On Leave Academic Year 2018-2019
My work wanders a bit as to place, language, and period, but some methodological concerns remain constant whether I’m dealing with classical Chinese poetry, contemporary Sicilian drama, or responses to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. How do available signifying resources permit or constrain the creation of human subjects? How is reading possible? How do we get from material artifacts to meanings and actions? I find it helpful to choose texts that force me to confront these questions with an open mind, texts, that is, about which what I “know” is limited—often anonymous texts and usually from far away and long ago.
I was lucky to grow up in a family where writing, painting or composing were considered possible life paths. After I read Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé as a teenager, there was no turning back. I was a classics major (Greek) in college because I thought it was worthwhile reading what the Elizabethans, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth and Coleridge thought was most important. Soon the subsidiary investigation took over, and I was no longer thinking of the Greeks as predecessors to English literature. Greek, Latin, French and Italian, conveyed by memorable teachers, helped to enlarge my world. I learned German to read Kant (and it still shows, I’m sorry to say). The logical next step was Sanskrit, but I took Chinese instead, wanting to learn a tonal language and a logographic writing system. Poetry is where these special characteristics of Chinese are most alive, and since I read Chinese slowly, I appreciate the fact that poetry asks to be read slowly. Reading Chinese also allows us many opportunities to see what goes wrong (inevitably?) in translation. Language differences, the passage of time, even the surface roughness of dialect reveal gaps in efficient communication which are exactly where thinking, as I understand it, happens.
I am currently working on a history of East Asian literary communication from antiquity to the nineteenth century, a short book intended as preface to a longer collective work. Alongside that, there are always many other projects and investigations. Translating and teaching enliven the writing process.
I’m grateful to the American Academy in Berlin, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Stanford Humanities Center, and the universities where I’ve taught for supporting my scholarship. It’s been particularly gratifying to receive the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize of the MLA and the René Wellek Prize of the ACLA. I’m grateful to have had excellent collaborators for many of my projects: Kang-i Sun Chang, with whom I worked on Chinese Women Poets; Steven Yao and Eric Hayot, co-editors of Sinographies; Jonathan Stalling and Lucas Klein, my co-conspirators for Fenollosa/Pound, The Chinese Written Character; and I’m proud to have been on a team led by the extraordinary installation artist Mel Chin. At Chicago I work with the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, the Center for the Study of Language and Gesture, and the Pozen Center for Human Rights, and co-edit the journal Critical Inquiry.
Work with Students
I work with students in all my departments on a number of topics ranging from the intellectual roots of Italian neorealism to the phonetic structure of the ancient Chinese Book of Documents.
When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems of Jean Métellus. Forthcoming, Northwestern University Press, 2019.
Editor, Texts and Transformations: Essays in Honor of the 75th Birthday of Victor H. Mair. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2018.
Translation as Citation: Zhuangzi Inside Out. (Global Asias.) Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and its Technologies. (Verbal Arts: Studies in Poetics.) New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.
Co-editor and translator, with Rivi Handler-Spitz and Pauline Chen Lee. A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden): Selected Writings of Li Zhi (1527-1602). New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
“Readings in World Literature”
“Literary Theory: Premodern, Non-Western, and Not Excusively Literary”
“Healthcare and the Limits of State Action”
“Zhuangzi: Literature, Philosophy, or Something Else Entirely”
“Case Studies in the Formation of Knowledge”