Stephen M. Best

Professor & Rachael Anderson Stageberg Chair in English; Director, Townsend Center for the Humanities

Stephen Best's scholarship encompasses a variety of fields and materials: American and African-American literature and culture, cinema and technology, rhetoric and the law, and critical theory. His research pursuits in the fields of American and African American criticism have been rather closely aligned with a broader interrogation of recent literary critical practice. To be specific, his interest in the critical nexus between slavery and historiography, in the varying scholarly and political preoccupations with establishing the authority of the slave past in black life, quadrates with an exploration of where the limits of historicism as a mode of literary study may lay, especially where that search manifests as an interest in alternatives to suspicious reading in the text-based disciplines. To this end, Professor Best has edited a number of special issues of the journal Representations (on whose board he sits) – “Redress” (with Saidiya Hartman), on theoretical and political projects to undo the slave past, “The Way We Read Now” (with Sharon Marcus), on the limits of symptomatic reading, and “Description Across Disciplines” (with Sharon Marcus and Heather Love), on disciplinary valuations of description as critical practice. 

Best is the author of two books: The Fugitive's Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (University of Chicago, 2004), a study of property, poetics, and legal hermeneutics in nineteenth-century American literary and legal culture; and, most recently, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (Duke University Press, 2018). 

His work has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Humanities Research Institute (University of California), and the Ford Foundation. In 2015-2016, he was the Mary Bundy Scott Professor at Williams College, and in spring 2020 he was the Whitney J. Oates Fellow in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. 

Selected Publications

“Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982),” Public Culture 32.2 (May 2020): 431-439. Special Dossier: Undead Texts and the Disciplines That Love to Hate Them. Eds. Lorraine Daston and Sharon Marcus.

"La Foi Postcritique, on Second Thought," PMLA, vol. 132, no. 2 (March 2017), 337-343.

"Building a Better Description," Representations 135 (Special Issue: Description Across Disciplines), Eds. Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best, Summer 2016, 1-21.

"Come and Gone," Small Axe 48 (November 2015), 186-204. 

“On Failing to Make the Past Present.” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (September 2012): 453-474. Special Issue: Realisms After Modernisms: Views from the Literary Periphery. Eds. Joe Cleary, Jed Esty, and Colleen Lye. Reprinted in The Toni Morrison Reader. Eds. April Mosolino and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Amistad-Harper Collins, 2022).           

“Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive." Representations 113 (Winter 2011): 150-163. Special Issue: New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual. Eds. Huey Copeland, Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, and Krista A. Thompson. 

"Surface Reading," Representations 108 (Special Issue: The Way We Read Now), Eds. Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, Fall 2009, 1-21. Reprinted in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Third Edition). Eds. Vincent Leitch, et. al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018) 

“Fugitive Justice,” Representations 92 (Special Issue: Redress), Eds. Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, Fall 2005, 1-15. “Best Special Issue for 2006” (first prize), awarded by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals.

The Fugitive's Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.


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