What I Study
My research focuses on American and African American literature, race, and science in the long nineteenth century (circa 1830 – 1930). Specifically, I study the reciprocal relationship between the life & human sciences, on the one hand, and literary and cultural production, on the other. In other words, I consider how the period’s new and developing disciplines (like biology, ecology, psychology, and sociology) were products of a socio-cultural environment that they themselves–along with other vectors–helped to shape and form. The interchange between science & literature goes both ways, and sometimes in other ways, too–ways that are difficult to predict from the outset. As a literary scholar I believe that written narratives (whether fiction, non-fiction, or somewhere between) provide reliable and unique access to this messy, surprising, and ever-important site of exchange.
“Provisional Beings”: Crowds and the Color Line in American Literature, 1830-1930
My dissertation, Provisional Beings, centers on the figure of ‘the crowd’ as it was deployed in American and African American literature and science through the mid nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. While ‘the crowd’ has been an important figure for all of human history, it was not until the 19th century that it became a subject of scientific inquiry as well as a topic of widespread public concern. Scientists from biology to sociology studied the so-called “laws of the crowd” even as literary writers similarly sought to understand why many people gathered together seem to act and think differently than any single person. For scientists and artists alike, this divergence between the many and the one raised intractable legal, ethical, political, and representational problems.
I argue that this confluence of crowd interests must be situated within the history of American race and racism, since depictions of the crowd were inherently racialized, whether explicitly or implicitly. Only by grappling with the racial face of the putatively ‘faceless’ crowd can we come to understand why the nineteenth witnessed such an obsessive interest in the crowd and related (though importantly different!) collective human aggregates, like the corporation, the lynch mob, the masses, the population, and the statistical corpus.
Collective Nouns (or, Terms of Venery)
As a tagalong interest to my dissertation, I have long been fascinated by collective nouns, especially as applied to animals. Famous examples include a “murder of crows,” a “school of fish,” or a “gaggle of geese.” (Less famous but still worthy examples include: a business of ferrets, a parliament of owls, and a wisdom of wombats.) Though now mostly mentioned as lexical curiosities, these terms have a complex history that traces to an early modern vocabulary of hunting (“venery” being an archaic word for “hunting”). The Book of Saint Albans (1486), for instance, lists a number of venery terms.
As James Lipton explains in his playful book An Exhalation of Larks, this history and the ongoing deployment of collective nouns testify to class-based distinctions (as codified in language) as well as the creative capacity of language itself. Collective nouns tell us about the animals under description, yes, but also about the nature of the describer and the implications of the descriptive science (or art) itself.
Collective nouns emerge at the intersection of pseudo-scientific terminology and popular uptake, and they are interesting to me for how they suggest a holistic sum that is greater than component parts. A flock of sheep, for instance, that refers to some super-organizational form that has a coherence above or beyond the individual sheep. (This sounds weird, but consider that one American author, Mary Austin, wrote a whole semi-mystical treatise on The Flock in 1906.) This sort of top-down systems thinking has obvious resonance with my research on what we might think of as sociological terms of venery, such as a crowd of spectators, a mob of lynchers, or a riot of laborers (to pick some loaded examples). These terms join the classificatory history of venery with a twist, suturing a legacy of aristocratic hunting and parlor-game naming to social issues of power and collective social movements.
Other, more amusing sociological venery terms proffered by Lipton include…