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Department of English Language and Literature


Meili Steele

Title: Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department: English Language and Literature
College of Arts and Sciences
Office: HUO 321
Resources: English Language and Literature


PhD, University of North Carolina, 1984

Areas of Specialization

   Literary Theory
   Philosophy and Literature

Recently Taught Courses

ENGL 385     Modernism
ENGL 388     Literary Theory from Plato to the Present
ENGL 734/CPLT 702    Modern Literary Theory
ENGL 830/CPLT 703    Imagining Human Rights
SCHC 181    Inquiry in the Humanities

Professional Accolades

   Morrison Research Award 2012
   Russell Award for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2007.
   NEH Institute, CUNY Graduate Center, 2006, "Human Rights in Conflict: Interdisciplinary Perspectives."

Current Research Projects 

The Transformation of Public Reason: From Principles to Social Imaginaries offers a new problematic for public reasoning that gets us beyond the opposition between constructivist idealism (Rawls and Habermas) and political realism. Social imaginaries are the historical and normatively inflected ontologies that make the world and subjectivity possible. These deep structures are the starting points for public reasoning and they require us to work with a variety of discursive forms rather than focusing on the deduction of a principle. The second project, Pathways to the Present: Critical Theory Since Kant, takes important thinkers in literary theory, philosophy, history, and sociology and connects them synchronically and diachronically. My goal is to show different "pathways" change the way we understand contemporary debates.

Selected Publications 

Hiding from History: Politics and Public Imagination
Cornell University Press, 2005

"Hiding from History is an excellent book on a very important issue. It concerns the nature of practical reason, how we deliberate about good and bad, right and wrong. Of course, we deliberate as individuals too, but the issue here is how we deliberate in common. Meili Steele addresses the nature of public reason, highlighting the way that literature can contribute to rational debate, sometimes in ways that philosophical argument cannot match."
—Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, McGill University

"Meili Steele has written a great book, tightly argued, but expansive in scope. He shows how contemporary political thought and action have been handcuffed by the persistent attempt to transcend historical and cultural specificity. His compelling alternative of 'public imagination' avoids multiculturalism's identity fetishism by understanding culture as a process through selves can reflect upon, reason about, and revise their lives with others."
—John McGowan, UNC-Chapel Hill, author of Democracy's Children

Theorizing Textual Subjects: Agency and Oppression
Cambridge University Press, 1997

"This book offers a substantial contribution to the debate on the relationship between ethics, politics and literature."
—Anthony Cascardi, Univ of California-Berkeley

"An excellent guide to [agency after poststructuralism]."
—Carlos Alonso, Columbia University, PMLA

"This is a serious and thought-provoking work of extraordinary range in philosophical, critical and cultural terms."
—Nicola Bradbury, University of Reading, Modern Language Review

"'Theorizing Textual Subjects' is consequently essential reading for anyone interested in critical thought. Steele's ability to formulate and then critique contemporary critical problems makes for a provocative and admirable study."
—Priscilla Walton, American Literature

"With admirable attention to methodological detail, Steele reviews a formidable array of theorists and the contemporary political/ethical debates they have generated. Through his suggestive narrative reading he illustrates the relevance of fictional strategies to his presiding concern with agency and its dynamics."
—Richard Macksey, Johns Hopkins University, MLN

Critical Confrontations: Literary Theories in Dialogue
University of South Carolina Press, 1997

"An illuminating and cogent re-thinking of critical theory by an elegant and inclusive logic, Steele recasts tradition, the villain in so many cultural scenarios, as the heroic defender of democratic ideals."
—Carol Bernstein, Byrn Mawr College

"For anyone interested in the fundamental principles of the various theoretical positions advanced over the last half-century and their backgrounds in prior philosophical discussions, Steele offers an excellent introduction. 'Critical Confrontations' presents more than that, however. It suggests the ways in which the best characteristics of theoretical arguments that seemingly conflict with one another can be brought together and aligned...Moreover, [it] is a delight to read."
—Robert Spector, World Literature Today

Realism and the Drama of Reference Strategies of Representation in Balzac, Flaubert, and James
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988

"A significant contribution to the way in which we read the works of three major novelists."
—Walter Putnam, Univ of New Mexico, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature

—William Stowe, Wesleyan University, The Henry James Review

   "The Ontological Turn: A New Problematic for Literature and Globalization." In Digitalizing the Global Text: Digitality, Literature, and Culture. Ed. Allen Miller.
   "Social Imaginaries and the Theory of the Normative Utterance."  Philosophy and Social Criticism. (2017: 1-27)
   “Multiculturalism versus Inequality: A False Opposition.” American Multiculturalism in Context: Views from at Home and Abroad. Ed. Sami Ludwig. Cambridge Scholars: Newcastle, 2017. 15-31.
   “Normativity beyond Rights: The Misunderstood Arguments of Olympe de Gouges.” Early Modern Culture 17 (2017): 147-152
   “World Disclosure and Normativity: The Social Imaginary as the Space of Argument.” Telos 174 Spring 2016: 171-190.
   “The Philosophical Importance of James’s Late Style.” The Henry James Review 35 (2014): 209-217.
   "Literature as Public Reasoning in the Political Struggles over Imagination." Politics of Imagination, eds. Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand. (New York: Birkbeck Law Press, 2011): 178-194.
   "Moral Shapes of Time in Henry James." Analecta Husserliana Volume CLX (2011):153-163.
   "The Social Imaginary as a Problematic for Human Rights." Theoretical Approaches to Human Rights and Literature. Eds. Alexandra Schultheis and Elizabeth Goldberg. New York: Routledge, 2011. 87-102. Click here to view this article.
   "The Importance of Myth for Political Philosophy." Philosophy and Social Criticism 36 (2010): 1137-1141.
   "Letteratura, filosofia e la politica dell'immaginario sociale." Iride: Filosofia e discussione pubblica (Aprile 2010): 111-124.
   "The Social Imaginary and Public Reason." Divinatio: Studia Culturologica Series 26 (2007): 21-54.
   "History and Public Reason." Soundings 88 (2005): 239-264.
   "Ontologie linguistique et dialogue politique chez Bakhtine." Bakhtine et la pensée dialogique. Eds. Clive Thomson et André Collinot. London (Ontario): Mestengo Press, 2005. 23-31.
   "Hiding from History: Habermas's Elision of Public Imagination." Constellations: A Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory 12 (2005): 409-436.
   "Introduction." Intertexts. Special issue on "The Future of Cultural Memory." 7 (2003): 111-15.
   "Ricoeur versus Taylor on Language and Narrative." Metaphilosophy, 34 (2003): 224-46.
   "Three Problematics of Linguistic Vulnerability: Gadamer, Benhabib, and Butler."Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Ed. Lorraine Code. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. 335-66. Click here to view this article.
   "Why Survivor Testimony Is Not Enough." History in Dispute. Volume 11 "The Holocaust." Columbia: Manly Inc., 2003. 231-34. Click here to view this article
   "Ellison versus Arendt on Little Rock: The Role of Language in Political Judgment." Constellations: A Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory 9 (2002): 184-206.
   "Recognizing Invisibility, Revising Memory." Analecta Husserliana 75 (2002): 235-252.
   "The Problematics and Politics of Cultural Memory: The Theoretical Dilemmas of Said's Culture and Imperialism." Methods for the the Study of Literature as Cultural Memory. Ed. Raymond Vervliet and Annmarie Estor. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 269-278.
   "Language and African-American Culture: The Need for Meta-Philosophical Reflection." Philosophy Today 40 (1996): 169-78.
   "Democratic Interpretation and the Politics of Difference." Comparative Literature 48 (1996): 326-42.
   "Meta-Theory and the Subject of Democracy in the Work of Ralph Ellison." New Literary History 27 (1996): 473-502.
   "Explanation, Understanding, and Incommensurability in Psychoanalysis." Analecta Husserliana 41 (1994): 367-76.
   "How Philosophy of Language Informs Ethics and Politics: Richard Rorty and Contemporary Theory." boundary 2 20 (1993): 140-72.
   "The Ontological Turn and Its Ethical Consequences: Habermas and the Poststructuralists." Praxis International 11 (1992): 428-46.
   "Value and Subjectivity: The Dynamics of the Sentence in James's The Ambassadors." Comparative Literature 43 (1991): 113-33.
   "Lyotard's Politics of the Sentence." Cultural Critique 16 (1990): 193-214.
   "Anxiety and the Face of Narration in James's The Beast in the Jungle." Analecta Husserliana 28 (1990): 421-28.
   "L'Education sentimentale and the Bildungsroman: Reading Frédéric Moreau." The Romanic Review 78 (1987): 84-101.
   "The Drama of Reference in James's The Golden Bowl." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 21 (1987): 73-88.
   "The Dangers of Structuralist Narratology: Genette's Misinterpretation of Proust." Romance Notes 26 (1986): 1-7.
   "Romantic Epistemology and Romantic Style: Emerson's Development from Nature to the Essays." Studies in the American Renaissance (1983): 187-202.
   "Sartre and the Drama Character: Theory and Practice." Postscript 1 (1983): 34-41.

Recent Presentations 

   “Normativity, Social Imaginaries, and the Textual Utterance,” invited talk as part of the Philosophy Colloquium Series, October, 2015, New School for Social Research, New York
   “Re-Imagining Normativity: The Ontological Turn in Human Rights and Literature,” Literature and Democracy Conference, May, 2015, Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece
   "Henry James and Moral Philosophy," Modern Language Association, 2014.
   "World Disclosure and Normativity," Philosophy Colloquium, Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany, 2013.
   "Narrative and Public Reason," Humanities Center, University of North Carolina, April 2012
   "Imagination versus Imaginaries in Philosophy, Sociology and Literature," July 2011 Florence, Italy
   "Rhetoric and Consequence in Citizens United," Association for Law, Culture, and the Humanities, Las Vegas, March 2011.
   "The Constitutive Theory of Normativity in Human Rights Theory." Law and Society, Montreal, 2008.
   « La laïcité aux États-Unis ? » L'Avenir de la laïcité, Paris, 2007.

Other Information 

Organized the conference "The Futures of Human Rights" at USC, February 2009.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.