I research the hemispheric literatures and cultures of the Americas, principally of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My inquiries have taken place in the fields of indigenous, Latinx, and Chicanx studies; American poetics; environmental criticism; theory of law; and the intersection of poetry and anthropology; with the following questions focusing my work: How are semiotics and aesthetics an interface for racial and national positionalities? And how do those positions—that is, social locations of identity, race, gender, kinship, and ecology—change when cast in the aesthetic forms that one finds in signs on the outside of normative semiotics, troping, and figuration?
In responding to those questions, I focus on the literatures and cultural practices that—for various social reasons—tend not to be taken seriously as literature and culture: the contemporary literature, visual art, legal philosophy, and environmental thinking of non-alphabetical sign systems such as pictographs and khipu; dreams; practices and textual formations of divination; magic. Because my scholarship and creative practices are concerned with the world-bearing qualities of literary works (especially poetics), these inquiries often take place at the intersection of anthropology and literary studies. And my teaching reflects these interests in both content and form: my classes regularly involve strong creative components, in addition to lessons in context, history, and theory.
While indigenous sign-systems, such as pictographs, petroglyphs, hieroglyphs, and khipu, are usually understood as relics from an inaccessible past, my book, Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu (University of Chicago Press, 2020), argues that rather than being dead languages, these sign-systems have always been living, evolving signifiers, responsive to their circumstances and able to continuously redefine themselves and the nature of the world.
In Signs of the Americas, I tell the story of the present life of these sign-systems, examining the contemporary impact they have had on poetry, prose, visual art, legal philosophy, political activism, and environmental thinking. In doing so, I bring together a wide range of indigenous and non-indigenous authors and artists of the Americas, from Aztec priests and Amazonian shamans to Simon Ortiz, Gerald Vizenor, Jaime de Angulo, Charles Olson, Cy Twombly, Gloria Anzaldúa, William Burroughs, Louise Erdrich, Cecilia Vicuña, and many others. From these sources, I depict the culture of a modern, interconnected hemisphere, revealing that while these “signs of the Americas” have suffered expropriation, misuse, and mistranslation, they have also created their own systems of knowing and being. These indigenous systems help us to rethink categories of race, gender, nationalism, and history. Suggesting a new way of thinking about our interconnected hemisphere, this book aspires to redefine what constitutes a “world” in world literature.
An article portion of this book (“Pictography, Law, and Earth: Gerald Vizenor, John Borrows, and Louise Erdrich” in PMLA) was honored for the William Riley Parker Prize from the Modern Language Association. And the research for this project was supported by a fellowship at the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a fellowship at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at The New School, a two-year Provost’s Career Enhancement Postdoctoral Fellowship that I held at the University of Chicago (2015-17), and the Neubauer Family-endowed assistant professorship that I currently hold.
In the same vein as Signs of the Americas, my book of poetry and auto-ethnographic essays, Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography (Fence Books, 2019), seeks to examine in serious terms the dream not just from Freudian premises, but from historical and anthropological ones too—to see what of colonialism and the foundational colonial mythos of Christopher Columbus is embedded in the contemporary unconscious. In practical terms, what that means is that, for the three months during which Columbus traveled the coasts of the Americas on his first voyage here, I read his journal entries every night before going to sleep, thinking intently on the plot, images, symbols, motives, and landscapes, to make myself dream the colonial subconscious. Notes throughout the night recorded my dreams; in the days I wrote essays, poetry, and made the visual art that constitute this book, Skins of Columbus.
This book was awarded the Fence Modern Poets Series Award, and received an award from the Illinois Arts Council; and the research for it was supported by a fellowship at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at The New School.
I have also worked in collaboration with visual artists to further examine the kind of relation between image and text that I’ve discussed in terms of pictography in Signs of the Americas. One such collaboration, with the visual artist Eamon Ore-Giron, has resulted in an artist book published by Bom Dia Books in Berlin. This artist book—titled Infinite Regress (Bom Dia Books, 2020)—pairs paintings from Giron’s series with my poetry and writing about the art (and its interaction with the tradition of Peruvian goldwork and the geometries of hard-edged abstraction). My “Tractatus” for this project channels my research and work exploring the hemispheric literatures and cultures of the Americas to create a poetry thick with abstraction, exploring the formal and theoretical elements of the artist’s works (in its optical play and multiplicity of planes on the canvas) as a kind of apprehensibility of origins in their visual and poetic forms.
I am presently (2020) working on two books.
One is a work of scholarship on the relation between divination and migration. These two things come together in my inquiry as twinned modes of risk analysis in scenes of temporal crisis (people seeking to possess a new future). This new book, “Migrant Lots,” considers the risk analysis of contemporary global migration not from the dehumanizing standards of probability (and the science of demographics to which such practices of making social norms out of numbers and counts gives rise), but rather from older (Pre-Pascalian) figurations of risk: such as fortune, fate, influence, and divination. Therefore, this project is located in two main historical moments and locales—the literature and arts of contemporary inter-American migration (especially from Central America and Mexico to the United States) and the European Renaissance, in which the theorization of such figures as fortune, fate, and foresight was robust.
The other book that I am working on is about the K’iche’ Mayan story of creation, the Popol Vuh. I am especially interested in how the Popol Vuh proposes its form as a way of seeing (and not just a thing to be seen, that is, not just as mere content—but indeed theoretical, historical, and aesthetic form). In taking seriously the form of the Popol Vuh, in seeing how it shows us how to look, I continue my long trajectory of elaborating the world-bearing aspects of the poetics of the Americas.