David Alff

David Alff.

David Alff

David Alff

Placement Director, Associate Professor


17th and 18th-century Anglophone writing and performance, infrastructure, public works, projects and projection

Courses Taught


“Enlightenment and Shadow”

“Knowledge Projects of Enlightenment”

“Trespassing in Eighteenth-Century Britain”

“The Publique Eighteenth Century”

“Improvement in Eighteenth-Century British Culture” 



“The Eighteenth Century Now”

“Literature and Technology”

“Eighteenth-Century Literature: Poetry”

“Eighteenth-Century Literature: Fiction”

“Eighteenth-Century Literature: Restoration Drama”

“Highways, Sewers, Ports: Building Modern Britain 1660-1820”

Works in Progress

My first book, The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) investigates the origins of projects, concrete yet incomplete efforts to advance British society in a period defined by revolutions of finance and agriculture, the rise of experimental science, and the establishment of constitutional monarchy. Then, as now, the word “project” meant a proposal for action and the possibility of action itself. By “proposal” I mean a document drafted to make things happen, while “action” signifies the happening of those things through events like the enclosure of land, the construction of hospitals, and the founding of colonies. The Long Eighteenth Century saw thousands of endeavors called “projects,” but relatively few materialized, leaving scores of defunct visions, from Daniel Defoe’s attempt to farm cats for perfume to Mary Astell’s proposal to charter a college for women. When a small number of ventures succeeded in fields like banking and postal delivery, their project status -- their ability to come or not come into being -- was typically forgotten, as uncertain endeavor hardened into the empirical fact of achievement. The project, I contend, remains an elusive concept today because it is always turning into something else or into nothing at all. My research project into projects has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Library, and the SUNY Buffalo Humanities Institute.  

My next book project, Rights of Way, will contribute to infrastructure studies, a burgeoning field of scholarship that has extended critical attention to the environments we manufacture to dispense necessity and ration convenience. Answering Susan Leigh Star’s call to “study boring things,” Rights of Way exposes humdrum utilities as an interpretable realm of culture and visible arena of conflict, demonstrating how public works fashion private lives by elevating infrastructure into its own analytical object. Rights of Way makes two interventions in this conversation. First, it  finds the conceptual origins of infrastructure in the early modern Anglophone world, centuries before government planners coined the term. I show specifically how the phrase “public works” first circulated in sixteenth-century soteriological debates, and only later shed its salvific overtones to signify building for the common good. Second, where infrastructure studies tends to focus on the materiality of works, their hard surfaces and occulted gear, Rights of Way deciphers the writings and utterances by which conduits obtained physical space. My subject is waymaking, the use of words to dedicate strips of earth to the traffic of animals, goods, sewage, and people.

Selected Publications

The Wreckage of Intentions book cover.
  • The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730
  • “Make Way for Infrastructure,” in Critical Inquiry (forthcoming summer 2021)
  • “Samuel Johnson: Infrastructuralist,” in Philological Quarterly (forthcoming)
  • “Richard Savage and the Poetry of Public Works” in ELH 86.1 (Spring 2019)
  • "Before Infrastructure: The Poetics of Paving in John Gay’s Trivia," in PMLA 132.5 (Fall 2017)
  • "Swift's Solar Gourds and the Rhetoric of Projection," in Eighteenth-Century Studies 47.3 (Spring 2014)
  • "Why No One Can Mend the Slough of Despond." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 54.3 (Fall 2013)