Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Lee Konstantinou

Lee Konstantinou profile photo

Associate Professor, English

3242 Tawes Hall
Get Directions

Research Expertise

American
Film Studies and Cultural Studies
Literary Theory
Literature and Science
Modernist
Postmodern and Contemporary
Textual and Digital Studies

Lee Konstantinou is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research and teaching focus on twentieth and twenty-first century U.S. literature and culture; postmodernist art and theory; media studies; as well as literary and cultural sociology.

His recently published book Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Harvard University Press, 2016) is a literary history of countercultural irony in the U.S. since 1945. This project tells the story of the rise of an oppositional ethos of irony, the incorporation of irony into mainstream media and political culture, and the development of an alternative “postironic” sensibility. Dominant debates about irony, this book argues, have treated irony not only as a trope but also as an ethos: a way of life, an attitude, or a total orientation toward the world. Each chapter therefore analyzes an important postwar characterological model that has a significant relationship to irony: the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier. Cool Characters interprets works by authors including Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, Michael Muhammed Knight, William Gibson, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner.

He co-edited The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (University of Iowa Press, 2012) with Samuel Cohen. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2009) and contributed a short story, "Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA," to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (HarperCollins, 2014). He has published essays, chapters, and reviews in a range of journals and collections, and is a Humanties editor with the Los Angeles Review of Books.

He is currently working on a co-edited essay collection called The Comics of Art Spiegelman with Georgiana Banita and is completing a monograph on Helen DeWitt's novel, The Last Samurai. He is also working on two new book projects: a history of comics and the graphic novel since 1970 as well as a study of the effects of corporate consolidation on American literary fiction since 1960. 

Publications

“Critique Has Its Uses.”

Is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) fake news?

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:
I haven’t been able to stop asking myself this question since the election of Donald Trump in November. Whitehead’s novel is, after all, constructed around an historical falsehood. As a kid, the author reports, he thought that the Underground Railroad was a literal subway slaves used to escape to the North. Many children who learn about the Railroad make the same mistake (as did Porsha Stewart in an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta). Taking his former confusion as a point of departure, Whitehead literalizes the metaphor. His protagonist Cora escapes from slavery in Georgia on an underground steam-powered locomotive. Fleeing the slave-catcher Ridgeway, she traverses a variety of states, each of which skews from the historical record in more or less dramatic ways. “Every state is different,” one character in the novel suggests. “Each one a state of possibility.” Historically informed readers will note that Whitehead’s novel incorporates anachronistic references to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Nazism, as well as twenty-first-century modes of oppression (such as stop and frisk and mass incarceration) into his vision of the 1850s.

Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction

Charting a new course in the criticism of postwar fiction, Cool Characters examines the changing status of irony in American cultural and political life from World War II to the present.

English | Center for Literary and Comparative Studies

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:

Charting a new course in the criticism of postwar fiction, Cool Characters examines the changing status of irony in American cultural and political life from World War II to the present, showing how irony migrated from the countercultural margins of the 1950s to the cultural mainstream of the 1980s. Along the way, irony was absorbed into postmodern theory and ultimately became a target of recent writers who have sought to create a practice of “postirony” that might move beyond its limitations.

 

As a concept, irony has been theorized from countless angles, but Cool Characters argues that it is best understood as an ethos: an attitude or orientation toward the world, embodied in different character types, articulated via literary style. Lee Konstantinou traces five such types—the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier—in new interpretations of works by authors including Ralph Ellison, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Dave Eggers, William Gibson, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner.

 

For earlier generations of writers, irony was something vital to be embraced, but beginning most dramatically with David Foster Wallace, dissatisfaction with irony, especially with its alleged tendency to promote cynicism and political passivity, gained force. Postirony—the endpoint in an arc that begins with naive belief, passes through irony, and arrives at a new form of contingent conviction—illuminates the literary environment that has flourished in the United States since the 1990s.

Cool Characters

Charting a new course in the criticism of postwar fiction, Cool Characters examines the changing status of irony in American cultural and political life from World War II to the present, showing how irony migrated from the countercultural margins of the 1

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:
Along the way, irony was absorbed into postmodern theory and ultimately became a target of recent writers who have sought to create a practice of “postirony” that might move beyond its limitations. As a concept, irony has been theorized from countless angles, but Cool Characters argues that it is best understood as an ethos: an attitude or orientation toward the world, embodied in different character types, articulated via literary style. Lee Konstantinou traces five such types—the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier—in new interpretations of works by authors including Ralph Ellison, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Dave Eggers, William Gibson, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner.

"Lewis Hyde's Double Economy."

Since its original publication in 1983, LEWIS HYDE’S The Gift has accumulated some impressive blurbs

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:
On the cover of the 2007 edition, DAVID FOSTER WALLACE avers, “No one who is invested in any kind of art … can read The Gift and remain unchanged.” JONATHAN LETHEM agrees: “Few books are such life-changers as The Gift: epiphany, in sculpted prose.” ZADIE SMITH regards Hyde’s life-changing, epiphany-dealing book as “[a] manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art [and] cares for it.” And MARGARET ATWOOD regards The Gift as “[t]he best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators.” It is nothing less than “[a] masterpiece.” It’s easy to discount these endorsements. Book jackets are so frequently little more than heaps of breathless exaltation that one might regard such praise with understandable skepticism. Yet Hyde’s blurbs invite closer consideration for two reasons. First, the caliber of the writers who endorse the book is surprising.

"The World of David Foster Wallace."

This essay investigates the common charge that contemporary US fiction and the literature of 9/11 have failed to meaningfully engage with the world.

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:
While it is true that American fiction has become increasingly insular and that the New York City-based publishing industry systematically fails to translate non-English works into English, I argue that critiques of the whole literary field, based on the close reading of individual texts, overlook the systemic and institutional grounds of American unworldliness. David Foster Wallace’s 2004 novella, “The Suffering Channel,” offers critics of American literary parochialism a text that is difficult to assimilate neatly into current interpretive practices. “The Suffering Channel” depicts a cast of characters who work for Style magazine in the months immediately preceding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Focused on these characters’ attempts to write a human-interest story about a man who is able to defecate perfectly formed sculptures made of shit, “The Suffering Channel” satirizes the insularity and narcissism that plagues Americans, even those who, like the interns who work at Style, imagine themselves to be cosmopolitans. Wallace also insists on the necessity of exploring that insular perspective in its own terms. Wallace’s novella invites its reader to simultaneously identify and disidentify with an unworldly American perspective and, in doing so, to create a negative map of the world. This is both a political and literary project for Wallace. At the same time that he critiques the postmodern parochialism of the US culture industries, he uses his proleptic style to force his readers into experiencing dread when encountering American consumer culture. Ultimately, Wallace takes himself to be an example of the sort of limited perspective he seeks to critique, suggesting that the solution to American unworldliness requires not individual changes in consciousness or literary habit but a wholesale transformation of US educational and cultural institutions.

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace gathers cutting-edge, field-defining scholarship by critics alongside remembrances by many of his writer friends, who include some of the world’s most influential authors.

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:

Considered by many to be the greatest writer of his generation, David Foster Wallace was at the height of his creative powers when he committed suicide in 2008. In a sweeping portrait of Wallace’s writing and thought and as a measure of his importance in literary history, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace gathers cutting-edge, field-defining scholarship by critics alongside remembrances by many of his writer friends, who include some of the world’s most influential authors.

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace

Considered by many to be the greatest writer of his generation, David Foster Wallace was at the height of his creative powers when he committed suicide in 2008.

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:
In a sweeping portrait of Wallace’s writing and thought and as a measure of his importance in literary history, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace gathers cutting-edge, field-defining scholarship by critics alongside remembrances by many of his writer friends, who include some of the world’s most influential authors.

Pop Apocalypse: A Possible Satire

The United States and its Freedom Coalition allies are conducting serial invasions across the globe, including an attack on the anti-capitalist rebels of Northern California.

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:

From the publisher's website

The United States and its Freedom Coalition allies are conducting serial invasions across the globe, including an attack on the anti-capitalist rebels of Northern California. The Middle East—now a single consumerist Caliphate led by Lebanese pop singer Caliph Fred—is in an uproar after an attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque gets televised on the Holy Land Channel.

The world is on the brink of a total radioactive, no-survivors war, and human­kind's last hope is Eliot R. Vanderthorpe, Jr., celebrity heir, debauched party animal, and Elvis impersonation scholar. But Eliot's got his own problems. His evangelical dad is breeding red heifers in anticipation of the Rapture. Eliot's dissertation is in the toilet. And he has a doppelgänger. An evil doppelgänger.

Pop Apocalypse: A Possible Satire

The United States and its Freedom Coalition allies are conducting serial invasions across the globe, including an attack on the anti-capitalist rebels of Northern California.

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:
The Middle East—now a single consumerist Caliphate led by Lebanese pop singer Caliph Fred—is in an uproar after an attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque gets televised on the Holy Land Channel. The world is on the brink of a total radioactive, no-survivors war, and human­kind's last hope is Eliot R. Vanderthorpe, Jr., celebrity heir, debauched party animal, and Elvis impersonation scholar. But Eliot's got his own problems. His evangelical dad is breeding red heifers in anticipation of the Rapture. Eliot's dissertation is in the toilet. And he has a doppelgänger. An evil doppelgänger.

“The Brand as Cognitive Map in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.”

This essay analyzes William Gibson's eighth novel, Pattern Recognition, and argues that Gibson uses literary style to invite his readers to embrace the ethos of the coolhunter.

English

Lead: Lee Konstantinou
Dates:
Modeled on but not identical to Cayce Pollard's “violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace,” Gibson's proposed coolhunting ethos treats the brand name as a cognitive map of the multinational economic supply chains that underlie the glossy surface of the brand.