New Adventures in American Studies

Friday, Apr 02, 2021 | 10:30 am - 2:30 pm


Join us for three in-depth conversations about new and exciting work in American Studies:

  • Edgar Garcia discussing his book, Signs of the Americas, with Fred Moten;

  • Erica Fretwell discussing her book, Sensory Experiments, with Elizabeth Dillon;

  • Joshua Bennett discussing his book, Being Property Once Myself, with Dylan Rodríguez.

Register here to join.


Edgar Garcia, Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

Indigenous sign-systems, such as pictographs, petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, and khipu, are usually understood as relics from an inaccessible past. That is far from the truth, however, as Edgar Garcia makes clear in Signs of the Americas. Rather than being dead languages, these sign-systems have always been living, evolving signifiers, responsive to their circumstances and able to continuously redefine themselves and the nature of the world. Garcia tells the story of the present life of these sign-systems, examining the contemporary impact they have had on poetry, prose, visual art, legal philosophy, political activism, and environmental thinking. In doing so, he brings together a wide range of indigenous and non-indigenous authors and artists of the Americas, from Aztec priests and Amazonian shamans to Simon Ortiz, Gerald Vizenor, Jaime de Angulo, Charles Olson, Cy Twombly, Gloria Anzaldúa, William Burroughs, Louise Erdrich, Cecilia Vicuña, and many others. From these sources, Garcia depicts the culture of a modern, interconnected hemisphere, revealing that while these “signs of the Americas” have suffered expropriation, misuse, and mistranslation, they have also created their own systems of knowing and being. These indigenous systems help us to rethink categories of race, gender, nationalism, and history. Producing a new way of thinking about our interconnected hemisphere, this ambitious, energizing book redefines what constitutes a “world” in world literature.

Erica Fretwell, Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Duke University Press, 2020).

Sensory Experiments excavates the nineteenth-century science of psychophysics and its theorizations of sensation to examine the cultural and aesthetic landscape of feeling in nineteenth-century America. Fretwell demonstrates how psychophysics—a scientific movement originating in Germany and dedicated to the empirical study of sensory experience—shifted the understandings of feeling from the epistemology of sentiment to the phenomenological terrain of lived experience. Through analyses of medical case studies, spirit photographs, perfumes, music theory, recipes, and the work of canonical figures ranging from Kate Chopin and Pauline Hopkins to James Weldon Johnson and Emily Dickinson, Fretwell outlines how the five senses became important elements in the biopolitical work of constructing human difference along the lines of race, gender, and ability. In its entanglement with social difference, psychophysics contributed to the racialization of aesthetics while sketching out possibilities for alternate modes of being over and against the figure of the bourgeois liberal individual. Although psychophysics has largely been forgotten, Fretwell demonstrates that its importance to shaping social order through scientific notions of sensation is central to contemporary theories of new materialism, posthumanism, aesthetics, and affect theory.

Joshua Brandon Bennett, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man (Harvard University Press, 2020).

Throughout US history, black people have been configured as sociolegal nonpersons, a subgenre of the human. Being Property Once Myself delves into the literary imagination and ethical concerns that have emerged from this experience. Each chapter tracks a specific animal figure―the rat, the cock, the mule, the dog, and the shark―in the works of black authors such as Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, and Robert Hayden. The plantation, the wilderness, the kitchenette overrun with pests, the simultaneous valuation and sale of animals and enslaved people―all are sites made unforgettable by literature in which we find black and animal life in fraught proximity. Joshua Bennett argues that animal figures are deployed in these texts to assert a theory of black sociality and to combat dominant claims about the limits of personhood. Bennett also turns to the black radical tradition to challenge the pervasiveness of antiblackness in discourses surrounding the environment and animals. Being Property Once Myself is an incisive work of literary criticism and a close reading of undertheorized notions of dehumanization and the Anthropocene.


Joshua Bennett is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. He is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016)—which was a National Poetry Series winner and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award—as well as Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man  (Harvard, 2020) and Owed  (Penguin, 2020). Bennett holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University, and an M.A. in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Warwick, where he was a Marshall Scholar. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, MIT, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University He is currently at work on a book of narrative nonfiction, Spoken Word: A Cultural History, forthcoming from Knopf.

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon is Professor in the English Department and Co-Director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern University. She teaches courses in the fields of early American literature, Atlantic theatre and performance, and transatlantic print culture. She is the author of New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849 (Duke, 2014) and The Gender of Freedom: Fictions of Liberalism and the Literary Public Sphere (Stanford, 2004), as well as co-editor of The Haitian Revolution and the Early U.S.: Histories, Geographies, Textualities (Penn, 2016). Other projects include Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive.

 Erica Fretwell is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She received her Ph.D. in English from Duke and her B.A. in Anthropology and English from NYU. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century American literary and cultural studies, the history of science, affect studies, as well as critical theories and histories of race, gender, and disability. Fretwell has published Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Duke, 2020) in addition to articles in American Literary History, J19, and Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities.

Edgar Garcia is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the hemispheric literatures and cultures of the Americas, principally of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with particular interests in fields of indigenous, Latinx, and Chicanx studies; American poetics; environmental criticism; theory of law; and the intersection of poetry and anthropology. His books include Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu (Chicago, 2020); Infinite Regress, poems for exhibition catalog of visual art of Eomon Ore-Giron (Bom Dia, 2020); and Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography, book of poetry and creative nonfiction about dreams as reservoirs of historical and anthropological experience (Fence Books, 2019).

Fred Moten is Professor in the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts. He teaches courses and conducts research in black studies, performance studies, poetics and critical theory. His books include In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minnesota, 2003); Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works, 2009); B. Jenkins (Duke, 2010); The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions / Autonomedia, 2013), co-authored with Stefano Harney; The Feel Trio (Letter Machine, 2014); Black and Blur (Duke, 2017); The Universal Machine (Duke, 2018); and Stolen Life (Duke, 2018).

Dylan Rodríguez is Professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at University of California, Riverside.  He was named to the inaugural class of Freedom Scholars in 2020 and is the current President of the American Studies Association (2020-2021). His thinking, writing, teaching, and scholarly activist labors address both the complexity and proliferation of historical regimes and logics of anti-Black and racial-colonial violence in everyday state, cultural, and social formations. His books include White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logic of Racial Genocide (Fordham, 2021), Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime (Minnesota, 2006) and Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition (Minnesota, 2009). He is a founding member of Critical Resistance, a national carceral abolitionist organization.


All conversations will streamed live on the Zoom Webinar platform on April 2, 2021.

Times below are in Pacific Daylight Time (PDT).

10:30am – 11:30am

Edgar Garcia discussing his book, Signs of the Americas, with Fred Moten


Erica Fretwell discussing her book, Sensory Experiments, with Elizabeth Dillon


Joshua Bennett discussing his book, Being Property Once Myself, with Dylan Rodríguez

For more information, please visit the English Department’s event webpage here.

Presented by the English Department with the African American Studies Department, American Cultures Center, American Studies Program, Ethnic Studies Department, and the Center for Race & Gender.

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