Books Image of book cover for Experimental: American Literature and the Aesthetics of Knowledge. Cover image is a milk droplet photographed by Harold Edgerton. Black and white.

Experimental: American Literature and the Aesthetics of Knowledge
Available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Why is the category of “experimental literature” so strongly associated with the historical avant-garde, and why does it nonetheless so strongly resist periodization? I argue that this category requires a complex double periodization, attending not only to the real scientific currents of the early twentieth century but also their remediation through the canonizing efforts of self-described experimental writers of the postwar age of Big Science.

The new social sciences of the turn of the twentieth century, whose human objects of study presented deep challenges to existing scientific norms, required an abstraction of method that both opened experimentalism up to a potentially infinite terrain (including literature) and deflected experiment’s historicity. What would become U.S. literary experimentalism thus flourished where the boundaries of epistemological authority were contested, often by the performance of gender, sexuality, race, and the “popular.” Yet its production and canonization as “experimental literature” is an artifact of Cold War poetic responses to what came to be seen as deep complicities between scientific knowledge and state power.

The Mycological Turn, with Sam Solomon (in progress)
This project examines utopian imaginings around fungi, both as a unique contemporary phenomenon and as a repetition and elaboration of the countercultural-cybernetic moment at midcentury. Historically understudied relative to plants and animals, and often studied in the context of agricultural pests and minor ailments (i.e for eradication/control rather than on their own terms), fungi challenge many biological paradigms that were developed from plant and animal models. They thus offer rich ground for utopian imaginaries, often seeming to offer either an “alternative” to capitalism or, as a new “untapped resource,” to rescue capitalism in a kind of eco-friendly “fungal fix,” promising (as one write-up of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World put it) to “balance ecology and economics.” At the same time, the mycological promise (mycelia as network/rhizomes; spores as swarm) often looks startlingly similar to older supposedly emancipatory models, resulting in “cruel mycelioptimism.” We read across science fiction, start-ups, poetry, and policy to analyze the increasingly prominent place that fungi occupy in imagining futures.
The Embryology of the Closet (in progress)
This project examines passing and the surfaces of nonnormative sexualities from the 1870s to the 1980s. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud elaborates his theory of the death drive in part through the figure of a “vesicle,” a subcellular minimal life form whose exposure to stimuli creates an outer, deadened cortical layer and, at the same time, precipitates a longing for the minimal organism’s earlier, unalive state. Freud’s strange microphysiology of the death drive stems from nineteenth-century debates about unicellular organisms and their relationship to the cells of multicellular organisms—namely, if a cell can live on its own (as a unicellular organism), might all cells have some fundamental independence, even—as the German morphologist Ernst Haeckel put it—“cell souls” [Zellseelen]? Drawing on Haeckel as well as American embryologists like Thomas Hunt Morgan and Edmund Beecher Wilson (credited, with Morgan’s graduate student Nettie Stevens, with discovering sex chromosomes in 1905), this project considers the formation of sexualities and models of sex at the birth and in the heyday of the evolutionary synthesis. I am particularly interested in the kinds of “hardening” attributed to spinsters, celibates, and those engaged in various kinds of sexual and racial passing in work by Emily Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Pauline Hopkins, Frances E. W. Harper, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, H. D., Nella Larsen, Audre Lorde, and Leslie Feinberg. Re-evaluating these figures’ ostensibly death-bound, nonconjugating or insufficiently conjugating sexualities, I seek to track a poetics of minimal death that sheds light on the investments bound up in the twentieth-century microscopic biology of sex and generation.
Childish Harms: Puerility and Provisional Violence in the Long Twentieth Century (in progress)
Reading cultural objects from Twain’s satire to the Oulipian “gimmick” to the Harper’s Index, I investigate an aesthetic mode of playfulness whose potency draws on a disavowal of its own powers—what I call “puerility.” Puerility, from Latin puer (“boy”), embraces irresponsibility, provisionality, and unseriousness as a site of political power and of aesthetic pleasure. It frequently manifests as a pedantry (e.g. so-called “actually journalism“) or hyperformalism (as in the Oulipian lipogramme), and is often self-conscious and ironic about its methods. In this project, I draw on gender theory, childhood studies, and the history of statistics to examine puerility’s gendering, its aesthetics, its politics of youth, its limitations, and its history from the previous Gilded Age to the present one.
[The folks at the Hagley Museum and Library did a great job of editing my rambling about this project into something semicoherent.]


Experimentalism by Contact.”
“Language between Scientific and Humanistic Knowledge,” ed. Brian Lennon, spec. issue of diacritics, 43.1 (Fall 2015): 6-35.
Here is an interview with Brian Lennon about the special issue.
Everybody’s Authority.”
PMLA 130.2 (March 2015): 453-460, “The Changing Profession: The Semipublic Intellectual,” ed. Phillip Maciak and Liliana Loofbourow.
“Environmental Innocence and Slow Violence.”
WSQ 43.1-2 (Spring-Summer 2015), “Child,” ed. Sarah Chinn and Anna Mae Duane: 164-180.
“Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein.”
ELH 82.1 (Spring 2015): 281-312.
“Sentimental Spaces: On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Nest.”
Jacket2 (23 May 2011).
“Marianne Moore’s Precision.”
Arizona Quarterly 67.4 (Winter 2011): 83-110.
“Introduction: Theory and the Virtues of Digital Humanities” and “When Digital Humanities Was in Vogue.”
Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 (Winter 2011).
In Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman, eds., The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Public writing

“Cats, Babies, and Other Hurtable Creatures”
New Criticals (10 December 2015; based on a talk delivered at the American Studies Association, Toronto, ON, October 2015).
“Apple’s Modernism, Google’s Modernism: Some Reflections on Alphabet, Inc., and a Suggestion that Modernist Architect Adolf Loos Would Be Totally Into Soylent”
Works Cited (11 August 2015).
“On the Neoliberal Rhetoric of Harm.” [on trigger warnings]
The old Works Cited (July 2014).
“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”
The New Inquiry 24 (January 2014).
“Humanities Scholarship Is Incredibly Relevant, and That Makes People Sad”
The old Works Cited (January 2014).
“An ABC of Puerility: Anderson, Britten, Crane.” [rev. of Moonrise Kingdom, 2012]
The New Inquiry/Zunguzungu blog (June 2012).
“The Passion of Nate Silver (Sort Of).”
The old Works Cited (November 2012).


The Time-Sense: On Stein’s Repetition.
Conference talk. “Against Innovation” panel, Modernist Studies Association, Buffalo, NY, 2011. [A precursor to “Ways of Not Reading Gertrude Stein,” 2015.]

Look up a journal’s open access policy.