The main focus of my research is cultural politics, and in the past few years, I have worked on literature, film, and popular culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One point of entry into the complex dynamic between literature and culture for me has been genre theory, specifically the gothic and melodrama. Both are genres that perform important cultural work and offer a privileged field for investigating the interaction between history, ideology, affect and cultural production. Gender and feminism have also informed most of my research projects.
In 2010, I published The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic: Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Ashgate). This book challenges the common wisdom that gothic literature is mainly about fear. Instead, I argue, the gothic is also about ethical and epistemological judgment. Historically, the literary gothic emerged from the anxieties about judgment that characterized the eighteenth century and which still inform the principal axes of modern culture and thought. I contend that this at least partly accounts for the endurance and ubiquity of the Gothic: it is a modern form uniquely adapted to rehearsing anxieties about judgment and justice that continue to define our modernity.
If my book played down the emotional impact of gothic literature in favor of an approach exploring its ethical dimension, two of the articles that I have published since 2006 focus on the long overlooked affective aspect of aesthetic response. One of these grew directly out of the research of the book and concerns Poe’s ambivalent and mostly diminished status in the eyes of male modernists like T.S. Eliot and Henry James. In this essay, I discuss how the emotionally complex and unabashedly sensational dramaturgical structure favored by Poe fared rather poorly under the scrutiny of Anglo-American Modernism and its neo-Kantian aesthetics of disinterested contemplation. The result was a Poe who had been reduced to a juvenile and sexually suspect writer of stories for impressionable youth. I argue in this essay that it would be worthwhile to excavate some of the now forgotten terms and sensations of nineteenth-century aesthetics in order to rebuilt a richer critical vocabulary for aesthetic response than the varieties of detachment we have inherited from High Modernism.
The other article, on combat film and melodrama, represents an important merging of two strands of interest: body genres and war culture. By “body genres” I refer to Linda Williams’ description of three film genres that work by producing physical responses: melodrama, horror and pornography. Melodrama has been a source of fascination in recent years because of the heightened way in which it blends affect, ethics, and popular art. In an article on the combat film, published in Passionate Politics: The Cultural Work of American Melodrama (eds. Ralph Poole and Ilka Saal), I challenge the common misconception that melodrama is essentially a women’s genre by showing how American war films are typically constructed as melodramas, featuring the soldier as victim-hero. The effects of this formula are ideologically diverse, but the basic function of melodrama is to redeem death from meaninglessness, it therefore necessarily works to re-enchant war death. Another interesting thing that emerged for me in this project is the fact that, since melodrama usually serves to rehabilitate and socially legitimate a marginal figure in society (e.g. the fallen woman, the slave, the immigrant meatpacker), the figure who seems to require rehabilitation and legitimation is the soldier himself, a fact that casts the ambivalent status of soldiers in modern secular societies into relief.
This brings me to a cluster of topics which have been central to my research: gender, feminism and sexuality. An article on reading Henry James’ Turn of the Screw through a queer theory paradigm grew out of a book chapter in The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic. As this chapter confronts James’ queer wordplay with Gilman’s feminist activism, I have found myself thinking increasingly about the intersections and tensions between these two methodologies. A recent essay on Louisa May Alcott is the result of some of these reflections, in which I explored the relative merits of feminism and queer theory for understanding the complex gender issues in Alcott’s work. A forthcoming essay on the transnational connections and cross-influences among queer Anglophone and Hispanophone poets also traces out an outline for a Hemispheric American tradition, or at least network, of queer writing.
My current research project for a second book focuses on twentieth century representations of war and specifically the soldier in American literature and popular culture. Since America has been engaged in major and minor, global and covert wars since the start of the century, making warfare and military service a central aspect of American culture and politics, an effective analysis of this subject requires a multidisciplinary approach. I intend to combine the now already hybrid methods of literary and media analysis standard in cultural studies with a more properly sociological framework in order to unpack the emotional, quasi-mystical, and ideological structures in a number of key texts. Furthermore, I will draw on gender theory, the cultural sociology of ritual and the sacred, and neo-Gramscian ideology critique to examine the charged and intensely ambivalent status of the soldier in American popular culture.