Downing A. Thomas

Associate Provost and Dean, International Programs Professor
Phone: 
335-0373
Office: 
1111-C UCC

The bulk of my scholarship in early-modern French studies (~1600 to ~1800) can be divided into three interdisciplinary areas, with a considerable amount of overlap between areas: music and opera, theories of language, and aesthetics. Music and opera are central to my first two books, both of which were published in (different) series devoted to issues in musicology: Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime: 1647-1785 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), and Music and the Origins of Language: Theories from the French Enlightenment (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995). Reflection on language was also at the core of my first book, and is an area I have explored in several articles, most notably in an article on the philosopher Condillac and his critique of the naturalist Buffon, published in 2003 in a forum on dispute in Common Knowledge alongside a contribution by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A preoccupation with aesthetics runs through all of my work up to the present, and is the specific focus of my latest book project in which I will examine the tension between interest--presumably at the center of aesthetic experiences--and disinterestedness, the criterion that came to define the aesthetic experience at least by the time of Kant.  The project is focused on aesthetics insofar as it concerns the relationship of the external and the internal, the objects of the senses and the perceiving self.

I have edited, with Roberta Marvin, a cross-disciplinary volume of essays in opera studies (Operatic Migrations: Transforming Works and Crossing Boundaries in Musical Drama [Ashgate, 2006]), and have had the opportunity to participate in symposia in conjunction with staged performances of operas in New York City, Berkeley, and Iowa City. I am past recipient of a McMaster University / American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, and an American Council of Learned Societies international travel grant; and was recently elected to the Executive Committee of the Eighteenth-Century French Literature division and to the Executive Committee of the section on Opera as a Literary and Dramatic Form, both within the Modern Language Association. I served as 2007 President of the Association of Departments of Foreign Language.

The courses I teach range from advanced undergraduate language and literature classes to graduate seminars on issues in eighteenth-century studies, including a recent course on identity and otherness in Enlightenment fiction.

Selected Publications

Selected PublicationsOperatic Migrations: Transforming Works and Crossing Boundaries in Musical Drama, ed. Roberta Montemorra Marvin and Downing Thomas (Ashgate, 2006). This volume takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying a wide range of subjects associated with the creation, performance and reception of 'opera' in varying social and historical contexts from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. The volume strongly asserts that works are meaningfully transformed by the manifold circumstances of their creation and reception, and that these circumstances have an impact on the life of those works in their many transformations and on a given audience's experience of them.

Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime: 1647-1785 (Cambridge University Press, 2002). My study measures a shift in the status of opera within French culture, from an uneasy absolutist vehicle and foil to spoken tragedy in the late seventeenth century, to a spectacle that had turned away from the moral aims of tragedy to embrace new concerns with sensibility and feeling.

Music and the Origins of Language: Theories from the French Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). This book introduces a dialogue between the philosophical context in which theories of music developed during the eighteenth century and specific "anthropological fictions"--narrative accounts of the origins of human society--that demonstrate the interdependence of reflections on nature, culture, music and language.

Empire and Occupation in France and the Francophone Worlds, eds. A. Donadey, S. Farmer, R. Scullion, D. Thomas, and S. Ungar, a special issue of Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 23.1 (1999).

Selected articles:

“Rameau's Platée Returns: a Case of Double Identity in the Querelle des Bouffons,” Cambridge Opera Journal 18.1 (2006): 1-19.

“Negotiating Taste in Montesquieu,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.1 (2005): 71-90.

"Philosophy, Science, and Style: Condillac on Buffon and Figurative Language," Common Knowledge 9:2 (2003): 286-310.

"Taste, Aesthetics and Commonality in the Encyclopédie," Using the Encyclopédie: Ways of Knowing, Ways of Reading, SVEC 2002:05 (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, 2002): 187-209.

"Notes on Performativity and Mood in Le Mariage de Figaro and Le Nozze di Figaro," Ars Lyrica 11 (2000): 115-131.

"Racine Redux?: the Operatic Afterlife of Phèdre," L'Esprit Créateur, special tricentennial issue on Racine, 38.2 (1998): 82-94.

"Architectural Visions of Lyric Theater and Spectatorship in Late Eighteenth-Century France," in Representations 52 (1995): 52-75.