Interdisciplinarity best summarizes and characterizes my academic career both as a student and now as a teacher and researcher. As an undergraduate, I pursued courses in literature, philosophy, religion, history, anthropology, and classics in addition to the French literature courses required of my official major. As a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, where I earned my Ph.D. in 1988, these interdisciplinary interests were further encouraged and developed in concentrated work in literary theory. The work for my doctoral dissertation—and all of my work since—attempts to combine these interests by questioning the relationships between and among the disciplines while at the same time attempting to offer new insight into literary and philosophical texts.
My field of specialization is the Enlightenment, which suits my interdisciplinary interests perfectly. Working on Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, and others of the period enables me to question what I consider to be fundamental problems, not only of eighteenth-century France, but of contemporary society as well.
My research combines questions in political science, for example, what constitutes a legitimate exercise of power by government over an individual citizen, with ethical considerations, like, when should an individual acting out of conscience oppose an exercise of power by government, and it tries to elaborate these questions in a historical context by considering, for example, how issues of class relationship might inflect these questions differently in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.
My first book, Mass Enlightenment: Critical Studies in Rousseau and Diderot, examines the emergence of mass culture in the pluri- and interdisciplinary context provided by the French Enlightenment's relationship to German Idealism, Marxism, and the Frankfurt School. My second book, Beyond Contractual Morality: Ethics, Law, and Literature in Eighteenth-Century France, analyzes a cluster of questions deriving from the application of principles borrowed from political liberalism, and specifically, the social contract tradition, in the realms of ethics and law. In this work, I examine questions concerning public education, tolerance, the regulation of the private sphere, and marriage contracts in the light of eighteenth-century theoretical preoccupations, but also from the perspective of the late twentieth century.
Finally, my most recent work, Rousseau among the Moderns: Music, Aesthetics, Politics, a reevaluation of Rousseau's corpus through the lens of music theory to question his contribution to thinking about music as an aesthetic force in social life. Arguing for new interpretations of The Social Contract, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, and The Confessions, as well as other texts, I link Rousseau's understanding of key concepts in music, such as tuning, harmony, melody, and form, to the crucial problem of the individual's relationship to the social order. The choice of music as the privileged aesthetic object enables Rousseau to gain insight into the role of the aesthetic realm in relation to the social and political body in ways often associated with later thinkers. Indeed, much of Rousseau's "modernism" resides, I argue, in the unique role that he assigns to music in forging communal relations through the aesthetic.
I have had the great fortune to be able to incorporate these interests in both undergraduate and graduate teaching.