D. Graham Burnett

Burnett graduated from Princeton University in 1993 as the salutatorian and a recipient of the Pyne Prize. With the support of a Marshall Scholarship he completed a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University (1997 [2001]), where he was a member of Trinity College. Burnett was awarded the 1999 Nebenzahl Prize in the History of Cartography, and was editorially involved with the History of Cartography Project. Before joining the Princeton faculty in 2001, he taught at Yale and was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Columbia University (1997–1999) and an inaugural fellow in the Center for Scholars and Writers (the Cullman Center) at the New York Public Library (1999–2000). He held the Christian Gauss Fund University Preceptorship in 2006, and has since been awarded a Guggenheim, and a Mellon “New Directions” Fellowship. His scholarly interests include the history of natural history and the sciences of the earth and the sea from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, including cartography, navigation, oceanography, and ecology/environmentalism. He has also worked on Charles Darwin, the history of exploration, and early modern optics. More recently, he has focused on aesthetics, media, vision, and the history of attention. His first book, Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (2000), examines the relationship between cartography and colonialism in the nineteenth century. He is also the author of Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest (2005), a monograph on Cartesian thought and seventeenth-century lens making, and A Trial By Jury (2001; Japanese edition 2003), a narrative account of his experience as the jury foreman on a Manhattan murder trial. His book Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature (2007) won the 2007 Hermalyn Prize in Urban History and the New York City Book Award in 2008. (You can see Burnett talking about Trying Leviathan at the Smithsonian here; and click here [part 1part 2] for an interview with Burnett about the writing of the book.) The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century came out in 2012; listen to a recording of Burnett speaking about it here. In 2018, he published the co-authored KEYWORDS;…Relevant to Academic Life, &c., which subsequently appeared in a Turkish translation; more about that book here. His co-authored, co-edited work of speculative historiography, In Search of the Third Bird (Strange Attractor, 2021), represents more than a decade of collaborations with artists and scholars interested in material culture, archival poetics, and the history of “experience.” Twelve Theses on Attention (The Friends of Attention with Princeton University Press, 2021), co-edited with Stevie Knauss, offers an analysis of the politics of “joint attention” in the era of surveillance capitalism. Burnett has written essays and reviews for a variety of publications, including the New YorkerHarpers, the Economist, the American Scholar (where he served two terms on the editorial board), Daedalus (where he was a contributing editor), the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Republic. He has been an editor at Cabinet since 2008, and he serves on the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly. He is the founding editor of the “Conjectures” series at the Public Domain Review. Burnett is a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities, and at Princeton he is affiliated with the Program in History of Science, the Princeton Urban Imagination Center, and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. He serves on the executive committee of the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities or IHUM, where he teaches regular graduate seminars.


D. Graham Burnett speaking in Spain, 2023. Photo credit: Manuel Castells.

For a concise résumé (focused on recent work), click here.

For a full curriculum vitae, click here.

D. Graham Burnett works at the intersection of historical inquiry and artistic practice. Based in New York, and associated with the Friends of Attention, he is interested in experimental/experiential approaches to textual material, pedagogical modes, and hermeneutic activities traditionally associated with the research humanities. Recent (collaborative) performances and exhibitions include: “THE THIRD, MEANING” (The Frye Art Museum); “The Milcom Memorial Reading Room and Attention Library” (The Monira Foundation / Mana Contemporary); “Practices of Attention” (33rd São Paulo Biennial); “The Work of Art Under Conditions of Intermittent Accessibility” (Palais de Tokyo, Paris); “The Trochilus Exercise” (Asian Arts Theater, Gwangju, South Korea); “The Boğaziçi Rolls” (SALT-Galata, Istanbul); “The Ketchem Screen” (Manifesta 11, Zurich); and “Schema for a School” (Prelude to the Shed, 2018, NYC; 2015 Ljubljana Biennial). Several of these projects emerged in association with the speculative historiographical collective known as ESTAR(SER). Burnett trained in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, and currently holds the Henry Charles Lea professorship at Princeton University. A visiting artist at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki (2023), he runs the “Conjectures” series for the Public Domain Review, and is an editor at the Brooklyn/Berlin-based Cabinet magazine. He is the author of a number of books and (many) essays. More

On attention


On Art and History


On the order of nature


On mastering the universe


Other conversations and Press