Rather than areas, periods, and theoretical schools, I define my interests in terms of problems. My projects usually start from a declared conflict between large-scale intellectual structures and try to dissolve it by discovering areas of complicity in which that conflict does not hold. For example, the distinction between oral and written traditions turns out to repose on an undeclared concept of technology common to both; the supposed ontological difference between Chinese and Western modes of thought cannot be phrased except in terms that undermine that difference; and so on. Engaging with alien discourses (historically, linguistically, or contextually different from the norms represented by, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the MLA International Bibliography or the DSM-V) is for me the purpose of research.
Monolingualism and the narrowness of mind it tends to foster have always been my antagonists. Undergraduate work in Greek showed me how strange the ancients could be, if one took philology from a less traditional angle. I learned Chinese in Paris in order to carry out a comparative project that was quickly abandoned. This new language, and especially its classical form, constantly reminded me of how much I still had to learn. Thinking of rhetorical categories as a guide to semantic change led me to join the concentration of people for whom “rhetorical reading” was a synonym of deconstruction. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers (among them Kang-i Sun Chang, François Cheng, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, Giuseppe Mazzotta, Rulon Wells, Yu Ying-shih), mighty intellectual companions (Mel Chin, Paul Farmer) and to have had the freedom to shift focus several times (all the areas I probed, even inconclusively, as a graduate student have ended up feeding my later research).
Some of the work I did has been recognized with prizes: The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic (Wellek Prize 1993), The Ethnography of Rhythm (Scaglione Prize 2017) Translation as Citation (Wellek Prize 2018). I have also had fellowships, visiting professorships, and other encouragements.
My main current project is more a work of editorship than authorship. I am organizing, for the International Comparative Literature Association, a multi-volume history of the literatures of East Asia from the invention of writing to the modern era. It will show what a “world literature” can be outside the European framework of values and models.
Work with Students
I have advised or co-advised graduate students writing on subjects as various as the modernist ideograph, the heretical tradition in Christianity, the Dream of the Red Chamber, the poetry of Paul Valéry and its mathematical subtexts, the phonetic patterning of early Chinese texts, the culture of the dream in late-imperial Chinese fiction, the interrelations of sport and film in modernizing China, the international spread of the concept of folklore, and translation between China and Germany in the twentieth century.
I try to position myself as a friendly contender, offering challenges and alternatives to the dissertation-writer, in the belief that not rebuttal but isolation is the true enemy of scholarship.
The Nine Relays: China in Multilingual Asia. Forthcoming.
Are We Comparing Yet? On Standards, Justice, and Incomparability. Bielefeld: transcript verlag, 2019.
(As translator) When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems of Jean Métellus. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2019.
Translation as Citation: Zhuangzi Inside Out. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and its Technologies. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.
(with César Dominguez and Darío Villanueva) Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2015.
(As editor) Partner to the Poor: A Paul Farmer Reader. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
(As editor) Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization: The 2004 ACLA Report on the State of the Discipline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001.
The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993.
“Literary Theory: Non-Western, Premodern, Not Necessarily Literary”
“Contemporary Critical Theory 1920-Present”
“Introduction to Comparative Literature: Problem, Methods, Precedents”
“The Idea of Oral Literature”
“Health Care and Limits of State Action”
“Zhuangzi: Philosophy, Literature, or Something Else Entirely”
“Dream of the Red Chamber: Forgetting About the Author”
“What Was Structuralism?” (planned future course)
“Signifying with Lacan, Derrida, de Man” (planned future course)