Nathaniel Wolfson

Job title: 
Assistant Professor
Spanish and Portuguese

Wolfson is an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese and affiliated faculty of the Program in Critical Theory. He teaches primarily Brazilian literature and visual culture. His work engages media theory, language philosophy and the history of art. 

He is currently finishing a book manuscript called Life of the Sign: Literature, Design and the Cybernetic Imaginary in Brazil. This project explores the crossings of experimental writing, design and critical technological thought in Brazil from the 1940s through the 1970s. Through a framework focusing on exchanges between Brazil and West Germany, it shows how figures involved in the international movement known as concretism contended with global debates surrounding aesthetics and the digital. As Brazilian poets, artists and designers witnessed the military regime’s efforts to control a rising field of informatics, they attempted to retool early computer coding to invent alternative and non-Western symbolic languages. Their efforts led to experiments ranging from poems composed with non-alphabetic languages to computer databases archiving popular culture.

Wolfson has published articles in journals and edited volumes on a wide range of topics. Most recently, he published a catalog essay on the Brazilian modern painter, Alfredo Volpi, for the exhibition Volpi Popular at the Museo de Arte Moderna de São Paulo. The article asks why Volpi turned away from a “regionalist” approach to local popular culture, marked by figurative representations of street characters, towards abstract and denuded scenes. “Scenes without Characters” argues that Volpi wished to distance himself from politically reactionary appropriations of popular culture by São Paulo elites, yet without abandoning his engagement with his surrounding social worlds.

Wolfson also recently contributed to a special volume on cybernetics in the journal AI & Society (2022). In “After the ‘new aesthetic’: a short history of the cybernetic turn in Brazil,” he focuses on the intellectual exchange between the poet and literary critic Haroldo de Campos and German philosopher Max Bense to tell a little-known history of cybernetic theory wedded to aesthetic practice, demonstrating the role that Brazilian critics, writers and artists played in mediating and deviating from some of the major tenets of first-order cybernetics.

Wolfson is the editor of a special issue on the “Legacies of Concrete Aesthetics” in the Journal of Lusophone Studies (2020). He has written for the contemporary art magazineFlash Art International.

For a complete list and PDFs of other publications see his page.

Before coming to UC Berkeley, he taught at Harvard University as a post-doctoral fellow. Before that, he studied at Princeton University, where he obtained an M.A. and Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese, and Brown University, where he received his B.A. in comparative literature.