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Ornamental Aesthetics: The Poetry of Attending in Thoreau, Dickinson, and Whitman | Theo Davis

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Theo Davis, Professor of English

This book argues that ornamental aesthetics are central to the writing of Thoreau, Dickinson, and Whitman. It explores the stakes of such an ornamental aesthetics through a parallel investigation of the ornamental aspects of Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy. It advances a new theory of ornament as a practice of attending, honoring, and noticing, in contrast to more familiar theories in which materiality, handcrafting, or historical grounding are emphasized. Literary criticism and theory are largely organized around a representational core, in which materially embodied forms are interpreted for their underlying meaning; in contrast, ornamental poetics and aesthetics shift the attention to how persons notice, come into contact with, and elaborate interest in objects, ideas, and experiences. Connecting phenomenology, theories of ornamental poetry and rhetoric, and references to Buddhist teaching, the book argues for the central, rich, and undetermined quality of the immediate experiences of aesthetic attending that ornamentation yields. At the same time, it insists on the non-self-evident qualities of such immediate aesthetic experiences, and critiques the emphasis on surface in critical approaches emphasizing readerly non-intervention. It argues against the antihumanism and materialism of much literary criticism, and offers ornamentation as a means to retheorize the centrality of immediate experience to the field of literary studies.

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