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The Charles Bernheimer Prize Citations 2009

2009 Prize Winner:

This year's Bernheimer Prize Award for Best Dissertation by a Graduate Student in Comparative Literature goes to Jonathan Brook Haley of the University of California, Irvine, for his dissertation, "Atomic Poetics: Materialist Rhythms in Lucretius, Du Bellay, and Mallarme."

Haley's dissertation, unusual for its combination of historical and classical scholarship with deep theoretical understanding, re-examines the roots of atomic materialism in Lucretius and traces its historical transformation in order to elaborate a new theory of literary materialism that illumines the connections between his chosen historical figures, which include Marx and Derrida as well as Lucretius, Du Bellay and Mallarmé. It proposes that atomic indivisibility, which might seem inflexible, generates fluidity - most often expressed through rhythm - throughout a system of atomic units, and shows how this productive contradiction of atomic systems characterizes a tradition that runs counter to the mimetic representational one, not least through its recognition of literature's dependence on its smallest units, such as letters and phonemes. It brilliantly unpacks atomic poetics' historical ramifications through intricate interpretations of Du Bellay and Mallarmé, shrewdly disclosing a connection between imitation of the classics and the development of theories of French poetic rhythm. It also engages in innovative and indeed unexpected ways with the materialist theories of Marx and Derrida, in terms that suggest several new research agendas for either the author himself or others.

Although working with some of the oldest arguments in Western philosophy, this study avoids established scholarly paths in offering its account of how the atomic-materialist critique of Plato and Aristotle forces a rethinking of the nature of linguistic representation. And while in constant dialogue with contemporary thinkers such as Derrida, Lacan, and Kristeva, its conclusions can never be anticipated by a prior knowledge of their theoretical stances. Perhaps most importantly, this study fills the reader with the kind of excitement one recognizes as the mark of the best literary criticism. It makes one want to read its primary texts, and forces one to think about rhythm in a way one hadn't. It teaches us a new way of reading texts we thought we already knew.

2009 Bernheimer Prize Committee:
Eric Hayot, Penn State University (Chair)
Jan Mieszkowski, Reed College
Eric Downing, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill