Appointed As

Humanities Initiative


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


Georgetown University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, Comparative Literature, Yale University

Dissertation Abstract

"Adagios of Form"

My dissertation, “Adagios of Form,” explores the aesthetic stakes and political implications of slowness, starting with the modernist novel and extending through the emergence of recent movements such as “slow food” and “slow art.” I look at an array of novels, artworks, musical compositions and films to explore how such works both reflect and produce new understandings of slowness, re-labelling it as expertise, personal autonomy or creativity. In music, adagio is a tempo marking, a signal to slow down relative to the surrounding rhythm of the passage or piece being played. Taking that comparative conception of time to heart, my research investigates how in the clash between private and communal time, an individual’s rhythm can be misread as “falling behind,” eliding its potential role as an interpretative key to selfhood and identity.
In recent years, humanities scholars, philosophers, and artists alike have turned to slowness as both a vein of inspiration and a critique of late capitalism. In the last decade, building on this critical interest, scholars of film and media studies have begun to revise the conventional account of modernism, both early and late, as preoccupied with the aesthetics of technological speed triggered by the invention of the railway, the car and the telegraph. These newer studies focus instead on advancements in still photography or the highly-dilated sequences of the spaghetti Western, arguing that new technology actually permits us to indulge in the fantasy of slowness. Such work, however, has largely been confined to visual culture. The literary readings I propose reveal the unforeseen aesthetic forms slowness can take in other media as well as its close connection to economic status. Who can afford and who is forced to slow down? And what can literature tell us about it?
The first two chapters of “Adagios of Form” investigate how the modernist novel created a forum in which communal conflicts about pace could be negotiated. The first chapter examines how novelists Henry James and Joseph Conrad utilize recurring metaphors of time management to explore what it means to act and carry out tasks on behalf of other individuals in a slow manner. The latter part of the chapter turns to the rise of mechanical automation, specifically how Italian and Czech authors such as Luigi Pirandello and Karel Čapek satirized the period’s conviction that the machine is a better agent than the human worker, one less prone to unproductive behavior. My second chapter takes up how the Italian modernist Italo Svevo and French novelist Marcel Proust represent characters who are prone to excessive hypothesizing. These two writers employ hypotheticals not to comment on the daily uncertainties their characters face but rather to reveal how the craft of writing itself takes time.
My dissertation then moves beyond representations of time management and creativity to manifestations of slowness as class consciousness. My third chapter shows how, influenced by the conventions of film and theater, the conversation novels of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald experimented with the extended representation of “idle talk,” a seemingly inferior kind of dialogue engaged in by bohemians and society girls alike. Faulkner and Fitzgerald attempt to redeem the moral ambiguity of chatter, especially its ready association with immorality. A fourth chapter focuses on a new character type in the novels of Saul Bellow. This vocation delaying figure, who favors a radical humanistic openness, was distinct from the dilatory literary types that influenced Bellow, such as the Russian “superfluous man” or the luftmensch of Yiddish literature.
My dissertation closes with an epilogue that meditates on how modernist slowness has been repurposed in contemporary art and literature. I propose a new term, “slow consumables,” to describe, among others works, certain musical compositions by Max Richter and John Cage as well as the late novellas of Don DeLillo. For example, Richter’s Sleep lasts over eight hours and positions itself as a political statement against the speed of late-capitalist life. Yet it also permits partial participation by actively encouraging listeners to doze off or leave the performance space. I argue that slow consumables display a latent eagerness to be engaged with or consumed, blurring the line between artist and viewer and between complete and fragmentary performance. In the end, my scholarship shows how productive a concept as simple as slowness can be in the hands of great artists, yielding unexpected insights into the representation of political concerns, particularly clashing conceptions of private versus communal time.