Research Overview

My first book Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America is forthcoming from Duke University Press in Fall 2021 from the Peverse Modernities series edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe. I am laying the groundwork for a second project Sex Without Love: Affect, Bodies, and Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Sex Work Narratives.

Primary Research Areas: early and nineteenth-century American literature; African American literature; Asian American literature; critical race studies; affect studies; feminist and queer theory; history of science and medicine; history of law

Secondary Areas of Interest: science fiction; comic books and graphic novels

Project Overviews

Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America

In this book project, I challenge the prevailing assumptions about feeling and politics articulated by Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s demand “to feel right” in opposition to the purportedly dispassionate disciplines of American science and law. By juxtaposing under-studied literature by African American and Asian American authors alongside works by white novelists of the American Renaissance and popular white women writers, my project analyzes literary portrayals of feeling and unfeeling in relation to rapidly professionalizing scientific and legal discourses in the culture of sentiment. I pair chapters on Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Martin Delany’s Blake on the role of blackness and the language of sentimentality within the biological and medical sciences. In Melville, I trace how Captain Delano’s benevolent racism toward black subjects is achieved through the sentimental logic that undergirds the development of American polygenetic race science and the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), arguing how scientific objectivity and legal formalism work to sanitize their sympathies. In contrast, Delany, one of the first black men to be accepted into Harvard Medical School, imagines a new form of crosscultural sympathy between African Americans and Native Americans in order to reclaim science and law as part of a liberatory system of feeling that can unite black, Native, and Asian subjects in rebellion across the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa. Conversely, the next two chapters examine how gendered and racialized forms of unfeeling, like queer female frigidity and Oriental inscrutability, resist scientific and legal oppressions naturalized through feeling. I examine the entrance of white women into medical science in relation to the rise of anesthesia and gynecological fears of queer unwomanliness; instead of feminizing the discipline, women doctors manipulated the unfeeling professionalism of medicine in order to divert their emotional lives away from the imperatives of marriage and family. Sarah Orne Jewett’s and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s novels dramatize this dynamic: the woman doctor clashes against her male antagonist/love interest, a lawyer who embodies the naturalized patriarchal order. My final chapter traces the trope of Oriental inscrutability in the Yellow Peril discourse articulated in race science and political speeches that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In an examination of Sui Sin Far’s short stories, I argue that Oriental inscrutability is a tactic for Chinese women to evade the epistemological mastery of whiteness in their movements between the United States, Canada, and China. My project disrupts prior understandings about the influence of sympathy and sentimentality in nineteenth-century America and the afterlife of these discourses of feeling in identity politics by intervening in the antisocial turn in queer and affect theory through the idea that unfeeling can be a survival tactic for marginalized subjects.

Sex Without Love: Affect, Bodies, and Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Sex Work Narratives

In 2015 Amnesty International declared their official advocacy for the decriminalization of sex work in order to protect the human rights of sex workers. Although the organization clarified that it saw sex workers as distinct from victims of trafficking, controversy erupted, exposing not just the usual divide between sex positive progressives and traditional conservatives, but also the schisms within feminism about sex, respectability, and personal agency. In my second project Sex Without Love, I propose to bring contemporary feminist debates about sex work in dialogue with research and analysis on the rise of prostitution in 19th-century America and the concurrent pathologization and legislation of Black, Asian, and Native women’s bodies. The book examines the intersections of eugenics and public health with slavery, the Page Act (1875), and the Dawes Act (1887). By analyzing literature by American writers such as Harriet Jacobs, Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, and S. Alice Callahan that depict the complex negotiation for women of colour between sentimentalism and sexualization, I offer critique and counterbalance to the privileged narratives of scandal and sensationalism in the growing urban environment by popular white social crusader-writers like George Lippard and Lillie Devereux Blake. Through exploring the dilemmas facing the recognition of women’s emotional work and physical labour in the 19th century, I argue for critical attention to histories of women’s affects and self-representations of embodiment. This work thus gestures to historic and racial omissions and elisions in ongoing feminist debates regarding sex work. Ultimately, Sex Without Love intervenes by contributing historical, literary, racially comparative, and theoretical nuance to feminist discussions about the divide between exploitation and empowerment in sex work.