Work in Progress

I have developed a research program that blends the study of literature with the study of technology and culture. Instead of interpreting literary texts solely on their own terms or within those of literary criticism, I examine the way that texts respond to, change, and challenge the world beyond literature. My research thereby builds upon the work of interdisciplinary, rhetoric, communication, and science studies scholars in order to bridge the perceived divide between the humanities and the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields; my research demonstrates, above all else, what we all lose when these important areas of knowledge are separated. I have published a dozen articles in venues ranging from Configurations and JLS (The Journal of Literature and Science) to History and Technology. 

My first book, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882-1952 (MIT Press, 2017), claims that the idea of technological progress impeded social and humanistic development. It demonstrates that many Americans invested in the belief that new devices would eventually improve democracy and equality, despite ample evidence to the contrary—including, most notably, the mistreatment of women, African Americans, and other minorities. Power Lines suggests that literature raised important questions about this harmful faith in technological solutions. Concomitantly, it argues (among other things) that literary history must be studied with technological history if we aspire to understand both our technological culture and the alternative ways it could have evolved—and could still evolve.

As an interdisciplinary work, my first book has been reviewed by scholars in different disciplines. And, since these reviews have come out since I was awarded tenure, they might be considered relevant for my research narrative here. For example, in a 2021 review of my monograph, Julie Cohn, writing for the top-tier history of technology journal Technology and Culture, describes my book as “carefully constructed and complex.” She notes that, “While the thrust of her argument may be intended for students of literature, Lieberman is speaking to historians as well. She brings useful specificity and sophistication to the study of each author within their era, and for historians of technology, she offers important insights into how individuals might interpret their place within the fast-changing world of an electrified America.” In 2018, A. David Wunsch reviewed my book for IEEE (The Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers) Technology and Society Magazine, writing, “Lieberman is to be commended for creating a book rich in material that should attract historians of technology, scholars of American studies, and curious electrical engineers.” In a 2018 review for a distinguished journal of literary scholarship, Modernism/Modernity, Laurel Harris writes that, my “study convincingly argues for the importance of literature in conceiving technological modernity.” It is challenging to write to works that will appeal to readers across such a large range of disciplines; the range of venues that reviewed my first book demonstrates the reach and breadth my first book continues to have in different fields.

My second book project, The Pursuit of Perfectible Punishment, examines a similar phenomenon within a more narrow and urgent context: it argues that American prisons have invested in technological solutions to social problems, which could better be addressed by humanistic and sociological interventions. Since the nineteenth century, Americans have devised inventions to improve our criminal justice system. In 1886, the Gerry Commission imagined that the application of electricity to capital sentences would make the execution process humane, efficient, and unproblematic. Today, our culture invests in similar hopes when we expect that body-worn cameras will improve social relationships with the police, or that algorithms would mitigate bias in prison sentencing. From the nineteenth century through the twenty-first, these endeavors have been underwritten by the false hope that technology is rational, unbiased, and always improving. The Pursuit of Perfectible Punishment demonstrates that this fantasy about technology is not only misplaced; it is harmful. Our culture’s faith in mass incarceration deflects funds from more-successful rehabilitation and diversion programs. Research for this book includes the history of technology and literary studies—but I am also familiarizing myself with work for the discipline of criminal justice to draw these previously disconnected disciplines into much-needed conversation.