research [+ cat]

research on testimony & human rights

My book Quiet Testimony:  A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature was published by Fordham University Press in the fall of 2013.  Quiet Testimony begins from the cover artpremise that the word testimony circulated in that period in ways unfamiliar to us today, because inanimate entities as well as persons were understood as capable of bearing the truth.  What seems like a relic of an ancient mysticism, I demonstrate, was actually a pervasive framework of thought, one that conditioned what it meant to speak—and to speak out. Once testimony is decoupled from human beings and language, power is shifted to a range of entities, from trees to weather to ghosts, and these come to demand attention and new patterns of thought from those who encounter them.  Such an expansion of testifying “subjects” serves, in my readings, both to clarify certain elements of nineteenth-century culture and to reorient our approaches to certain key questions of contemporary human rights scholarship.  I focus my study on four key figures—Emerson, Douglass, Melville, and Henry James—reading in each an unusual and provocative approach to testimony.  Emerson proposes testimony without representation; Douglass testimony without identity; Melville testimony without voice; and James testimony without life.  I conclude the book by considering how, despite their ability to think “without” certain apparent strongholds, their collective theory imagines a testimony rooted in plenitude.

Related essays:

On what it means for Melville to write a story, Benito Cereno, about muteness

On Emerson’s refusal to be explicit in his anti-slavery politics

research on psychology, personhood, & healing

In addition to the essays below, I am currently writing about the psychology of illness and working on a project about care in critical theory. Email me if you’d like to read my work and lack access to the links.

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  • “A New Chapter in the Story of Trauma: Narratives of Bodily Healing from 1860s America,” American Literature, December 2019Abstract: Scholars tracing the genealogy of trauma generally place its emergence in the 1870s, when the condition began to be conceptualized as a mental rather than physical injury, treatable through psychological measures. This essay locates a complicating earlier engagement. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s The Guardian Angel (1867), Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (1863), and Walt Whitman’s war entries in Specimen Days (from 1863) represent mental breakdown but propose a radically different therapy: the mind may be healed by acquiescing to the body’s physiological functions. This therapy is recommended in the course of narratives that are insistently conclusive, without the fragmentation usually assumed to distinguish representations of trauma. Thus, this essay challenges the premise that narratives of trauma formally resemble the condition’s broken mind, instead imagining how such texts may be analogized to the organic body.
  • “Newland Archer’s Doubled Consciousness: Wharton, Psychology, and Narrational Form,” forthcoming in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: New Centenary Essays, (Bloomsbury, 2020).  Abstract: Resisting the critical trend of psychologizing Wharton as a writer, this essay reads The Age of Innocence to claim her as a psychological thinker—indeed, a psychological prose stylist—of her era. It argues that Wharton’s narrational form models a split approach to consciousness, one that resonates with the alternate-consciousness paradigm that underwrote research in somnambulism and hypnosis. Instead of a narrator, with its own perspective and experiences, who enters Newland’s mind, the novel employs an undistinguished narration, which interprets Newland’s sensations and perceptions for the reader; Newland’s own self-regarding thoughts constitute a separate stream of his consciousness. This doubled vision of consciousness means that Newland is never aware of the rich formulations of his mind that constitute so much of the novel’s enticing prose. The essay ultimately suggests that free indirect discourse more generally reflects this unusual, seemingly outdated model of mind, in which one part is self-aware and another, known to the reader but not the character, interpretive.

  • Henry James’s Black Dresses: Mourning without Grief,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 72.4 (515-538). Abstract: While scholars have discerned how nineteenth-century modes of mourning differ from Freud’s later model, the distinction between mourning and grief, in texts of the period and beyond, tends to be collapsed. This article argues that Henry James disentangles the two terms by insisting on mourning’s association with ritualistic, social behavior, most iconically the wearing of a black dress. In his writing, to be “in mourning” generally means to be physically within such a dress, without reference to one’s emotional state. His use of the phrase, particularly in “The Altar of the Dead” and “Maud-Evelyn,” thus offers ways of thinking through responses to death apart from grief. One is that the black dress can obscure, rather than advertise, the wearer’s feelings. Another is that such garments may facilitate ongoing relationships with persons now dead. Such processes of mourning without grief are nearly impossible to recognize after the advent of psychoanalysis, yet this article concludes by finding evidence of their circulation in today’s political resistance.

Related essays:

Another piece on James demonstrates how his odd use of a phrase, “hang fire,” amalgamates characters with material objects.

An essay on belief in Henry James’s short story “Maud-Evelyn” appeared in American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron in 2014.

how some research gets done: with a cat on my  lap

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