Berkeley English Faculty

Stephen M. Best

Stephen M. Best

Professor; affiliated faculty member in the Department of Film and Media; member of the Critical Theory designated emphasis

Wheeler Hall, room 407
On leave: 2019-2020

Professional Statement

My 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.   My 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, my 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 my 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, I have edited a number of special issues of the journal Representations (on whose board I sit) – “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.  I also published 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. My most recent book, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life, was published by Duke University Press in 2018. 

My work has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Humanities Research Institute (University of California), and the Ford Foundation; and in 2015-2016, I was the Mary Bundy Scott Professor at Williams College.

None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life
None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life

It passes for an unassailable truth that the slave past provides an explanatory prism for understanding the black political present. In None Like Us Stephen Best reappraises what he calls “melancholy historicism”—a kind of crime scene investigation i....(read more)

The Fugitive's Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession
The Fugitive's Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession

In this study of literature and law before and since the Civil War, Stephen M. Best shows how American conceptions of slavery, property, and the idea of the fugitive were profoundly interconnected. The Fugitive's Properties uncovers a poetics of int....(read more)

Selected Publications and Papers Delivered

"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. 

"Surface Reading," Representations 108 (Special Issue: The Way We Read Now), Eds. Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, Fall 2009, 1-21.

“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.

Recent English Courses Taught