Research

My academic work happens at the intersection of three disciplines — Comparative Literature, the Psychology of Religion, and Psychoanalysis — and clusters around two related problems.

Prosthesis, Gun Violence, and American Popular Culture

I’m extremely interested in the history of firearms and automobiles and how these machines have been represented in American popular media, advertisements, political ideologies. I’ve been working for several years on a nonfiction, popular-audience focused book that focuses on guns in particular and which analyzes these objects as prostheses — that is, as tools for extending the human body and which involve how we understand the body’s limitations and vulnerabilities, both real and imaginary. Examining several centuries worth of popular American representations of firearms usage and ownership, and comparing these precedents with contemporary interviews and reportage, I explore how contemporary gun violence and the debates surrounding it are fueled by a kind of atavism — the re-enactment and continuation of a traumatic history of racial, gender, and economic violence that is thoroughly and tragically American. I plan on bringing this book, tentatively titled Terminal Velocities, to full completion at some point in 2018.

Universality, the Communication of Experience, and Mourning

I’m also interested in what can been termed the problem of universality — namely, the open question of whether or not certain experiences, attitudes, and practices are “universal” to all humans, that is, whether or not they occur ubiquitously and eternally across all human societies and individuals regardless of the contingencies of historical moment and cultural context. The problem of universality cashes out not just as an abstract philosophical debate but also practically, by impacting our capacity to do things like translate concepts from one language to another or simply relate empathetically to the experiences of the other human beings in our lives.

My dissertation, Universalities in Crisis: Parenthood and Paternity at the End of the Line, takes up the problem of universality by examining one particular phenomenon: parents mourning their own deceased children. Believe it or not, the question of whether or not parental mourning of dead children is a human universal has been a long and hotly debated topic in multiple disciplines. Universalities in Crisis approaches this debate by reading texts sampled from a variety of disciplines and traditions, and pays especial attention to the relationship between formally published literary and philosophical works and private reflections by writers who have had to struggle with the death of a beloved child while writing them. In terms of the multiple disciplinary perspectives this dissertation deploys, and the number of global literary traditions it surveys, the breadth and depth of this investigation into parental child loss is unprecedented. Reading texts written in over a dozen languages in scores of genres over the course of nearly three millennia, I juxtapose efforts to arbitrate the universality of parental mourning as an empirical question with a wide range of literary representations of child loss, with a particular emphasis on texts (canonical and otherwise) produced by authors who have personally lost children themselves. I also demonstrate how ostensibly objective discourses surrounding the question of parental mourning, from the neurosciences to attachment psychology to anthropology and more, are fundamentally motivated by a set of normative preoccupations that have properly philosophical implications for any thinking of universality itself. The dominant Western notion of universality, I argue, hinges upon a model of the human capacity to know the experiences of others and of the transmission of knowledge across generational boundaries that is ultimately structured in terms of personal legacies, parental lineages, and patriarchal inheritance. Yet even rigorously philosophical and theological writers on universality have joined centuries of poets and diarists and epitaph inscribers in insisting that their personal experiences of losing children remain fundamentally incommunicable. Juxtaposing the public and private writings of figures from Plutarch to Schleiermacher to Emerson to Freud and beyond, I take this paradox seriously and propose a rethinking of universality in terms of universally shared experiences of loss and vulnerability that nonetheless remain radically singular. I’m working on revising this dissertation into a more readable, academic-popular crossover book, tentatively titled The Book of Dead Children, to be completed some point in 2017-2018.

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