Collecting Knowledge, Writing the World: An Enlightenment Project?


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships


French, and Comparative Literature and Society


This dissertation brings together the methods of the study of literature and history of science to examine the processes of production of literary texts and knowledge in France and Germany from the Enlightenment to the present day. It analyzes modes of knowledge collection, such as museums, encyclopedias, and herbaria as concrete practices, and it shows what epistemological and ethical assumptions they involve. It argues that, at the heart of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s botanical research and Denis Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” both created paradigms for writing the world. The project uses two further case studies—Émile Zola’s systematic field researcher in the late nineteenth century and the solitary collector and natural historian of knowledge at the center of W.G. Sebald’s fictions at the end of the twentieth century—to show how these paradigms continued to shape ambitious attempts to collect knowledge and write the world at the intersection of science and literature.