Sarah Kessler

Assistant Professor of English
Sarah Kessler

Research & Practice Areas

20th and 21st Century Transatlantic Media and Culture, Film and Media Studies, Feminist and Queer Theory, Voice and Sound Studies, Television Studies

Center, Institute & Lab Affiliations

  • Consortium for Gender, Sexuality, Race and Popular Culture, USC Dornsife Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies, participant
  • Film, Media and Popular Culture Working Group, USC Dornsife Department of English, co-organizer
  • University of California Humanities Network Multicampus Research Group: “Keys to Voice Studies: Terminology, Methodology, and Questions Across Disciplines” (2012-2014), participant


Sarah Kessler’s interdisciplinary research spans the fields of comparative media studies, critical race theory, queer and gender studies, voice and sound studies, and television studies. Her articles and essays have appeared in Camera Obscura, Film Quarterly, In These Times, Public Books, Theory & Event, Triple Canopy, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is the TV section editor at Public Books.

Her book-in-progress, Anachronism Effects: Ventriloquism and Popular Media (working title), argues that the seemingly archaic cultural phenomenon of ventriloquism is a key site for understanding Western processes of racialization, gendering, and sexualization through audiovisual media, performance, and other technologies of the voice in contemporary transatlantic popular culture. Since achieving mainstream popularity in the Vaudevillian era, during the heyday of blackface minstrelsy, ventriloquism has evolved into a distinct cultural practice: the art of “saying what people want to say but can’t say” about gender, race, and sexuality by displacing this unspeakable speech onto a non-human dummy. Translated to film, television, and phonography, ventriloquism boasts a growing plethora of media afterlives, while also serving as political shorthand for the mindless, mechanical reproduction of another’s speech. Anachronism Effects insists that ventriloquism’s continued circulation as a popular metaphor, and prevalence as a form of contemporary entertainment—on television, in documentary and mockumentary films, on digital and social media platforms, and perhaps most surprisingly, on the stage and in experimental writing—offers a unique template for tracing transmissions of power and knowledge through racialized, gendered and queer bodies in the information age, even as the practice continues to evoke the cultural detritus of a prior historical moment.

Kessler is also in the early stages of working on two additional book projects. Stemming from her TV criticism, she is developing a single-authored collection of critical essays on binge-watching. Her second academic monograph-in-progress, A Sentient Animal: Whales and Media in the Anthropocene (working title), will take her interest in the interplay between the human and the non-human in an eco-critical direction, investigating how the whale—as animal, idea, and cultural medium—became an object of human projection in the decades that fomented today’s fascination with environmental decay. Beginning with a reading of Mike Nichols’s 1973 science fiction film The Day of the Dolphin and ending with an analysis of contemporary cetacean biologists’ speculative writings on recorded whale song, A Sentient Animal will explore the obverse of uneasiness about the animation of inanimate things: agitation at the prospect that something fleshly—indeed, fleshy—might be rendered extinct.

Kessler received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine, in 2016. She grew up in Philadelphia.


  • Ph.D. Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine, 2016
  • M.A. English, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2008
  • B.A. Art-Semiotics, Brown University, 2003
  • Research, Teaching, Practice, and Clinical Appointments

    • Lecturer, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 2017-2020
  • Conference Presentations

    • Passing Sounds (Panel Respondent) , First Forum 2020: Passing (Graduate Conference)Roundtable/Panel, University of Southern California, Invited, Los Angeles, CA, Fall 2020
    • Critical Karaoke: Taylor Swift’s ‘The Man’ , Museum of Pop Culture Pop ConferenceRoundtable/Panel, Invited, Online, Spring 2020
    • Songs from the Final Frontier: Listening to the Whales in ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ , Society for Cinema and Media StudiesTalk/Oral Presentation, Seattle, WA, Spring 2019
    • Bad Ventriloquism , Association for the Arts of the PresentTalk/Oral Presentation, New Orleans, LA, Fall 2018
    • Critical Karaoke: Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ , Museum of Pop Culture Pop ConferenceRoundtable/Panel, Invited, Seattle, WA, Spring 2018
    • Tracy Chapman’s Butch Throat , Museum of Pop Culture Pop ConferenceTalk/Oral Presentation, Seattle, WA, Spring 2018
    • My Father, the Ventriloquist: Vocal Manipulation and Literary Autobiography , Modern Language AssociationTalk/Oral Presentation, Philadelphia, PA, Spring 2017
    • The Voice of Mockumentary , American Comparative Literature AssociationLecture/Seminar, Invited, Utrecht, Netherlands, Spring 2017
    • Sia’s Ventriloquial Aesthetic , Museum of Pop Culture Pop ConferenceRoundtable/Panel, Invited, Seattle, WA, Spring 2016
    • The Voice Behind the Big Blonde Wig: Sia’s Ventriloquial Aesthetic , Society for Cinema and Media StudiesTalk/Oral Presentation, Atlanta, GA, Spring 2016
    • Vinyl Ventriloquism: Richard and Willie’s Black Noise , Society for Cinema and Media StudiesTalk/Oral Presentation, Montreal, QC, Canada, Spring 2015
    • Slack-Jawed Yokels: Ventriloquism and the ‘Heartland’ in U.S. Popular Culture , American Studies AssociationTalk/Oral Presentation, Invited, Los Angeles, CA, Fall 2014
    • My Father, the Ventriloquist: Voicing Indebtedness from the Bells to the Bergens , American Studies AssociationTalk/Oral Presentation, Invited, Washington, DC, Fall 2013
    • Critical Karaoke: Milli Vanilli’s ‘Girl You Know It’s True’ , Museum of Pop Culture Pop ConferenceRoundtable/Panel, Invited, Los Angeles, CA, Spring 2013
    • I’m Your Puppet: Nina Conti’s ‘Her Master’s Voice’ , Society for Cinema and Media StudiesTalk/Oral Presentation, Chicago, IL, Spring 2013
    • The Voice of Traumas Past: Ventriloquizing Victimology in Contemporary Israeli Cinema , Society for Cinema and Media StudiesTalk/Oral Presentation, Invited, New Orleans, LA, Spring 2011

    Other Presentations

    • Discussion of Presidential Ventriloquism, Invited Discussion for CSLC 503: Sound Studies graduate seminar (Prof. Edwin Hill), Los Angeles, CA, 2020-2021
    • Introduction, Lauren Michele Jackson in conversation with Danzy Senna, Los Angeles, CA, 2020-2021
    • Introduction and Response, Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality: a book talk with Genevieve Yue, Los Angeles, CA, 2020-2021
    • Discussion, Invited Discussion for Association of English Graduate Students panel, Los Angeles, CA, 2020-2021
    • Theory/Criticism: ‘Public-Facing’ Writing from the Academy, Invited Talk for graduate professionalization workshop, Irvine, CA, 2020-2021
    • ‘You’re the puppet!’: Presidential Ventriloquism, Vocal Technologies, and the Politics of Voice, Invited Lecture for symposium on “Media (as) Ventriloquism”, Edmonton, AB, Canada, 2018-2019
    • Milli Vanilli and the Cultural Politics of Synchronization, Invited Lecture for “Talent Show” seminar, Valencia, CA, 2018-2019
    • Presidency for Dummies, Invited Lecture for Sawyer Seminar in Linguistic Anthropology and Literary and Cultural Studies, Berkeley, CA, 2018-2019
    • Whale Song, Workshop co-organized with Daniela Gesundheit, Los Angeles, CA, 2018-2019
    • Whale Song, Invited Presentation for Triple Canopy “Omniaudience” (co-presented with Daniela Gesundheit), Los Angeles, CA, 2018-2019
    • Listening to the Humpback Whale, Invited Presentation for Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, Santa Catalina Island, CA, 2017-2018
    • Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator’s ‘American’ Ventriloquism, Invited Lecture for @SEA, Los Angeles, CA, 2016-2017
    • Working Girls, or, My Life as a Television Critic, Invited Lecture for “Quality Television” seminar, Online, 2016-2017
    • Milli Vanilli and the Imperative to Synchronize, Invited Lecture for the Sound Studies Salon, Los Angeles, CA, 2015-2016
    • Ventriloquism on Film, Invited Lecture for “Puppets on Film” seminar, Los Angeles, CA, 2015-2016
    • Black Noise: Richard and Willie’s Vinyl Ventriloquism, Invited Lecture for symposium on “Noise and the Possibility for a Future”, Los Angeles, CA, 2014-2015
    • Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences, Invited Lecture for “The Next Big Thing” (co-presented with Karen Tongson), Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 2013-2014
    • The Screech-Owl, Invited Lecture for workshop on Sadegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”, Irvine, CA, 2010-2011
  • Book Chapters

    • Kessler, S. (2021). “‘You’re the puppet!’: Presidential Ventriloquism, Vocal Technologies, and the Politics of Voice”. Media (as) Ventriloquism Oxford University Press.
    • Kessler, S. (2020). “Songs of the Final Frontier: Listening to Whales in ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home'”. Music in Star Trek: Sound, Utopia, and the Future Routledge.
    • Kessler, S. (2018). “The Voice of Mockumentary”. Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary Bloomsbury.

    Book Review

    • Kessler, S. (2020). “Houses of Abundance,” review of adrienne maree brown’s “Pleasure Activism”. Theory & Event/JHU Press.
    • Kessler, S. (2016). “Posthuman Fantasies,” review of Rosi Braidotti’s “The Posthuman”. Women’s Studies Quarterly/The Feminist Press.


    • Kessler, S. (2021). “The Politics of Involuntarity: A Personal History of Ventriloquism”. (José Luis Blondet, Ed.). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
    • Kessler, S. (2005). Contributing writer, Greater New York 2005 exhibition catalogue. MoMA/PS1 Contemporary Art Center.

    Journal Article

    • Kessler, S. (2021). Are You Being Sirred? Work in Progress, Nanette, Douglas, and the New Butch Middlebrow. Film Quarterly. Vol. 74 (3), pp. 46-55.
    • Kessler, S. (2019). “Alone Again Tonight: Russian Doll”. Film Quarterly/UC Press. Vol. 73 (2)
    • Kessler, S. (2016). “Puppet Love: Documenting Ventriloquism in Nina Conti’s ‘Her Master’s Voice'”. Camera Obscura/Duke UP. Vol. 31 (2)
    • Kessler, S. (2016). “On Ventriloquism, Dummies, and Trump’s Voice”. Sounding Out! A Sound Studies Online Journal.
    • Kessler, S., Tongson, K. (2014). “Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences”. Sounding Out! A Sound Studies Online Journal.

    Magazine/Trade Publication


    • Podcast Guest Appearance, Pop Rocket Podcast, hosted by Guy Branum, produced by MaximumFun, “Game of Thrones w/ Laura Krafft & Sarah Kessler,”,
    • Podcast Guest Appearance, Pop Rocket Podcast, hosted by Margaret Wappler, produced by MaximumFun, “From Dafoe’s Van Gogh to Hayek’s Frida: A Look at Hollywood’s Attempt to Make Art about Artists,”,
    • Podcast Guest Appearance, Pop Rocket Podcast, hosted by Karen Tongson, produced by MaximumFun, “Bravo’s Dirty John & Our True Crime Obsession w/ Sarah Kessler,”’s-dirty-john-our-true-crime-obsession-w-sarah-kessler,
    • Podcast Guest Appearance, Hound Tall Discussion Series, hosted by Moshe Kasher, produced by All Things Comedy, recorded live at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood, “Ventriloquism,”,
    • Podcast Guest Appearance, I’m Afraid That, hosted by Daniel Zomparelli, produced by Little Everywhere, “Andrew Ti is Afraid of Public Speaking,”,
    • Podcast Guest Appearance, Waiting to X-hale, hosted by Karen Tongson, “Postmillennial Femme-inisms LIVE at USC: Sex & the City vs. The L-Word,”,
    • Podcast Guest Appearance, Waiting to X-hale, hosted by Karen Tongson and Wynter Mitchell-Rorbaugh, “Lipsync for Your Life: From Milli Vanilli to Sarah Cooper w/Sarah Kessler,”,
    • Podcast Guest Appearance, Aca-Media: Talking Television in a Time of Crisis, organized by Hunter Hargraves, Lynne Joyrich, and Brandy Monk-Payton, hosted by Sarah Kessler, “Politics,”,
  • Editorships and Editorial Boards

    • Editorial Board member, FLAT journal (”, 2020 –
    • TV Section Editor, Public Books (”, 2018 –
    • Senior Editor, Triple Canopy (”, 2008 – 2010
    • Assistant Editor, Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry (”, 2008 – 2009

    Professional Memberships

    • Association for the Arts of the Present, 2017 –
    • American Comparative Literature Association, 2016 –
    • American Studies Association, 2013 –
    • Society for Cinema and Media Studies, 2007 –