My research focuses on the way in which literature, criticism, and other cultural activities are caught up within epistemic and political struggles. I am interested in understanding, in particular, how the nineteenth-century novel in England and France mutates in response to changes in what counts as knowledge (the emergence of physiology, statistics, economics, biology, linguistics, Darwinism); how cultural criticism carves out a niche for itself within the field of disciplines; and how fiction and criticism function as instruments of power. These concerns are reflected in my first book, Vital Signs, an analysis of the ways in which the realist imagination was shaped by the diagnostic techniques and professional tactics borrowed from clinical medicine. Since completing that relatively tightly focused project, I have broadened my scope to include a larger set of research questions about the utilities of culture. What is the history of efforts to mobilize culture for various ends? How has the "public good" aspect of the arts, humanities, and heritage been conceived? If the cultural field can be understood as an economy, a market, or an ecological system, what norms govern its functioning, and what norms ought to do so? What good (or harm) does culture do? How has this impact been measured? How does the state regulate, exploit, promote, protect, or manage the arts and humanities? How can we best understand the role played by intellectuals of various sorts in relationship to the state and public interests? These questions led me to co-found the Cultural Policy Center, which brings together faculty whose research—whether in economics, law, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, political science, public policy, history, art history, or cultural studies—touches on or could help inform policies (regarding copyright regimes, government funding, censorship, heritage preservation, etc.) affecting the arts and humanities.
As Faculty Director of the Center, I organized several major conferences, on topics ranging from the promise and perils of videogames to the preservationist controversies over the World Trade Center site and Soldier Field. From one of these conferences, on the battle that erupted over the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibition, I edited a collection of essays for a volume entitled Unsettling "Sensation." My own cultural policy research has followed two parallel tracks. One line of research is aimed at developing a theoretically-informed way of identifying and analyzing the empirical effects of cultural "scenes" in American cities; a side project has focused on new ways of measuring the quality and vitality of live music scenes (Chicago Music City). The other line of research concerns a very different phenomenon: the looting of antiquities. I have published two books (one as editor) dealing with the looting of Iraq's national museum and archaeological sites, and am working now on a book about the more general problem of how best to bring the black market in antiquities under control.
A part of my teaching in recent years has been devoted to courses with a policy angle: I have taught an introduction to cultural policy studies, a course on culture in the marketplace, and, most recently, a course on the politics of taste. I continue, however, to teach courses on nineteenth-century European fiction.
- The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
- Chicago Music City. The report is available on the Cultural Policy Center's Web site.
- Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, ed. Lawrence Rothfield (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
- "The Interests in ‘Sensation.'" Introduction to Unsettling "Sensation": Arts Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy, Rutgers Series on The Public Life of the Arts (Rutgers University Press, 2001).
- "Cultural Policy Studies?! Cultural Policy Studies?! Cultural Policy Studies?! A Guide for Perplexed Humanists." This essay is available on the Cultural Policy Center's Web site.
- "Being There with Elaine Scarry," review of On Beauty and Being Just. In Minnesota Review, nos. 52-54 (Fall 2001): 309-14.
- "Victorian Medicine." In Blackwell Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. Herbert F. Tucker (Boston: Blackwell, 1999).
- Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. In the "Literature in History" series edited by David Bromwich, Lionel Gossman, and James Chandler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).