CREEES Welcomes New Faculty: Dominick Lawton

Dominick Lawton joined Stanford in Autumn 2022 as an Assistant Professor in Slavic Languages and Literatures. Lawton researches and teaches the literature, cultural history, and intellectual history of Russia and the former Yugoslavia, particularly during the twentieth century. His current book project, tentatively titled "Rebellious Things: The Poetics of Materialism in Russian Revolutionary Literature," examines the volatile new status of material objects and commodities under socialism (and capitalism) as a productive social and aesthetic problem for late Imperial and early Soviet Russian literature.

He is working on a second project about literary and cinematic responses to the transformation of domestic space in Russia and the Balkans, both during and after the socialist period. Lawton received his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from U.C. Berkeley. He has contributed to the volume Comintern Aesthetics (U. of Toronto Press, 2020), and has an article forthcoming on communal apartments in the work of Mikhail Bulgakov.

During the Spring Quarter, Lawton will teach Literature at War: From Yugoslavia to Ukraine (Slavic 61N) and Modern Russian Literature and Culture: The Age of War and Revolution (Slavic 147/347).

Read the following Q&A to learn more about Professor Lawton's research interests, teaching and projects related to the REE region.

What are some of your current research interests?

My current project, about literature surrounding the Russian revolution, takes as its point of departure the changing role of things in early Soviet society and the immense material disruptions that followed the revolution. Early 20th century Russia’s social upheavals brought profound shifts in both the economy and everyday life, and provoked a need—an ideological, practical, and aesthetic need—to reconceptualize the role of objects in the new Soviet society. That said, I approach these topics as a literary scholar, not a social historian. I’m interested in how the formal innovations of major writers during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s can be read as artistic responses to the volatility of the world of things. The second project I am working on addresses both Russia and the former Yugoslavia, looking at the way housing and domestic space is represented in literature and film during major points of historical transition, such as the move from socialism to post-socialism.

How did you become interested in studying and teaching literature, cultural history, and intellectual history of Russia and the former Yugoslavia, particularly during the twentieth century?

I am interested in looking at how matter-of-fact, everyday material concerns leave their mark on works of art and play a role in shaping artistic form. I’m always curious about how something as inherently imaginary or abstract as a work of literature is affected by the empirical outside world, and how mundane aspects of the world are both retained and transformed by art. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia provide particularly interesting contexts for looking at these questions. On one hand, these cultures attributed supreme importance to art (though often, of course, this was to artists’ detriment). On the other hand, everyday life developed in a very different way under state socialism than in the West. And even within East Europe, socialism or communism looked very different—and fostered quite different art—in a place like Yugoslavia, which was not part of the Soviet bloc, than it did in the Soviet Union.

Is the topic your courses and research influenced/affected by current world events and if so, how? i.e. Russian & Eastern European Literature and War & Literature after Socialism

I am still thinking about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will impact my research, but my teaching at the moment does respond to the war. For example, one of my Spring courses will use literature and film to compare current events in Ukraine with the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in which, for example, Serbian (and Croatian) forces sought to absorb parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina through conquest, while Bosnian Muslims, especially, faced genocidal violence. Significant parallels can be drawn between the two wars. Though the timelines are different, in both cases, large socialist federations that had officially adhered to multi-ethnic and multi-national ideologies—the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia—break apart, and their successor states end up at war with one another. There is a resurgence of militaristic nationalism, with more powerful states like Serbia or Russia targeting their smaller neighbors.

How does your work inform our understanding and knowledge of the region?

Everything I do is about culture. I hope that my work sheds some light on how literature and art were informed by the transformation of daily life, and adds to our understanding of the connections between creative or artistic achievement and the everyday experience of historical change.

Why do you think it is important to study the region these days?

It seems to me that the modern world would be hard to understand without knowledge of Russia and East Europe. The significance of the Soviet revolution to modern history around the globe, from the Comintern era to the Cold War and even the present, is tremendous. Yugoslavia, too, was influential far beyond its size thanks to the international ties it formed after World War II, particularly the Non-Aligned Movement, which began as a project connecting Yugoslavia, Egypt, Ghana, India, and Indonesia. This movement, founded in Belgrade, went on to play a fundamental role in anti-colonial struggles during the second half of the 20th century.