Jeffrey Severs

Associate Professor

Research Classification

Research Interests

American Literature

Relevant Degree Programs

Research Options

I am available and interested in collaborations (e.g. clusters, grants).


Master's students
Doctoral students
Postdoctoral Fellows
Any time / year round

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Neuroscience, Consciousness and Neurofiction (2018)

This study undertakes a comprehensive examination of neurofiction – a genre of literary fiction which has emerged in response to what scholars have termed neuroculture. Neuroculture refers to the cultural ascendancy of neuroscience witnessed by Anglo- American society over approximately the past thirty years, and the associated predominance of materialist conceptions of consciousness.By examining works from four authors – Oblivion (2004), by David Foster Wallace; The Echo Maker (2006), by Richard Powers; Enduring Love (1997) and Saturday (2005), by Ian McEwan; and The Sorrows of an American (2008), by Siri Hustvedt – this work of contemporary cognitive historicism establishes and explores three grounding themes of neurofiction: pessimistic biologism, neuro-introspection, and neuro-intersubjectivity. Pessimistic biologism refers to a demoralizing view of human existence as dispiritingly mechanistic and existentially isolated; neuro-introspection refers to the the capacity for individual minds/brains to perceive and observe themselves; and neuro-intersubjectivity refers to the capacity for individual minds/brains to engage in forms of communication or empathy with their analogs.This study demonstrates how these three overarching themes frame and motivate the neurofictional works of my four authors, and how my conception of neurofiction brings into sharper focus other concerns of the genre. These other concerns include the so-called Hard Problem (the disconnect between, and irreconcilability of, objective and subjective accounts of consciousness); the Two Cultures (a perceived epistemological and philosophical clash between scientific and humanistic forms of enquiry); forms of obscured mysticism or spirituality; and the question of the value of fiction in the neurocultural era.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

When pain "finds a voice": the articulation and narrativization of pain in the work of David Foster Wallace and Charlie Kaufman (2021)

In response to the increasing cultural interest in diversifying the canon by no longer engaging with problematic artists such as David Foster Wallace and Charlie Kaufman, this thesis argues the merit in continued critical engagement in their work—particularly, because of their complex treatment of pain. While paying particular attention to questions of gender, this thesis illuminates how their characters, when faced with its all-encompassing, destructive power, seek to express and address their own pain. First, “Breaching That Wall” examines how Wallace in “The Depressed Person” and Kaufman in Synecdoche, New York address the problem of pain’s inherent inexpressibility. Analyzing the ways in which characters struggle to articulate their pain, this chapter not only explores the inevitable failures that arise as they employ literary devices such as metaphor and synecdoche to approximate their pain experience but also elucidates the necessity in undergoing this process. Then, “Whereby One Does Not Equal Two” investigates how women become talismans, or “invested objects,” through which male characters seek to alleviate their pain. Using Julia Kristeva’s definition of melancholy, this chapter traces how the male protagonists’ pain permeates and corrupts their relationships in Wallace’s “B.I. #20” and Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Ultimately, in uncovering the importance of empathy in the face of seemingly insurmountable pain, this thesis illustrates the significance of Wallace and Kaufman’s contribution to critical conversations about pain, gender, and the necessity of human connection.

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Tertium datur: making contact in Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star (2018)

Ratner’s Star is considered one of Don DeLillo’s more inaccessible texts, and with good reason: taking the history of mathematical progress as its major temporal arc, Ratner’s Star eschews many conventions of fiction in order to create a unique system that operates—as manycritics have noted—on a complex interplay of opposites.Fewer critics, however, have noted the importance of genre to this text. Going beyond the customary nod to Menippean satire, critics David Cowart, John Johnston and Mark Osteen, in particular, investigate the history of this genre to pose texts such as Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland as important models for Ratner’s Star. Extending existent scholarship, this present study roots DeLillo’s text firmly within the tradition of Menippean satire as defined by M. M. Bakhtin, not only to situate DeLillo’s concerns within the context of satire (this hasalready been accomplished) but also to activate a full-scale analysis of Ratner’s Star in Bakhtinian terminology.With Raphael’s School of Athens as a visual touchstone, this study investigates how DeLillo frames and re-frames the tension between the mathematically abstract and the materially tangible by employing Bakhtin’s definitions of the grotesque and heteroglossia. As a stronglygrotesque character, Robert Hopper Softly and the “antrum” of his creation encapsulate such interplay of the abstract and the tangible while leaving this tension ambivalent and unresolved. The “New York episodes,” brief flashbacks where DeLillo grounds his protagonist in prosaiclife, present a world according to the Menippean style of carnivalesque “slum naturalism,” wherein languages live and are lived in, rooted to their surroundings. On the other hand, Logicon, an artificial “universal” language, opposes the lived experience and heteroglossia of these New York episodes. In order to demonstrate DeLillo's suspicion of the destructive capability of such a universal language, this study concludes by defining Logicon as the primaryantagonist of the novel, a tyrannical and abstracting force that threatens heteroglossic language and the plural realities it represents, Menippean satire as a genre embracing relativity, and most crucially, the artistic discourse of the novel itself.

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"I Cannot Place This": Grief as Destablished Order in Interactive Metafiction (2015)

Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates depict the effects of loss on self-perception in a way that is informed by these books’ unconventional physical structures. Both are interactive texts that identify the fragmentation of the self as a key feature of grief and their aleatory, randomizable structures perform the involuntary and disruptive nature that Susan Brison identifies as characteristic of traumatic memory. These experimental books thus call attention to the physicality of reading and to the reader’s role as an active participant who is responsible for the construction of meaning that arises from physically ordering each text. The fragmentary nature of the grieving subject is embodied by chapter divisions, which in both texts act as the primary sites of randomization. In this respect, the chapters of these books can be productively understood using the framework of Derridean citationality, as their ability to be re-ordered in different contexts enables a multiplicity of potential meanings. The metafictional themes of both books further destabilize clear divisions between author and reader, with the texts ultimately suggesting that grief involves a disruption of the individual’s ability to position themselves within organizational frameworks such as causality that would enable straightforward comprehension of the self in relation to the world.

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Inarticulate and Unshareable: Negative Feelings and the Memoir in David Foster Wallace's Post-Infinite Jest Fiction (2015)

This thesis reads David Foster Wallace’s post-Infinite Jest fiction against forms of confession found in the American “memoir boom,” a period marked by a surge in interest (both commercial and aesthetic) in nonfictional autobiography. More specifically, this thesis traces the way Wallace’s fiction between 1997 and 2008 registers diffuse and non-intentional affective states that typically do not appear in conventional memoirs. Problems attending the representation of such feelings first appear in Infinite Jest, intensify in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and become an explicit point of concern with respect to the memoir-genre in The Pale King. Taking the memoir boom as defining a rhetorical milieu of confession, candor, and sincerity in which Wallace’s later fiction should be situated, this thesis examines the short stories “Octet” and “The Depressed Person” with respect to Wallace’s growing concern about the seeming disjunction between extant literary forms and the “nameless interhuman sameness” of contemporary experience. This thesis then discusses The Pale King – a long novel that self-consciously situates itself within the memoir boom, and which continues Wallace’s interest in “inarticulate” and “unshareable” feelings. The Chris Fogle novella that makes up the twenty-second section of Wallace’s final novel will be read as enacting a critique of the ways in which “inarticulate” feelings were passed over in literary representations of emotional experiences during the memoir boom. By contrast, section twenty-four – which features a notoriously long description of a traffic jam – will be read as illustrating the ways in which Wallace’s fictional representations of “unshareable” feelings complicate the more optimistic claims about empathy, community, and civics that we find in his nonfiction.

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"No way to return": Agentic assemblies, switchback resistance and spatializing Thomas Pynchon's narrative politics in Vineland (2012)

This thesis focuses on one of the least acclaimed novels in Thomas Pynchon’s canon, Vineland. It was reviewed with disappointment by critics like Brad Leithauser, who writes that Vineland falters “chiefly through its failure in any significant degree to extend or improve upon what the author has done before.” I argue against such a reading, and position Vineland as a critical turning point for Pynchon’s work in which his articulation of the relationship between humans and nonhumans is dramatically refigured. I do this by reconsidering the history of American countercultural politics presented in Vineland in two distinct ways. First, attending to Pynchon’s critical interest in landscapes and urban spaces, I argue that the novel’s histories should be read as conceptual objects, materially coded into the landscape in such a way that they speak through these landscapes. Second, continuing to focus on ways in which space and materiality function in this novel, I draw out the nonhuman actors at work in the narrative in order to demonstrate a shift in Pynchon’s conceptualization of the relationship between what he often refers to as the animate and inanimate worlds. While his earlier novels posit an inanimate world that is threatening to humans, Vineland’s human-nonhuman dynamic is far more entangled in terms of its investment in how these actors function in assembly with each other. I pay particular attention to what Jane Bennett calls “agentic assemblages,” groupings of human and nonhuman materialities—a storm or a power grid, a city or a bioregion—that function together to author the spaces that they occupy in this novel. At stake here is a refiguring of historical agency as the product of a web of competing human and nonhuman discursive strategies. I argue that the novel’s narrative politics is one in which nonhumans have an authorial role, and that its form repeats this politics by deploying a spatial and discursive navigational strategy for human actors living in a world which is fundamentally nonanthropocentric. Through this narrative politics, Vineland emerges as a major contribution to late-20th century critical thought on spatiality, political ecology, materialist philosophy, and narrative theory.

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