar on "Objects and Artifacts" (Eng. 554), which juxtaposed anthropological, philosophical, artistic and literary investigations of "object culture," from Frank Hamilton Cushing's work on the Zuni in the 1880s to the work of Willa Cather and Georgia O'Keefe in the 1920s. And I taught a course on "Kitsch, Camp, and the Politics of Culture" (a course that begins with Kant and ends with Warhol). In 2005-6, I'm teaching the PhD colloquium ("Ontology, Epistemology, Reading") and "The American 1890s." At the undergraduate level, I routinely teach "American Modern: Experimental Fiction" and a course on the visual culture of the 1930s.

Selected Publications:

  • A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago, 2003).
  • Things, a special issue of Critical Inquiry (Fall, 2001).
  • Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Novels (Bedford Books, 1997).
  • The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play (Harvard, 1996).
  • "The Dark Wood of Postmodernity: Space, Faith, Allegory," PMLA (May 2005).
  • "Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny," Critical Inquiry (Winter 2005).
  • "The Matter of Dreiser's Modernity," The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser (2004).
  • "The Secret Life of Things: Virginia Woolf and the Matter of Modernism," Aesthetic Subjects (Minnesota, 2003).
  • "How To Do Things With Things-A Toy Story," Critical Inquiry (Summer 1998).
  • "Global Bodies / Postnationalities: Charles Johnson's Consumer Culture," Representations (Spring 1997).
  • "Science Fiction, the World's Fair, and the Prosthetics of Empire, 1910-1915," Cultures of U.S. Imperialism (Duke, 1993).
  • "The Meaning of Baseball in 1992 (With Notes on the Post-American)," Public Culture (Fall 1991).