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  • The 2016 Richard Beale Davis Prize
  • Monique Allewaert, Duncan Faherty, and Jordan Alexander Stein

It is with sincere pleasure that the prize committee awards the 2016 Richard Beale Davis Prize to Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, for her essay "Atlantic Aesthesis: Books and Sensus Communis in the New World." This essay considers the nature of aesthetic judgment, and finds in this familiar eighteenth-century subject a wholly new and startlingly fresh theory of the cultural processes and imperial contexts in which such judgment develops. Grounding its notion of the aesthetic in aesthesis—in sensory cultivation and embodied experience—Dillon's essay advances the claim that "the aesthetic is never wholly distinct from aesthesis—from the process by which sensation becomes a site of shared meaning and, conversely, the process by which sensation shears away from the constraints of collective sense into materiality as well." Displaying substantial learning and great originality, this essay successfully shows how European colonial domination by way of Enlightenment technology can be rewritten from below.

Following the decades-long turn in our field away from aesthetic evaluations of literary texts and toward historicist and culturalist questions, "Atlantic Aesthesis" considers a historicist and culturalist understanding of the aesthetic itself, demonstrating with admirable reflexivity how our contemporary critical categories came to seem opposed to one another in the first place. Dillon's essay looks across a range of European examples—including diaries and contact narratives by Thomas Morris, John Smith, Thomas Hariot, and Gabriel Sagard—to show how Native and, to a lesser extent, African people engaged materially and sensually with printed books, while European chroniclers cast aspersions on these forms of engagement. Yet her essay further elaborates the complexity and sophistication behind many of these non-European engagements with texts, so that when the essay turns in its final section to a consideration of wampum, Dillon is able to demonstrate how this communicative medium (despite being non-alphabetic and, by that standard, nonreferential) exemplifies a form of aesthesis evident in European engagements with texts as well. [End Page 1]

Though "Atlantic Aesthesis" appeared alongside many other excellent essays, it distinguished itself in a number of salutary ways. One was its sheer theoretical firepower. Moving fluently between discussions of Kantian judgment, Frankfurt school Marxism, and actor-network theory, the essay distills complex ideas in a synthetic, intelligent, and persuasive manner. But Dillon's essay does not rely on a canon of European critical theory, and indeed one of its other great strengths is its success in digging deep into indigenous theories of text, textuality, and sensory response, and positioning these in relation to European accounts of the aesthetic. Moreover, when the essay turns to its historical materials, it reads familiar colonial texts anew, showing how seemingly minor details such as the inventory of gifts exchanged between imperial and indigenous actors becomes central to the much larger story of how scholars have come to think about what texts are and how they should be read. Furthering the essay's intellectual strengths is the able and clear writing that makes its argument a pleasure to follow from introduction to endnote. Creative in its conception and robust in its synthesis, "Atlantic Aesthesis" indicates the potential of early American literary studies as field where interdisciplinarity means a deep and serious engagement with multiple aspects of the past, and thoughtful consideration of how the past comes to bear on the historical present. [End Page 2]

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-147X
Print ISSN
0012-8163
Pages
pp. 1-2
Launched on MUSE
2018-03-06
Open Access
No
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