Apr 03
Helen C. White 7191
4:00 PM A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship Program

Branka Arsić

Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Coral Psyches: Melville's Material Minds

Starting with Melville's early preoccupation with the science of corals - coral insects, formation of coral atolls, geology of coral reefs - Arsić investigates how he extended those ideas, from Mardi to Billy Budd, into a coral ontology that served as the basis for his understanding of the psyche. She claims that a cluster of human and non human beings in Melville's world is summoned to embody coral minds, and proposes that the strangeness of those minds derives both from their being material and from their being ambiental. The major concern of this talk is the ethical consequences of persons imagined as malleable and porous coral life.

Branka Arsić specializes in literatures of the 19th century Americas and their scientific, philosophical and religious contexts. She is the author, most recently, of Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (2016), which discusses how Thoreau related mourning practices to biological life by articulating a complex theory of decay, and proposing a new understanding of the pathological. She has also written On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson ( 2010), and a book on Melville entitled Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby (2007); and co-edited (with Cary Wolfe) a collection of essays on Emerson, entitled The Other Emerson: New Approaches, Divergent Paths (2010). Arsić is currently working on two book projects. The first, Dust Archive: Melville’s Poetics of Matter focuses on images of the elemental, vegetal and animal that traverse his work as a means of investigating how he imagined the capacity of matter to move and transform. In Melville not only different forms of life, but also elements enter into strange assemblages: moss grows on animals, vegetation turns out to be made of stones, metal glitters on the feet of tortoises, dogs host humans, and lizards hiss with divine anger. Dust Archive reads such strange taxonomies against the backdrop of contemporary American science, cosmologies of the Pacific islands and a series of ethnographic narratives of African religions and customs known to Melville, to chart how their divergent accounts of matter gave rise to his stories of metamorphosis and conjuration, with complex political consequences. The second book project, tentatively entitled Being Scattered: the Happiness of Emily Dickinson’s Late Poetry, analyzes Dickinson's late writings - fragments, poems, letters - to examine what deletion, dispersion and incompletion can tell us about the lyric. Concentrating on the question of the Dickinson archive - destroyed, mutilated or heavily edited - the book will propose a theory of the archive in terms of its production of the lyric.

Sponsored by the A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship Program of the Center for the Humanities and Institute for Research in the Humanities; the Department of English; and the Americanist Lecture Series.

Guest Seminars and Workshops