Bill Brown

email: wlbrown@uchicago.edu
profile: English Department Faculty Bio
profile: “American Field” Bio

In the past, my research has focused on popular literary genres (e.g. science fiction, the Western), on recreational forms (baseball, kung fu), and on the ways that mass-cultural phenomena (from roller coasters to kodak cameras) impress themselves on the literary imagination. Rather than assuming that historical contexts help to explain a particular literary text, I assume that literature provides access to an otherwise unrecuperable history-that the act of literary analysis (including formal analysis) can become an “historiographical operation” all its own.

Currently, I work at the intersection of literary, visual, and material cultures, with an emphasis on what I call “object relations in an expanded field,” an inquiry that asks how inanimate objects enable human subjects (individually and collectively) to form and transform themselves. How do individuals try to stabilize the “significance” of their lives through the act of collecting? What role do objects play in the formation of gender, sexual, ethnic, and national subjectivity? How are subcultural formations mediated by objects? What kinds of fetishism have yet to be explained by the logic of either commodity fetishism or erotic fetishism?

My approach to such questions makes use of psychoanalysis, materialist phenomenology, and the anthropological discourse on the “social life of things.” The book will include a wide range of case studies, addressing, for instance: the National Cabinet of Curiosities (before it became the National Museum in 1876), the art criticism of Horatio Greenough, and the proto-anthropological understanding of Pueblo pottery; the fiction and journalism of Djuna Barnes, the photography of Man Ray, and the museal responses to 9/11.

In the past few years I’ve taught courses on Whitman, on “Urban Fiction and American Space, 1880-1910″ (Eng. 459), and on “Modernity and the Sense of Things” (Eng. 292/692 / CMS 274, with Miriam Hansen). Most recently I taught a seminar on “Romantic Fetishism” (Eng. 655), which surveyed much of the discourse on fetishism (from, say, Comte to Copjec) as a way to pose some new questions about both canonical texts (Walden, Moby-Dick, &c.) and less-than-canonical domestic fiction (Sedgwick’s Home, Kirkland’s A New Home, Who’ll Follow?). And I taught a seminar on “Objects and Artifacts” (Eng. 554), which juxtaposed anthropological, philosophical, artistic and literary investigations of “object culture,” from Frank Hamilton Cushing’s work on the Zuni in the 1880s to the work of Willa Cather and Georgia O’Keefe in the 1920s. This coming year (03/04), I’ll be teaching a course on the visual arts in the 1930s, and a course on “Kitsch, Camp, and the Politics of Culture” (a course that begins with Kant and ends with Warhol).