New Faculty
Marc Redfield Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Marc Redfield
Professor of English and Comparative Literature

By Mark Nickel  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

We are, many of us, anxious about our world of instant global communication. We know that what we see and read helps us fashion our understanding of the world and our place in it, yet we do not know whether the material we see and read truly represents what is happening in the world — or whether it is even fair.

Anxiety about mass representation is not a 20th- or 21st-century phenomenon. “Our culture’s anxieties about representation, media, and aesthetics really kicked in during what we call the Romantic Era, the French revolution and postrevolution era,” said Marc Redfield, professor of English and comparative literature. “That begins the era of mass communications, mass representations, and propaganda in the modern sense. It’s a very modern condition, but it’s not exactly recent.”

Redfield examined those Romantic Era themes in his first two books — Phantom Formations: Aesthetic Ideology and the Bildungsroman (Cornell University Press, 1996) and The Politics of Aesthetics: Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism (Stanford University Press, 2003). He was finishing the second book when the September 11, 2001, attacks occurred.

Redfield was led to write about 9/11 both because of the trauma of the attacks and because of the government’s responses, he said. He recognized a familiar anxiety about the representation of wounds that were deeply traumatic and profoundly symbolic.

“I became interested in the way our culture felt the desperate need to represent 9/11 but also to ward off representations of 9/11,” he said. “From the beginning, you find strictures against photographing the site, but you will also find a vast number of photographs, even photographs of people taking photographs.”

Redfield’s third book, The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror (Fordham University Press, 2009) also reflects upon the dominant response: declaring war on an abstraction, in this case the War on Terror. “The phrase ‘Homeland Security’ also interested me,” Redfield said. “It was a kind of utopian attempt to control more than can really be controlled, to secure our borders and spaces at the same time our modern media were making them ever more permeable.”

Redfield, a graduate of Yale (B.A., History, the Arts and Letters) and Cornell (M.A. and Ph.D., English) comes to Brown from Claremont Graduate University, where he has taught since 1990 and served as the John D. and Lillian Maguire Distinguished Professor in the Humanities since 2002. One of his major interests is the redefinition of Romanticism in the English context, and his focus is often on the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth.

“Wordsworth turns out to be a touchstone,” he said. “I have loved and taught Wordsworth for the last 20 years in California, but I am more interested in him now. That has partly to do with becoming middle-aged. Of all the Romantic poets, Wordsworth is the one who most starkly confronts mortality. ... These are poems you can live with and grow old with.”

And will Wordsworth command the attention of undergraduates?

“Well, we’ll find out,” Redfield said. The last class he taught in California was a graduate-level seminar on Wordsworth. Many of the students took the course because they had enjoyed Redfield’s other courses, but they began with a very low opinion of Wordsworth. That changed.

“They were extraordinarily involved with the material and were surprised to find Wordsworth so interesting. Some great papers came out of it,” Redfield said. “This spring I’ll be teaching Gothic novels and Romantic poetry, and we’ll have some Wordsworth. I’m eager to see what Brown undergraduates have to say about that combination.”