Current FRIT Faculty Research
Transgender Universalism in France
Alongside other projects, I am in the process of developing a book project on the concept of transgender universalism. If the French nation-state has aimed since the Revolution to consider its citizens as citizens first and to relegate other identity categories to second place (gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.), I ask what has happened over time to transgender citizens in this French model of political identity. I spent two months in the archives in Paris in summer ’15 working through transgender representation in TV, film, tabloid journalism, autobiography, medicine, law, theater, and novels from the 1930s until today. Having already published articles on French transgender film and fiction of the 21st century, I am now working on incorporating this archival work to extend my project back in time and to think about how to marry gender/queer/transgender theory, political theory, and specific French cultural artifacts from the 50s to today. I am especially interested in how representations of transgender citizens produce French universalism in unexpected ways. Currently, I am writing a chapter on this question in the 50s and on the first French film with an identifiable transsexual character who undergoes sexual reassignment surgery.
Europe in the Middle Ages
For a long time I have been working on late medieval political literature and holy women. In many ways these two interests have converged in the last few years. In May 2016 -- just before the BREXIT vote in the UK -- my French colleague Joël Blanchard and I organized a colloquium on the concept of Europe in the Middle Ages at the Université du Maine in Le Mans, France. We are now editing the papers from this meeting and are excited about the insights they provide in this time of multiple crises in the European Union. I am also part of an international team of scholars that explores the relationship between two great 14th-century Europeans: Saints Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena. I am investigating their political discourses and their place in the political literature of their time. In my book Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism, 1378-1417 (Penn State UP, 2006) I analyzed their efforts to put an end to the Great Schism of the Western Church; now I am interested in their calls for a new crusade and the strategies they use to calm civic and international strife. The central question for me is how women can gain a political voice in the Middle Ages -- and today, for that matter. Women's education is another issue I am working on right now and I have explored it for texts that propose new colonies in the Holy Land. A couple of pieces on Pierre Dubois, an early fourteenth-century theorist on the crusades and the retaking of the Holy Land, have just appeared. Together with my studies on Christine de Pizan, all this work really aims to give women their rightful place in medieval culture and modern scholarship.
A case study in 18th-century cultural mediation
The object of my research in recent years has been an 18th-century Italian intellectual, who spent half of his life in Great Britain, and managed to earn his living as a teacher of Romance languages and literatures, lexicographer, travel writer, literary critic, bio-bibliographer, editor and translator: Giuseppe Baretti (1719-1789). I have worked towards a comprehensive evaluation of his production, bringing to light over forty, previously unknown letters and poetic texts of his, and closely examining the fascinating Commonplace Book he kept over a period of twenty-five years. These are some of the aspects of 18th-century European intellectual life and culture production that I had the opportunity to explore while documenting, studying and writing about Baretti’s own contribution:
- processes of acculturation of intellectual exiles & related issues of cultural and national identity
- the cosmopolitan conception of reality embraced by enlightened intellectuals (to prop European modernity and assert its superiority)
- the importance of social and professional networks
- the impact of a growing market economy on book production and circulation
- reading, letter-writing, common-placing and journalizing practices
- emerging educational theories & theories of foreign language instruction and learning
- theories and practices of translation and adaptation of texts
- interrelations of literature and the arts
Romantic Capitalist Crisis/Uses of the Sublime/Italian Female Authorship
I am pursuing a study of French romantic esthetics as a response to the cognitive, affective and political challenges of the rise of the capitalist mode of social organization. My first article on this subject was on Stendhal: as I keep working on this author, I am also developing arguments regarding Chateaubriand. I make use of recent Italian political and economic theorists such as Maurizio Lazzarato and Christian Marazzi, while using the political esthetics of Jacques Rancière as well as classical definitions of the sublime. I am also finishing up an article on the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, and her recasting of the figure of Alessandro Manzoni, the greatest Italian romantic writer, in the context of her 20th-century quest for legitimacy as a female writer and public intellectual.
Charting the Island
My current project, a book-length manuscript entitled “Charting the Island: Position and Belonging in Sicily from Unification to the Union,” sketches out the spatial rhetorics by which Sicilian cultural production shapes the island’s position and belonging to configurations of identity like “Italy,” the “Mediterranean,” the “South,” and “Europe.” Focusing on three big-picture and high-stakes moments in Sicilian history—the 1908 Earthquake of Messina and Reggio Calabria; the ventennio nero; and Italy’s entry into the European Union—my project likens Sicilian belonging to spatially-inflected tropes like ellipsis, synecdoche, and anaphora. The cultural products I examine are wide-ranging and diverse, allowing the project to embrace both literary and non-literary texts from the last hundred years or so: Messina's post-earthquake urban shantytown; Mussolini’s 1937 visit to Sicily to project military force from the island to war-torn Spain on one hand and its nascent Empire on the other; the proposed construction of the Bridge of the Straits; the political theatre of immigration and the symbolic valence of Lampedusa.
Orphic Poetry in Renaissance Italy
My current book project, Orphic Poetry in Renaissance Italy, examines intersections of literature, music, and philosophy, focusing on the new significance that the figure of Orpheus took on in Italian culture beginning in the mid-fifteenth century. Whereas earlier medieval authors had seen Orpheus primarily as a literary and mythical character, Italian humanists in this period attributed to Orpheus a body of poetry that could be interpreted by philosophers, imitated by poets, manipulated by princes, and performed by musicians. I show that the rediscovery of Orphic texts – especially the Greek texts known as the Orphic Hymns – contributed to new reflections on the nature of poetic inspiration, and to the emergence of new forms of poetry and music, from Marsilio Ficino's reconstructions of ancient Orphic singing to Angelo Poliziano's innovative musical drama, the Orfeo.
The Emotions of Absolutism
Seventeenth-century France has been called the Age of Reason and the Age of Absolutism, but it was the age of emotion as well. Descartes claimed the passions as a distinctly modern field of inquiry; Charles Le Brun taught artists how to draw emotions; and Madeleine de Scudéry redrew the map of human relations in the Carte de Tendre. My current book project studies this affective revolution in the context of the birth of print news (the first periodicals in France date from the 1600s). In today’s age where new media creates new affective relationships to power—when we can “friend” (and unfriend) our presidents or follow their tweets—it behooves us to consider the intertwining of emotion and information, affect and media, that defined the early modern subject of absolutism. My new project takes me from media to materiality. From unruly matter on the classical stage (blushing swords and disappearing walls) to the talking coins, birds, flowers, and trees that fill volumes of gallant poetry, what kinds of relationships to the material world does early modern literature navigate, uphold, or subvert? And what happens when we bring the messiness of materiality to the disembodied elegance of French classicism? As a spin-off to this project, I've also organized a faculty-graduate workshop at the University of Pittsburgh on “Premodern Elements”: earth, wind, air, and fire.
From Classroom to Market
My research interests include innovative instructional methodologies and practices that are specific to the teaching of foreign and second languages.For example, I have recently developed courses at the intermediate level in Italian that incorporate content-based instructional methods. My next research project will examine how instructors and program coordinators can incorporate and integrate current best teaching practices into their curricula, and in particular will examine the use of flipped classrooms, technology-enhanced courses, and alternatives to traditional textbooks. Another research interest of mine stems from my interest in Italian food culture and food studies. I am currently working on a presentation in which I will discuss how food culture can be employed in L2 Italian classes and in English-taught history and culture classes to introduce ideas that revolve around diversity and multiculturalism in Italy. This talk will also discuss how to build students' intercultural competence within the field of food studies, by helping students move beyond facile stereotypes that surround Italian cuisine, and help them obtain a better understanding of how food and cuisine have helped shaped Italian regional and national identities.
The Postcolonial Mediterranean Imaginary
Where my first book, Staging the Novel: Bodies of Francophone-Algerian Culture, addresses relations between the Francophone-Algerian novel and forms of political, popular performance, my current work-in-progress moves from questions of form and aesthetics to explore relationships between culture and space in the Mediterranean. Titled Reading Cultures in the Mediterranean this manuscript-in-progress examines the circulation of cultural genres in the Mediterranean, examining the particular ways in which forms of collective memory are imagined through the translation, adaptation, and circulation of both literary texts and performance practices through time and space. This project draws upon completed and ongoing archival research; collaborations with theatre artists; and work on both authors and publishing houses. I envision a book project that focuses on Francophone authors from the Maghreb, Lebanon, and France. Alongside, I continue to maintain strong interests in comparative theatre studies and am concurrently working on two side projects that will culminate in journal articles. The first, focusing on popular, political theatre in Algeria and India, draws on multi-site fieldwork to comparatively analyze the ways local traditions tied to notions of community are transformed in the context of theatre that emerges as a response to the politics of neoliberal globalization. The second project addresses the ways Algerian writers and playwrights have engaged or responded to – either directly or through a body of work – the aesthetics of Samuel Beckett. My interest lies specifically in asking how Algerian artists’ engagement in a Beckettian aesthetics of indifference might further ongoing reevaluations of the postcolonial and political aspects of Beckett’s oeuvre.
The Urban Environmental Imaginary
My current research explores the urban environmental imaginaries of francophone writers around the globe. How does narrative literature imagine more just ways of inhabiting a world marked by increasing migration, rising inequality, and the inevitability of climate change? Recent critical prognoses add a measure of urgency to this question. Achille Mbembe contends that large-scale demographic shifts and a looming ecological crisis will usher in a “planetary reconfiguration of space.” For his part, Eric Prieto writes, “… it has become abundantly clear that the future of humanity will be ever more urban, meaning that any attempt to think seriously about the environment must factor in the various ecological entanglements of cities.” A first step of the project – an essay on the Haitian writer Yanick Lahens’s latest novel, Douces déroutes (2018) – is underway. Lahens depicts daily life in Port-au-Prince, a city set between sea and surrounding hills, and the kind of “informal” urban setting described by Prieto. Lahens’s portrayal of the “soft retreats” of characters across social divides, between Haiti and France, is an unsettling response to the challenge of reconciling long-term environmental care with economic and social well-being. Some characters in the novel take the path of least resistance, at the expense of others, who succumb to inhospitable conditions. The novel’s deep pessimism arguably becomes a call to responsibility on the part of its readers, who are brought to envisage the implications of failure in the neoliberal present for the future of life on the planet. I look forward to presenting pieces of the project this fall at Pitt’s Environmental Humanities Seminar and at conferences at the University of Florida and the Université de Paris 8.
Francophone Linguistic Landscapes
Last year Amani Attia (LCTL, Arabic) and I collected photographs of linguistic landscapes in Paris. We have used these materials in courses this past year on the Oakland campus and I also used them in my stylistics course on the Pitt-in-Paris program as we compared field examples of bilingualism and translation in public advertising. It is interesting to see that while Paris may be the world's largest French-speaking city, it has become, like all other major metropolitan areas, a global Anglophone city as well. Gallo-Euro-English as defined by Jennifer Jenkins (2009) is alive and well in Paris as a commercial and cultural medium. I am currently adding to the corpus of photos, now that we have established stylistic categories in which to place them. In the summer of 2017, supported by a Bowman Grant, I was able to photograph linguistic landscapes in Montreal, a city that, despite its centuries-old and extremely powerful Anglophone minority, presents linguistic landscapes with a much greater proportion of French language signage than many parts of Paris.
French Banlieue Cinema
My current book project seeks to bring a new approach to banlieue films or rather, popular French films that rework the iconography and tropes of the banlieue cinema genre, by fusing them with genre formulae more traditionally associated with Hollywood cinema, especially its low status B-genres, including horror, musicals, science fiction, action-adventure, gangster films, and interracial buddy comedies. Since the 1990s French banlieue films have evolved into a genre that provides a recognizable set of locations, character types, and narrative tropes—ones that have endured across several decades and a diverse set of directors. Much of the scholarly work on banlieue cinema has treated it through a sociological and contextual lens, measuring the degree to which individual films and directors represent the suburbs accurately and gauging what kind of progressive political interventions they make. By analyzing the different transnational genres that have mediated the banlieues in popular French cinema, I show how a body of French popular films seeks to challenge France’s culture of universalism and change public misperceptions of the banlieues and its residents in ways that are complementary to, but distinct from, other banlieue films that take a militant, sociological, or documentary approach.
I am currently developing a book manuscript based on my dissertation, in which I expand the chronological focus of my research to include a discussion on contemporary apocalyptic rhetoric in populist and reactionary movements in Europe and the US. In this project, I trace the links between apocalyptic fiction and politics by pointing out the inherently political nature of apocalyptic fiction as well as the apocalyptic charge of today’s political discourse. The redefinition of gender roles, the alleged reorganization of power dynamics, and the ethnic and cultural makeover of both urban and rural landscapes are only some of the many themes creating apprehension in today's anxious observers, regardless of their being in favor or adverse to the change of the status quo. The current social anxiety that political factions exploit is indeed the trigger and eventually the content of apocalyptic narrative. Whether aligned or standing in opposition to an eschatological stance, politics and narrative repeat the same story: the one of a world on the verge of its end.
Image caption: Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, New York. During an apocalypse.