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Sarah Wasserman: Ephemera, Digital Media, and Academic Trend

Date and Time: 
Monday, April 19, 2021. 12:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Zoom
Workshop: 
Working Group in Literary & Visual Culture 2020
Meeting Description: 

In a little-known essay, Freud defines "transience value" (der Vergänglichkeitswert) as "scarcity value in time." Drawing upon this strange formulation, The Death of Things explores the vanishing object-worlds of post-45 U.S. fiction. Bringing together psychoanalytic insights with theories of material culture, the book shows how writers such as Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Marilynne Robinson, and Don DeLillo use the novel as a privileged medium for reckoning with the changing object relations of postwar America. But what might Freud's formulation and literary portraits of ephemera have to teach us about contemporary scholarly practice? With ever-shorter cycles of topical and methodological trend, "scarcity value in time" might well describe the market forces that shape (what's left of) hiring and publishing. Given the digitization of verbal and visual archives, we also find ourselves in a moment where our objects of study are becoming both more and less permanent than they used to be. This two-edged phenomenon-more preservation and more loss-transfers attention from fixed canons to fleeting spotlights, raising the stakes of "object choice" for emerging humanities scholars. In this talk, Sarah Wasserman, with respondent Rachel Heise Bolten, discusses her book and new projects in the context of academic trend. What are the perils and pleasures of eschewing trend? How can we negotiate the tension between slow, methodical research and the increasingly rapid rhythms of intellectual favor?

Sarah Wasserman is assistant professor of English and associate director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) and co-editor of Modelwork: The Material Culture of Making and Knowing (University of Minnesota Press, Forthcoming in fall 2021), as well as Cultures of Obsolescence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Her essays appear in PMLA, Post45, ASAP, Contemporary Literature, Lit Compass, the Journal of American Studies, and various edited volumes. Her public writing has been published in Public Books, LARB, and Flaunt Magazine. She is currently at work on a book about digital intimacy in contemporary American fiction and an illustrated project on experiences of gender and sexual harassment in academia.

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