I studied for a BA and DPhil in English at Wadham College, Oxford from 1973 onwards, gaining my DPhil in 1980. I became Lecturer in English at Birkbeck College, London in 1980, where I was Professor of Modern Literature and Theory from 1994. From 2003 to 2012, I was Academic Director of the London Consortium Graduate Programme in Humanities and Cultural Studies, a collaboration between academic and cultural institutions in the capital that fostered and supported students in projects of cross-disciplinary enquiry. I have been Grace 2 Professor of English in Cambridge since 2012.
Fields of research
My research interests usually have their rise in the literature and culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though most turn out to have a longer historical contour. My areas of interest include magical thinking; the history of medicine; the cultural life of objects and the material imagination; the relations between culture and science; the philosophy of animals; the body, sense and sexuality; literature, numbers and economics; literature and technology; and the history of sound, voice and auditory media. I have also written on contemporary art for Cabinet, Tate Etc, Modern Painters and others, and broadcast regularly for radio.
IKKM Research Project
The Mattering of Knowledge: Epistemopathy and Epistemocracy
As a study into the forms of our care for knowledge – a care that extends as far as our self-designation as homo sapiens, the knowing hominid – what I am calling epistemopathy would allow for an investigation of the experience of knowing and the quality of our awareness of it. Where epistemology concerns itself with what we can know about knowledge, epistemopathy is concerned with what we feel about knowledge. It would be concerned with the idea of knowledge, the value we accord to it, the feelings we invest in it and the potent desires, dreads, aggressions and fantasies to which it may give rise. What do we feel, and fear, about knowing? What are the dreams and fantasies (and terrors) attaching to it? How do we speak or write of it, what social tone and temper do we impart to it, and through it? How, when and where do we encounter it? How does it form us, and infect or inflect other things? How do we, in Sartre’s transitive usage, ‘exist’ knowledge? What forms of the ‘libido of belonging’ (Serres) are channeled through the drive to know? How does the pursuit of knowledge make and modify space?
During my time at the IKKM I will have a particular concern with the current state of our relation to knowledge, and the possibilities and perils of an epistemocracy in which only knowledge will count for anything. I will look forward to developing in particular at the IKKM my thinking about the relation between the affective landscapes of knowledge and technologies of information and communication. If knowledge has always been entangled with apparatuses for storing, processing and transmitting information, how will our feelings about knowledge and about ourselves as sapient beings, or sujets-supposés-savoir (Lacan) change with the relay and delegation of ever more cognitive operations through instruments and mediating institutions? Questions about the affective forms and functions of knowing seem particularly salient under circumstances in which contemporary media simultaneously make available a vastly enlarged plenum of information and a huge intensification in the production and transport of emotional fixation and inflammation. Knowing and feeling seem ever more closely allied and even alloyed when our contemporary media and machineries of knowledge are also preeminently media and machineries of dream-feeling. Because an epistemocracy depends upon, or at least results in, the hugely-enlarged production and circulation of ideas, images and fantasies about knowledge itself, the traditional idea (itself phantasmal) that rationality should be regarded as the opposite pole to feeling, will need to give way to a world in which knowledge is subject to ever denser affect-saturation, the intelligible increasingly a mode of the sensible. I will aim to investigate the condition of the states of quasi-affect, intense, epidemic in their speed of transmission, yet curiously unfelt, produced by contemporary media.
Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations (London: Reaktion/Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)
Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Living By Numbers: In Defence of Quantity (London: Reaktion/Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Dream Machines (London: Open Humanities Press, 2017)
The Madness of Knowledge (London: Reaktion, forthcoming 2018)
'Rustications: Animals in the Urban Mix', in The Acoustic City, ed. Matthew Gandy and B.J. Nilsen (Berlin: Jovis, 2014), pp. 16-22
‘Spellings Things Out’, New Literary History, 45 (2014): 183-97
‘ “Was That a Point?” Beckett’s Punctuation’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Beckett and the Arts, ed. S.E. Gontarski (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), pp. 269-81
'Scilicet: Kittler, Media and Madness', in Kittler Now: Critical Perspectives in Kittler Studies, ed. Stephen Sale and Laura Salisbury (Cambridge and Malden MA: Polity, 2015), pp. 115-31
'Guys and Dolls', Women: A Cultural Review, 26 (2015): 129-41
‘Literature, Technology and the Senses’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature, ed. David Hillman and Ulrika Maude (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 177-96
‘Choralities’, Twentieth-Century Music, 13 (2016): 3-23
'Vocus Pocus', in This Is A Voice: 64 Exercises to Train, Project and Harness the Power of Your Voice, ed. Jeremy Fisher and Gillyanne Kayes (London: Profile, 2016), pp. 6-16
'Numbers It Is: The Musemathematics of Modernism', in Moving Modernisms: Motion, Technology, and Modernity, ed. David Bradshaw, Laura Marcus and Rebecca Roach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 98-109
'The Game of Work: Ai Weiwei and Wittgenstein', Ai Wewei: Cubes and Trees (Cambridge: Heong Gallery, Downing College, 2016), pp. 23-7
'Decomposing the Humanities', New Literary History, 47 (2016): 275-88
‘How To Do Things With Writing Machines’, Writing, Medium, Machine: Modernist Technographies, ed. Sean Pryor and David Trotter (London: Open Humanities Press, 2016), pp. 18-34
'The Return of Finitude', Textual Practice, 30 (2016), 1165-6
‘Modernism After Postmodernism’, The Cambridge History of Modernism, ed Vincent Sherry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 820-34
'Two-step, Nerve-tap, Tanglefoot: Tapdance Typologies in Cinema', in Sounding Modernism: Rhythm and Sonic Mediation in Modern Literature and Film, ed. Julian Murphet, Helen Groth and Penelope Hone (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), pp. 211-27