Jeffrey Severs

Associate Professor

Research Classification

Research Interests

American Literature

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


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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.

Caught in the act of innocence: consensus, war, and myth in post-cold war American literature and film (2022)

My study examines expressions of American innocence in post-Cold War U.S. fiction and film and considers how these cultural artifacts reveal the role of this potent cultural myth in consent for war after 9/11. As John Shelton Lawrence writes, “the notion of national innocence seems central” to post-9/11 consensus about war. Similarly, Marita Sturken sees a “renewed investment in the notion of American innocence” after 9/11 (7), and Donald Pease casts 9/11 as an uneasy navigation of the “fantasy of radical innocence” (162) that American mythology has enabled. I argue that my exhibits trace the recuperation of this mythical innocence across what Samuel Cohen calls an “interwar decade” (4) and reveal its renewed cultural currency as the post-Cold War era was transformed by 9/11 and the U.S. began its War on Terror, an abstraction that took form in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I examine how Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997) probe Cold War nostalgia in the “interwar decade” and interrogate notions of American innocence that rely on such nostalgia. I then anatomize how Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998) invoke a nostalgic discourse of WWII that contributed to a recuperation of American innocence instrumental to the call to war after 9/11. I go on to show how Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012) expose the rift between notions of American innocence and the realities of war by depicting young veterans who struggle to reconcile the two as they return from the Iraq War. I also show how Toni Morrison’s Home (2012), written shortly before the end of the Iraq War, rebukes American nostalgia for the putative innocence of the 1950s by tracing the homecoming of an African American veteran of the Korean War. Finally, I explore how Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Argo (2012) articulate distinct but complementary notions of American innocence that capture yet another recuperation of American innocence in the wake of the Iraq War.

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Organic matrices: the encoded world in the U.S. computer novel in the twenty-first century (2022)

This dissertation considers how American novels written after the year 2000 use maximalist and postmodern stylistic devices in investigating the problem of technological determination and its relationship to human autonomy. I examine how Matthew McIntosh, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon as authors of such novels identify the historical and ideological conditions that led to a contemporary media landscape in which human behavior and cognition are increasingly changed by the ubiquity of computers and the Internet. In my chapter on The Pale King (2011), I discuss Wallace’s attention to the material conditions and hardware on which computers rely, and I consider the role of algorithmic processes and automation in creating a culture of surveillance that serves the ends of neoliberal profit-making enterprises. In my chapter on Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006), I consider how informatic practices like record-keeping and cartography prefigure the ideological conditions of the Internet by compromising individual privacy and thus safety. I also consider how Pynchon takes the principles of the natural world, particularly entropy as an irreversible process, as a model for possible resistance to such invasive tracking. In my chapter on Pynchon’s later novel Bleeding Edge (2013), I consider the increasingly gentrified virtual sphere, looking at the struggle between collaborative “hacker ethics” and the Internet’s potential to bolster authoritarian power. Finally, in my chapter on McIntosh’s TheMystery.doc (2017), I examine the implications of humanity’s increasing dependence of computers and the consequences to artistic creation and individual autonomy of outsourcing the projects of memory to machines.

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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.

"Is it real? 'Cause you're online": the legacy of postmodern ethics as a critique of metamodernism (2022)

In 1989, the renowned postmodern scholar Linda Hutcheon suggested that the postmodern period had ended and that something new was beginning to take its place. Since this pronouncement, a distinct subset of literary scholarship has devoted itself to theorizing the contemporary, and numerous proposed successors to the postmodern have emerged. This thesis interrogates one such theory: Timotheus Vermeuelen and Robin van den Akker’s metamodernism. Like other theorists of the contemporary, Vermeulen and van den Akker attribute the contemporary period with a particular desire for authenticity and connection which is opposed to the attitudes of irony and nihilism that are typically associated with the postmodern. In their theory, Vermeulen and van den Akker associate this contemporary move to sincerity with a return to or redeployment of modernism. The authors thus place the ideology of postmodernism and modernism on two distinct poles, where the postmodern pole is associated with irony and nihilism and the modern pole is associated with earnest enthusiasm. Vermeulen and van den Akker argue that contemporary attitudes navigate the space between postmodern irony and modern enthusiasm by oscillating between them, tending at some times towards irony and at others towards earnestness.In this thesis, I argue that Vermeulen and van den Akker oversimplify the postmodern to only its most negative traits, and in doing so, they overlook how postmodernism has actually impacted our current historical moment. By analyzing first a canonical postmodern text (i.e., Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) through the lens of Hutcheon’s historiographic metafiction, I demonstrate that postmodern works have a more ethical potential than the metamodern framework allows. I then turn to a contemporary work of metafiction (i.e., Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet) to illustrate how, when its ethical potential is considered, postmodernism can be understood to have a more nuanced and productive influence on the contemporary.

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"The horrific struggle to establish a human self" : the hideous immanence of David Foster Wallace's Brief interviews with hideous men (2022)

David Foster Wallace’s fiction is haunted by the spectral threats of solipsism and narcissism, evidence of a career-long preoccupation with the isolation and suffering of the modern subject. In the large body of scholarship amassed by Wallace's work a critical axiom has emerged that his artistic project is ultimately redemptive, committed to upholding the values of compassion, authenticity, and empathy in the face of a prevalent alienation, extensively and disturbingly depicted, resulting from the ironic distance, paralyzing self-consciousness, and crushing boredom endemic to contemporary U.S. society. Adam Kelly, despite authoring the hugely influential paper responsible for Wallace’s association with New Sincerity, intriguingly concludes his 2016 review of Wallace criticism by suggesting its overwhelming stress on the "affirmative quality” of Wallace’s work risks failing to “capture the darker side of Wallace's dialectic, the bleaker aspects of his vision," which may, "in the end, be the most productive to consider” ("Critical" 59). Taking up Kelly’s charge, my thesis will explore Wallace's short story cycle Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and argue for its investment in a different, less straightforwardly affirmative conceptual framework: the philosophy of immanence. To rehabilitate the redemptive conception of immanent experience typically ascribed to Wallace's fiction, I turn to some key pieces of his non-fiction to suggest that Wallace conceives of immanence as a deeply uncomfortable affective state in which the structured modes of understanding that typically organize reality are violently stripped away. Finally, I argue that Brief Interviews is not just invested in the darkness and terror of immanent social life but is itself darkly terrifying: its interrogative and antagonistic relationship with the reader repeatedly functions to disturb, communicating the uncomfortable uncertainty of immanent experience as a lived emotional reality.

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Spaces of value in William Gaddis's The Recognitions (2022)

This thesis provides a thorough analysis of Williams Gaddis’s depiction of capitalism and American imperialism in his magnum opus, The Recognitions (1955). Often read as a late Modernist, early Postmodernist text primarily concerned with aesthetic and spiritual questions, this thesis argues that The Recognitions also exhibits a profound concern with the changing material realities of lived space under intra- and post-World War II American capitalism. The first chapter analyzes the scenes set in New York through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “abstract space” to relate Gaddis’s depictions of urban infrastructure to his critique of the decline of civic culture through alienation and overreliance on mass media. The second chapter argues that The Recognitions prefigures the critique of American imperialism that becomes central to Gaddis’s mid-career works, J R (1975) and Carpenter’s Gothic (1985). Through a critical examination of the text’s depiction of non-American spaces (Paris, Central America, and Spain), it demonstrates how American industries commodify cultural practices and overwrite Indigenous spatial arrangements to subordinate all other ways of life to the demands of capital. The second chapter concludes by examining the scenes set in the Spanish countryside, linking the novel’s spatial themes with its aesthetic and spiritual ones through a discussion of Gaddis’s descriptions of monumental built structures. Drawing on philosopher G.A. Cohen’s distinction between preserving particular valuable things and preserving value as such, it argues that the depictions of enduring monuments present a spatial metaphor for an attitude toward value more broadly, one that resists the reductive, utilitarian attitude that shapes the novel’s other spatial arrangements. In asserting the centrality of space as an important category for understanding The Recognitions’ depiction of capitalism and identifying the presence of Gaddis’s later critiques of imperialism in his earliest work, this thesis enriches our understanding of Gaddis’s engagement with the socio-economic realities of his time and identifies an avenue for further inquiry into the global aspects of his fiction.

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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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