Carnegie Mellon University
August 23, 2023

Faculty Spotlight: Mariam Wassif

By Stacy Kish

Mariam Wassif, assistant professor of English, has focused her scholarly work on rhetoric, race and material culture in the long 18th century. She focuses on the relationship between literary style and material culture in an era of advancing capitalism and global unrest.

Tell me about your scholarly work.

I am a Romanticist who works within, around and against the traditional Romantic canon in order to position Romanticism in a global and transnational context. My current book project, “Poisoned Vestments: Rhetoric and Material Culture in Britain and France, 1660 to 1820,” examines how writers of that period grappled with the chaos of emerging racial capitalism and globalization. It traces their use of the double-sided classical concept of ‘Kosmos,’ which can indicate a harmonious arrangement (the cosmos) and at the same time a superficial outward ‘dress’ that can mutate as chaos. Ultimately the book argues that these writers locate chaos not in the outposts of empire, but at the heart of Western civilization, as the underside of the ‘cosmos’ or harmonious ‘order’ that civilization is supposed to impose. This is perhaps most apparent when we think of Romanticism as an age of revolution encompassing the French and Haitian revolutions. Global resistance movements like the Haitian revolution extended a radically different understanding of what the cosmos could look like, including the racial order and the system of property ownership. The authors whose work I analyze include John Milton, Phillis Wheatley Peters and Jane Austen.

How is your scholarly work adding to the greater field?

In the broadest terms, my work examines how history shapes language, and how language shapes history. The long 18th century was an era of huge social transformation whose consequences are still with us. This work advances the field’s understanding of how writers of the Age of Revolution critiqued phenomena like capitalism and slavery as well the limits of those critiques.

How did you become interested in this topic?

I became interested in this topic during graduate school. I took a course with my advisor Cynthia Chase at Cornell. She drew our attention to a striking passage in “Essays Upon Epitaphs,” by the poet William Wordsworth. In it, he writes that “if language is not an incarnation of thought but only a clothing for it” that it becomes an ‘ill gift’ that can lead to madness. Wordsworth restyles a comparison from the Classical tradition, in which language is said to be the ‘dress’ of thought. Wordsworth states that this ‘dress’ which is supposed to give shape and order to thought can actually kill it. He draws on Greek stories of gifts that become curses, like Pandora’s box or the poisoned coat of Hercules.

I was struck by how seriously Wordsworth took literary language and its influence on the mind and the world. He saw language as political and ideological, but he also had limitations too. He failed to see the institution of slavery as fundamental to the social order he attacked. I became interested in how the authors of the long 18th century saw the need to develop language for the new historical moment and the limitations of the political critiques of even the most radical European writers.

What are you most excited to accomplish as a faculty member at CMU?

My colleagues in the English Department all do fascinating work, and I am excited to develop my own thinking, writing and teaching as part of this scholarly community. I am also honored to be part of a group of dynamic junior scholars of color who will enhance the department’s curricula through diverse perspectives and will contribute to a positive culture. Finally, I am excited to help CMU students develop a humanist outlook and approach to whatever profession they adopt.

What are your goals for the next generation of scholars?

I would love for the next generation of scholars to encounter a version of academia that is more communal and humane and less driven by elitism and competition. There are large structural forces that work against this, but I hope to work toward these goals in community with others in my small sphere of influence.

The Faculty Spotlight series features new and junior faculty at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. Stay tuned for our next installment to learn more about the dynamic and engaging research and scholarly work being conducted in the college.