I’m a scholar and teacher of modern and early modern literatures and cultures of Latin America. At the intersection of intellectual history, political philosophy, and literary analysis, my interdisciplinary approach explores topics of cosmopolitanism, autochthony, cultural mediation, and social movements. In my research, teaching and more generally as an engaged member of the academic community, I welcome the opportunity to open new dialogues with colleagues from across the disciplines and at different stages of their educational journey. Feel free to contact me at joseph.mulligan@duke.edu.

Research Statement

In my dissertation, Poetics of Revelation: Communities of the Literary Oracular in Transatlantic Modernism, I asked why Cold War Latin America had a rebirth of “visionary” poetry. Why revelation in an age of revolution? With case studies on Spain (María Zambrano), Mexico (Octavio Paz), and Bolivia (Jaime Saenz), I studied intellectuals who radicalized politically in their youth only to retreat from politics after 1940, focusing my analysis on their internalization of revolutionary fatigue and growing distrust in any self-declared people’s party. Their new concern that “national energy” was so volatile it could turn assemblies into mobs convinced them that such a perilous force needed to be protected and transmitted for posterity, as is reflected in “Hacia un saber sobre el alma” by María Zambrano, “La poesía de soledad y la poesía de comunión” by Octavio Paz, and Muerte por el tacto by Jaime Saenz.

With an interdisciplinary approach that combines intellectual history with post-structural analysis and the sociology of literature, I set forth a theoretical model (“the literary oracular”) which permitted the conflict of poetic revelation to articulate its unity in transatlantic modernism through a critique of instrumental reason leveled by cultural mediators who refused to accept the disintegration of tradition, which they thought had to pass through them if it was to survive. Identifying as part of a transhistorical society of kindred interpreters of history who defied western philosophy in praise of revelation, these seers abandoned the systematic abstraction of truth for a philosophy of life based on discipleship, as is reflected in “La confesión como género literario y como método,” Los hijos del limo, and “En la abadía de San Florián” by the same authors, respectively. Since these authors were poets, to name their visions they imagined a new language that would remain impervious to the vociferous chants of the political rally. Their disillusionment with radical platforms that constructed mass culture as a people led them to step in as an oracular sage and to use the rhetoric of revelation to mediate between the extremes of a polarized political field and between elite literary production and a new literate class.

Building on my dissertation’s theme of communitarian thought, my current project focuses on populism and populist leaders in Spanish and Latin American history and literature, inviting us to rethink these social phenomena in our historical present by asking, what counts as a people and how can a people make itself count? Drawing on examples from conservative and progressive social movements in an extensive Hispanic tradition of non-participatory democracy and strongman rule, I analyze the evolution of the category of “people” as advanced by political theorists and sociologists from the 1950s to the present. Guided by frameworks of political philosophy, intellectual history, and rhetorical analysis that informed my dissertation, I ask how the “people” may serve a social function that is foundational and, at once, destabilizing. If it is the “people” who bestow sovereignty upon a leader, how is this leader able to dissolve the institutions of representative democracy in the name of the people? To pursue this line of inquiry, I turn to the representational repertoires mobilized by leaderless movements and populist leaders, vis-à-vis the rhetorical construction of the people. Within the evolution of the category of the “people,” I wish to study Persona y democracia (1958) by Spanish philosopher María Zambrano, which counts as her most overtly sociopolitical work, written from exile in Rome.

This research will contribute to the reevaluation of populist movements and theories of populism currently under way among intellectual historians, political theorists, and cultural sociologists. I want to understand how Zambrano’s proposal of “democratic personhood” may renew our understanding of this social phenomenon under the scrutiny of analysis aimed not only at the theoretical program she advanced as a “sacrificial history,” but also at how she undoes Ortega y Gasset’s oversimplified dichotomy of the “minorías directivas” and the “hombre-masa,” in her communitarian thinking about the alienated subject’s relation to the public sphere. I will demonstrate how her philosophy facilitates an assessment of arguments advanced by leaderless movements and the claims of political reformers who demand compensation for disenfranchised communities, paradoxically, by undermining the institutions of representative democracy so that party politics does not block the path to social justice or obstruct the personal relation between the people and their chosen leader. Bringing her thinking to bear on populist rhetoric of the 20th and 21st centuries, I also will examine politicians’ reception of influential reactionary arguments which conflate the distinction between legality and legitimacy, positive law and a people’s natural constitution, while challenging the priority of “autoridad de la razón” over “razón de autoridad.”


Teaching Philosophy

As a teacher of Spanish and Hispanic literatures and cultures, I prioritize the development of intercultural sensitivity and cultural fluency on a path to global citizenship, turning cases of social inequity into productive opportunities for collaborative inquiry and critical assessment. In the spirit of the liberal arts, I teach students an historical appreciation of social phenomena, cultural production, civic engagement – as well as encourage their personal growth – cultivating to this end their intellectual curiosity as humanists who discern the unspoken judgments of others and invite new findings to contradict their own tacit assumptions. Committed to teaching for social justice, I advocate reading literature and the institutions that make it possible by allowing the opposing terms of an argument to articulate the unity of a problem in their antagonism. In response to the growing threat that political illiberalism poses to our democratic institutions, including those of higher education, I have developed an historically grounded course on the phenomenon of populism in the context of Hispanic America, which is designed to help students learn to identify and interpret the moral ambiguity of charismatic leaders who upend the rule of law in the name of social justice. Attentive to students’ mental health concerns, I am dedicated to supporting those who struggle to identify their intellectual passions or to cope with the high-pressure environment of higher-education academic life due to their socio-economic insecurity.

In language classes, I use task-based learning to achieve intercultural sensitivity and cultural fluency as learning outcomes, by recreating the immersion experience in the classroom, where students interact in hands-on activities that require them to employ determined linguistic structures which are introduced in preparatory readings, maximizing the use of contact-time for students’ oral and written production. I create culturally specific scenarios that elicit active participation in the form of role-play and introduce norms of Hispanic cultures as rules of the game. For example, in an elementary class I described (and embellished) a common scenario in South America when a guest is invited for lunch in someone’s home where he is expected to finish an enormous meal, lest he insult the host, and even if he finishes, he will be offered a second portion, which he must finish as well. Tasked with role-playing the host and guest, students took turns boisterously persuading each other to keep eating, using such formal commands as “¡Sírvase con confianza!” and politely declining with such conditional expressions as “Me gustaría pero estoy a dieta.”

To facilitate collaborative inquiry, I teach with archival materials, such as didactic literary pamphlets from a community outreach program of 1930s Mexico. Placing groups of students in contact with archives and a research worksheet invited them to negotiate an understanding of how the aesthetics of linguistic realism (the imitation of substandard speech) relates to the pamphlet’s material history. Students linked ethnographic literature to the nationalization of the print industry that produced its paper and to the mimeograph technology which duplicated low-cost materials of a reform that incorporated the rural majority into the State through literacy campaigns. In search of an historical appreciation of social phenomena, my students are encouraged to leverage such digital methods as web mapping (ArcGIS) as they study, for example, community-based service learning programs across the Second Republic of Spain paired with numerous variations on the same frontier ballad (“La loba parda”) which had been transcribed by service-teaching volunteers in the Cañadas Reales in the early 1930s. Navigating the map in groups, students connected aesthetic differences between the poetic variations and the geolocations where the transcriptions were produced. Overlaying the itinerary of the festival, they inferred that this romance was performed at so many locations because its oral diffusion ensured that it would be familiar to the audience, and its differentiation, that the inevitable discrepancies would elicit public engagement.

Firm in my conviction that students need to understand the philosophical underpinnings of participatory democracy, I have developed the course, Comparative Populisms, which engages students with a series of ethical questions entailed in political representation. Offered for the first time in spring 2023, the seminar will invite students to consider different values and value systems which inform decision-making (their own and others’) in the selection of leaders as well as different types of relations that develop between leaders and the people who choose them. As they explore the idea of leadership in politics and society, students also will ask themselves what kind of leaders they want and what kind of leaders they want to become. Through the evaluation of competing theories of citizenship – the determination of who belongs in the polity – students will consider evolving criteria that have been used to include/exclude specific populations from national projects. By carefully analyzing structures of political power and challenges to those structures, including the state of exception, students will learn how to articulate such questions as whether it is just to suspend the rule of law to preserve the legitimacy of a leader devoted to social justice.

Teaching, as I understand it, is a professional commitment to learn from the learners and to practice self-reflection with a willingness to adjust to the needs of students and to the changing conditions of the learning environment. In my classes, students are congratulated for falling into perplexity, since it is precisely through aporia that significant learning becomes possible. Likewise, if a lesson plan does not turn out as I had hoped, I welcome such a pedagogical frustration as an opportunity for reflection and growth. From my students I have learned that giving meaningful feedback, even on minor assignments such as blog posts, can be a tremendously motivating force in their advancement through a course, and that frequent engagement with them outside class promotes an ethos of mutual responsibility in the classroom. Attentive to the needs of students at different levels of study and to the needs of departments which must sequence courses and provide a viable pathway through the program, I develop pedagogical materials based on a specified audience.

In sum, my pedagogical strategies attune students to their membership in a global community and present social problems as opportunities for change, both personal and communal. I believe that inequities suffered by racial minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the social underclass are in urgent need of redress. As an instructor, I place cultural objects in the hands of students and turn them toward the public sphere to interrogate ideas and practices that have restricted access to education and blocked paths to citizenship, excluding populations based on race, gender, and class. This ethos of confronting the past as an opportunity to learn, which animates my pedagogy (and my research), reflects my commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the liberal arts.


In fall of 2019, as an Archival Expeditions research fellow in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, I studied pedagogical applications of digital and physical primary sources. I paired with Professor José María Rodríguez García to update a module on Pedagogical Missions of Spain from his undergraduate survey course on modern Spanish literature and culture. Working in collaboration with a cohort of fellows and archivists, I developed four lesson plans that integrate an archive of documentary photographs with the digital mapping tool ArcGIS; that recreate a traveling art exhibit of reproductions that forms part of this community outreach program from 1930s Spain; and that invite students to relate transcriptions of oral poetry (frontier ballads, romances) to their geographical origins and to assess the political implications of these acts of cultural mediation. Several of these lessons or variations on them were also incorporated in the my fall 2020 course Culture on Wheels. View the module, along with worksheets for hands-on archival activities here: