In the spotlight: Vincent Bruyere

What were your first thoughts, when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

Probably something like this: “I can’t believe there are still places that not only show such a degree of commitment to humanistic inquiry but are also willing to put forward interdisciplinary collaboration rather than tried and tested disciplinary boundaries, and take the risk of bringing people together in the hope that they will work together and produce something interesting. How often does one come across an opportunity like this one? I have to be part of it.” 

Treppe, Gesicht

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?

I am interested in the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic dynamic as a humanist fantasy that pitches culture in survivalist terms. It is like a bottom line to which it is always quite easy to revert when  running out of arguments and ideas. On the one hand we picture wastelands in which books, canonical works, and the memory of a different time mattered as never before, while on the other departments of humanities are closing, enrollment dwindling, and academic presses folding in.

But I am also interested in the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic dynamic as method, and even as a pedagogy; that is, as a way to frame and approach objects found in the historical record. A lot of energy tends to be spent in humanistic inquiry, especially in early modern studies, on placing objects in their time, which usually means the time of their production/publication—whatever stands for inception. 

In my work, I tend to privilege the context in which objects from the past survived, or, depending on the scenario, did not survive. The post-apocalyptic lens brings attention to non-traditional ways of doing historical or historically-minded work with texts and objects from the past. It brings me to ask how we can picture a different future for the study of the past, and more specifically for a particular way of accessing the past through literary and artistic work. Or, how can we summon a non-reactionary argument and wasteland fantasies, when it comes to making a case for interpretive work, close reading, and cultural analysis as a way to generate knowledge?

What is your fellowship trying to achieve?

I am interested in unconventional teaching moments and object lessons that have the potential to generate different  forms of humanistic inquiry. The object lesson that is currently on my mind is the description of an artificial grotto published in 1563 by French ceramicist Bernard Palissy. I want to reconstruct what the grotto could have looked like using a 3D sculpting software called Blender. The reconstruction will not answer lingering archaeological questions about the monument. Rather, the point is to reconsider the terms of its negative monumentality and what it means to make to make room for the past in the Anthropocene present.

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?

The project builds on my previous two books Perishability Fatigue (Columbia, 2018) and Environmental Humanities on the Brink (Stanford, 2023) that both look at how a humanistic inquiry internalizes the idea of extinction, geological time, environmental degradation and planetary predicament. This fellowship comes at a perfect time because I am at a point where I want to try a different academic format—the object lesson—and engage with the possibility that digital scholarship can offer. 

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

CAPAS is giving the time to truly develop a project from the ground up, to try on a new approach, and let things develop in an expected direction. The fellowship has removed some of the pressure I always feel to conduct the inquiry with assumptions so strong that it systematically shuts downs a whole range of questions and paths. Moving forward, I really hope I can retain some of that sense of freedom. 

What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS?

To give a very concrete example. This morning, during Pamela’s lecture, I was reminded by her fantastic fieldwork on architecture in arid landscapes, that clay (and dirt, earth, ceramic) doesn’t have to be treated like a primitive medium. It is and has been for a very long time a medium of innovation, and the material in which to think the emergence of new forms. I tend to think in terms of models, processes and assemblages that have agency, at the expense of an argument organized around actors, action, and accountability. I always thought that the kind of work I do couldn’t deliver on that aspect. I’m still not sure whether it can, or what it would indeed look like, but the conversation at CAPAS had the salutary effect of helping me reconsider methodological scenarios I had ruled out. 

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?

It’s hard to tell because the post-apocalypse comes in so many shades. But I suppose that in the worst-case scenario, I would only need one, that is, the will to want to live in a post-apocalyptic world. 

What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?

I keep coming back to Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011) in my work. But my guiltiest pleasure, the one I’m not even willing to redeem through scholarship remains The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004). 


Vincent Bruyere is associate professor of French and affiliate faculty in the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University in Atlanta. His research draws on literary theory, visual culture, and the history of the body in an effort to assess the impact of end-time scenarios on modes of humanistic inquiry, especially on modes of valuing the historical record.