Christy Burns came to William & Mary in 1992, the year between Anita Hill and Lorena Bobbitt, when terms like “sexual harassment” and “marital rape” were just beginning to enter the field of national consciousness.
Hired by the English Department to teach modern British
literature, specializing in fiction, Burns soon began teaching in the
Women’s Studies program as well. There, she says, she found a
supportive environment where women’s issues and analyses of gender and
sexuality were beginning to thrive.
After being tenured in 1998, Burns began teaching in the College’s Film Studies program as well. She has taught a course on the impact of visual culture on how race, sexuality, and gender are perceived in U.S. culture since the 1950s, and she is currently developing a new course on Globalization and Irish film (1950s to present). Both courses are linked to book projects and a series of articles in print or forthcoming. Her first media studies publication was on postmodern paranoia in The X-Files (Camera Obscura), and she followed this with an analysis of race in the film Suture (Discourse). She currently has an article on Irish film and another on nostalgia in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky under consideration.
While much of her current work focuses on film and the media, Burns’ research has more generally addressed the political valences of representation in literature and film. While working on her Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University’s Humanities Center, she specialized in modern literature, continental philosophy, and critical theory. She has taught courses, growing out of these interests, in literary theory, queer theory, modern British fiction, postmodernism, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. In her first book, Gestural Politics: Stereotypes and Parody in Joyce (2000), Professor Burns addresses the treatment of gender, sexuality, and nationalism in James Joyce’s fiction. She develops a method of interpreting stereotypes in dialogue with humor and contra-realist fictional form, drawing on Jacques Lacan’s theories of aggressivity and paranoia and Derrida’s deconstructive approach to referentiality. Coupling this approach to political reading with contextual work on the influence of eurhythmics and modern dance, she finds that Joyce employs, as he parodies, stark, aggressive textual gestures where stereotypes emerge. He also, however, shifts to playful babble and non-confrontational forms of address, drawing away from static types and quick interpretability. Burns therefore locates an alternation between parody and paranoia, and she assesses textual gestures in terms of their ability to dislocate the polarities that give rise to the aggressivity that produces stereotypes.
Professor Burns’s current book project, “Beyond Reason: Sensate Meaning in Modern to Twenty-First Century Fiction,” examines the twentieth-century avant-garde’s critique of the rationalist conception of meaning, as writers turned toward sensate meanings located in the materiality of words and bodies, and in the unconscious. Mapping the influence of phenomenology, psychology, and racialized and gendered narratives in anthropology, this project explores the impact of modernism’s sensory emphasis as it is passed on to postmodern and contemporary writers, focusing on the nexus of relations between aesthetic pleasure, primitivism, nostalgia, and sexuality. Professor Burns has also published articles on paranoia in Nabokov, Joyce, and Pynchon; and on feminist aesthetics in the works of Jeanette Winterson, Eavan Boland, and Virginia Woolf. This spring, she will be teaching an author course on James Joyce in the English Department.