Published 28 August 2017
Take a moment to get to know Killian!
You recently completed your PhD. What did your research focus on?
That’s right. I did my postgrad work in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. My dissertation was called Nature’s Spectacles: Ornament, Performance, and Natural History in the Long Eighteenth Century. Yes, that’s a pretty overwhelming mouthful. What I looked at were the ways that scientists, writers, and other artists dealt with environments that didn’t really suit conventional visions of nature. I was especially interested in how aesthetic ideas and scientific ideas informed (and clashed with) one another. I wound up studying some unusual spots, like bogs, the undersea, and some not-obviously-“natural” places, like urban fairs. The eighteenth century is important, because it was during that era that some lastingly influential ways of thinking about the environment flourished, from aesthetics (think about concepts like the picturesque, and the sublime) to science (natural history, geology, proto-oceanography, etc.).
What made you interested in joining SEI and how does your research fit into what we do at SEI?
I became aware of SEI in 2014, when I traveled to Australia to do some archival research for a separate project. (It involves the history of convict transportation to New South Wales, specifically with respect to Irish convicts, and to disease. You can read about it here.) I was fascinated, and frankly thrilled, by the institute’s interdisciplinary practice, and its passion for engaging people not only within academia, but beyond it. I’ve long thought that SEI would be a wonderful place to work, because so much of what I do incorporates various fields — literature, history, visual art, science, and so forth. In 2015 and 2016, I had the chance to attend events at Stanford and at Sydney, co-sponsored by SEI, and I was pretty amazed to see interdisciplinary work happening with such verve and such promise.
What are you currently working on?
I mentioned that one of my case studies for the dissertation involved the undersea. That’s become the jumping-off point for my book project, The Picturesque Ocean: Landscapes, Seascapes, and the Submarine (working title). Again, the eighteenth century provides this fascinating meeting of fresh ideas in art and in science. It’s really useful to think about how the ocean was understood in the period, because those fresh ideas often struggled to apply themselves to the sea, let alone the subaqueous! It goes without saying that our understanding of the oceans remains only partial, and that improving that understanding is of much more than intellectual significance. Engaging honestly and ethically with the sea means reorienting some of our basic assumptions about nature, other creatures, and ourselves. Grappling with literature, art, and history can help. I’m also lucky to be co-editing (with Margaret Cohen) a volume of essays called Senses of the Submarine, which collects some truly innovative humanist approaches to the cultural history of the undersea. Look out for it!