Dr Stephen Harris's current research project, New Worlds and the Borders of Self: Individualism, America and the Making of Australia, takes the form of a comparative literary study of the important role of individualism in the historical relationship between the United States and Australia.
His approach to this topic hinges on a critical reassessment of the alleged difference between these two nations - a fundamental difference defined in terms of contrasting foundational myths: the American "myth" of individualism and Australia's "myth" of communalism.
In reassessing and interrogating such national myths as formative narratives - as concerns their historical origins and cultural influence in relation to the broader Western ideology of individualism - this analysis initiates renewed scutiny of the relationship between the two closely allied cultures. Where, given these counterposed myths, incompatibilities and differences have often been perceived - the perennial fear in Australia of "Americanisation", for example - his aim is to encourage a greater understanding among Australians of the relationship between the "fraternal" cultures.
The term "individualism", while weighted with various connotations, most immediately denotes the fundamental Western idea of selfhood, both as an ontological reality and ideological "myth". It is also, more recently, identified as a "malady" compromising the health of Western democracies - a malady commonly and mistakenly attributed to the pervasive influence of American culture. Extending on his earlier research in the area of American literature and the influence of individualism in the formation of American historical consciousness, Dr Harris's aim is to reassess the "myth" of individualism so as to gain a fresh perspective on the complex relationship between Australian and the United States.
While in no way the sole source of evidence, literary sources (principally, though not exclusively, fictional) provide the primary reference in this research project. For literary fiction, in dramatising the experience of individual selfhood in all its diverse and historically nuanced variations, also promotes, investigates and interrogates evolving and changing ideas of selfhood as endorsed and sanctioned by cultures across historical time - the shifting experience and formative understandings of identity and subjectivity as these occur in both individual and collective experience, thus the nexus between individual consciousness and intersecting social, cultural, political and historical forces.
Dr Harris is a Lecturer in the School of Arts at the University of New England where he teaches courses in both English and Communication Studies. His research interests include American literature, Australian literature, the historical novel, new journalism and literature of the environment.