"Stories and songs are like humans who when they laugh are indestructible."
--Joy Harjo, "A Postcolonial Tale," The Woman Who Fell From the Sky
One of the ways in which I think about my work, as a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary thinker and teacher, is to say that my work is invested in the power of story. My engagement in the oral and written traditions of Native writers and the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas is spirtually connected, for both traditions originate in the stories and experiences of persecuted peoples. Although a student of Martin Heidegger, Levinas—as a Lithuanian Jew—was imprisoned in a labor camp, and his immediate family was murdered during the Nazi's genocidal campaign. It was out of his bearing witness, as a survivor of the Holocaust, that his work ultimately challenged the prevailing assumptions of Continental, ontological philosophy, and re-envisioned ethics as a discipline irrecusably invested in the obligation owed to the Other. It is through the stories and songs of these Others that we can recover a trace of their face, that we can begin to discover the urgency of our shared responsibility to build a world in which we will not permit the Other "to suffer," unjustly, nor "to die alone."
My first book, Ethical Disruption and the American Mind (2003, in the "Horizons in Theory and American Culture" series from Louisiana State Press) examines six moments in 18th and 19th-century America, when the presence of the Other--specifically, the Indian and the African--disrupts the American discourse on freedom. Incorporating literary, photographic and performative texts, my book traces a journey through J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters From An American Farmer, Thomas Paine's incendiary writings, Thomas Jefferson's Declaration and Notes on Virginia, the oratorical and photographic texts of Frederick Douglass and Sarah Winnemucca, culminating in John Brown's triumphant failure at Harper's Ferry. As the range and content of the book suggests, my training as a scholar in 19th-century comparative American literatures is an essential component in my work as a writer and thinker in the diverse, and complicated, terrain of the American landscape.
My more recent work explores the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly with artists working in visual languages. My graduate seminar, "Art, Ethics and Justice," aspires to build connections, bridges, between the perspectives of literary and critical-based thinkers and the innovative envisionings of visual artists. My second book, in progress, Behold This Face: Dialogues on Art, Ethics and Justice, investigates questions of alterity (or, difference), cross-cutural identity and alternative artistic medias, through a series of ethical dialogues with five women artists of difference. These artists are painter, Chandra Cox and public arts sculptor, Barbara Grygutis, earth activist Kate Vandemoer, and poets, Haunani-Kay Trask and Joy Harjo. These are women whose work calls, and compels me to re-discover and re-investigate the ways in which "art"--literary and visual--can challenge us to be more awakened, more ethically conscious members of our national and global communities. I owe them, each, a great deal of gratitude.