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Practical matters How to find us T. (Tim) Jelfs, Dr

T. (Tim) Jelfs, Dr

Assistant Professor of American Studies
T. (Tim) Jelfs, Dr

Completed Projects:


The Argument About Things in the 1980s: Neoliberalism and the Remaking of American Culture (Forthcoming, West Virginia UP 2018)

This monograph is a cultural history of some of the complex ways Americans spoke about, wrote about, and pictured material things and their relation to them from the mid-1970s to the prosecution of the Persian Gulf War. It argues that one peculiar epiphenomenon of the reconfiguration of capitalism that came during this period (which we might usefully think of as witnessing the birth of a long neoliberal age that has not yet ended) was an intensification—or at the very least, a rendering more prominent—of a deep-rooted cultural argument about the proper place of material things in American life.

My book shows how this argument, which has for centuries been central to understandings of what the United States is, was and may in the future be, can be traced across a range of political and cultural discursive arenas. I propose that what is missing from existing accounts of how late twentieth century U.S. culture engaged with the question of "things" is some much-needed nuance, American culture's contribution to the argument about things having all too frequently been (mis)characterized as taking the form of either the celebration or denigration of something called “American materialism.”

Thus, while Jimmy Carter told his fellow citizens in 1979 that “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning,” and while those few critical treatments of the topic that can be found frequently fail to advance much beyond a set of well-rehearsed critiques of late capitalist consumption and consumerism, I combine perspectives from cultural history, critical theory and literary studies with insights from the ever-evolving fields of consumption and "object studies" to show how, for many producers of culture in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the things Americans were living among were, in fact, replete with meanings, posing a series of consequential questions about art, death, love, war--and ultimately, the thing (or the argument) that is the United States itself. 


Single Author Essays

Alongside projects of wider-scope, I have also published a series of articles on (and remain interested in) the work of the following contemporary U.S. authors: Marilynne Robinson, Nicholson Baker, and Don DeLillo. 

Ongoing Projects:

Among the Debris, or from 9/11 to Donald J. Trump: Narratives of Crisis, Sovereignty, and Occupation in Post-9/11 U.S. Culture 

NB: The following will be the subject of an October 2017 NWO VIDI grant application.

One feature of political discourse in the United States since 9/11 has been the intensity of the focus placed on questions of constitutional form during what increasingly appears to be a crisis-induced period of national self-questioning. “What, exactly, are we? And what ought we to be?” politicians, activists and other interested commentators have loudly and repeatedly asked as they survey the debris left in the wake of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. “Are we a democracy or an empire? A republic or an oligarchy?” That the twin crises of this still-young century should have prompted such self-questioning is perhaps unsurprising. After all, it is surely in the nature of "crisis" to prompt self-reflection of one sort or another, and a wide array of political speech and writing stands testament to the fact that these questions are now being addressed with real urgency.

Drawing on disciplinary perspectives from political science and philosophy as well as cultural and literary studies, Among the Debris explores the ways discursive forms other than overtly political speech and writing have taken up these questions. How, specifically, have the fictional (and even non-fictional) narratives that U.S. readers and audiences consume contributed to the debate about national identity and sovereignty in the crisis-beset post-9/11 era? How have narrative cultural forms such as the novel, or television series, or even digital podcasts, participated in this era-defining discussion? Equally, how have political actors and commentators made use of such cultural narratives to bolster the various claims they have made about the United States and its place in the world?

It is my central aim in Among the Debris to show that in the United States (and potentially elsewhere), the literary and cultural narratives of our era have been no less animated than political debate by the questions of sovereignty and space that lie at the heart of much contemporary "crisis discourse." The ways these questions have been engaged in both political and cultural narratives of the post-9/11 United States reveal deep-rooted anxieties about the distribution of power in the U.S. that have come to assume very distinctive forms in the early twenty-first century.

At the same time, such engagements also raise important conceptual questions about the very notion of crisis in relation to both contemporary liberal democracy and narrative culture: How do we know when a crisis state obtains in a liberal democracy and when it does not? How do we conceptualize crises that seem more or less permanent, and how does that apparent permanence problematize the notion of crisis itself? What is the role of narrative culture and the critique of such culture in defining, sustaining, or defusing notions of crisis? Does narrative culture always arrive too soon (or too late) to assist in the important socio-political work of both naming and forestalling crises? Can it ever be said to have arrived just in time?

Last modified:25 June 2022 10.55 a.m.