Capture: American Pursuits and the Making of a New Animal Condition (University of Minnesota Press, 2020)
Recipient of the Louis I. Bredvold Prize for Scholarly Publication. Reviewed in Textual Practice.
From Audubon’s still-life watercolors to Muybridge’s trip-wire locomotion studies, from Melville’s epic chases to Poe’s detective hunts, the nineteenth century witnessed a surge of artistic, literary, and scientific treatments that sought to “capture” the truth of animals at the historical moment when animals were receding from everyday view. Capture reveals how the drive to contain and record disappearing animals was a central feature and organizing pursuit of the nineteenth-century United States cultural canon. The book offers a critical genealogy of the dominant representation of animals as elusive, precarious, and endangered that came to circulate widely in the nineteenth century. I argue that “capture” is deeply continuous with the projects of white settler colonialism and the biocapitalist management of non-human and human populations, demonstrating that the desire to capture animals in representation responded to and normalized the systemic disappearance of animals effected by unprecedented changes in the land, the rise of mass slaughter, and the new awareness of species extinction. Tracking the prototyping of biopolitical governance and capitalist modes of control, I theorize capture as a regime of vision by which animals came to be seen, over the course of the nineteenth century, as at once unknowable and yet understood in advance—a frame by which we continue to encounter animals today.
DONNER LE CHANGE: L'IMPENSÉ ANIMAL (HERMANN, 2016, CO-WRITTEN WITH THANGHAM RAVINDRANATHAN)
This book takes at its point of departure the phrase “donner le change,” which originally referred to the moment in the hunt when the prey would escape by offering up another of its species in its place. In present-day French, the phrase has come to mean simply to deceive or mislead, to pass one thing for another. What is foreclosed in this shift from the literal to the figurative, we argue, is not merely the notion of an animal subject but specifically the possibility for an animal to give and, further, to give another as itself. To retrace the cynegetic origins of the phrase, then, is to recall the scene of a gift more capacious and far more ambiguous than can be thought within our current economy of signification – but also our material economy – in which the animal disappears, or appears merely as a given. The capacity imputed to the prey by the archive of venery calls for a reassessing not only of what an animal is but also, no less vitally, of what counts as a gift. The book is predominantly a philosophical investigation, but it engages a number of literary texts, from La Fontaine to Poe and Michaux, Melville to Flaubert and Ponge.
HAWTHORNE: BLASTED ALLEGORIES
(AUX FORGES DE VULCAIN, 2015)
While Nathaniel Hawthorne is typically thought of as a gothic author and chronicler of Puritan life, this book reads him as a theorist of language. Hawthorne has largely been denied the status of philosopher afforded contemporaries like Thoreau, Emerson, Poe, and Melville, but I discern in his work a powerful reflection on the semiotics of literature, understood as a distinctly modern form of writing. Blasted Allegories opens with Hawthorne’s unfashionable choice to embrace allegory at a time when Romanticism had declared the figure obsolete. I argue that Hawthorne’s allegory is neither a conventional mode of figuration nor a flawed symbol but rather a powerful regime of expression that actively troubles such notions as provenance (who writes?), address (for whom does one write?), signification (what does writing mean?), and performance (what does writing do?). Under Hawthorne’s pen, allegory becomes a critical instrument for sounding out the way literary language operates. As such, his allegorical practice prefigures insights developed by theorists of language such as Charles Sanders Peirce, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida. Reading Hawthorne as a semiotician avant la lettre is not an effort to reclaim the modernity of his writing, however, so much as to show how the “blasted” nature of allegory--its stubborn refusal of wholeness--condenses the modern experience: an experience of loss and arbitrariness that harbors within it an anarchic dimension, which Hawthorne charges with a unique critical potential.
Hawthorne was reviewed by Julien Nègre in Transatlantica.
LITTÉRATURE ET POLITIQUE EN NOUVELLE-ANGLETERRE (PRESSES DE L’ENS DE LA RUE D’ULM, 2011, CO-EDITED WITH THOMAS CONSTANTINESCO)
This co-edited volume examines the entanglements of literature and politics in New England from the colonial period to the present, featuring articles by some of the most prominent French scholars of American literature on figures like Mary Rowlandson, Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William James, and Susan Howe. Taking as its point of departure Jacques Rancière's insight that "literature as a definite practice of writing" is indissociable from the advent of democracy, the volume examines the role played by literature in advancing and contesting the central place that New England has occupied in the course of US history.