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Provisional Fictions: Discontinuous Selves and the Making of Meaning
Year of Dissertation:
My project is an exploration of trauma-based meaning-making practices and reader response across a variety of sites. By teasing out some of the complex connections among trauma, narrative, and audience that may occur in spaces ranging from non-linear memoir to courtroom testimony to the writing classroom, I engage with the inherently dialogic nature of making meaning from trauma, and examine some of the ways in which women who engage in recursive, embodied rhetorical practices can productively disrupt conventional expectations of the function of trauma narratives. Chapter One examines the formal, linguistic, and philosophical choices made by women memoirists who challenge the parameters of traditional narrative structure in order to forge their own paths through contested issues of history, memory, and the body. Chapter Two focuses on the public discourses surrounding stories of sexual assault, using reader response theory to explore the possibilities available to witnesses who wish to resist the ways in which the rhetoric of the courtroom can circumscribe responses to sexual assault narratives in multiple forms, from memoir to testimony to mainstream media coverage. Chapter Three explores the interpretive possibilities for readers of trauma based narrative offered by non-oedipal psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi, who meaningfully revised Freud's analytic approach to trauma victims by stressing the need for empathy and active witnessing on behalf of the analyst. Chapter Four delves into the realm of pedagogy, seeking to demonstrate through the use of narrative practice some of the ways in which assignment design and modes of response can aid in facilitating ethical and empathetic pedagogical interactions that may resonate both in and beyond the composition classroom. I am ultimately invested in illuminating the role that both genre and the body have in the construction of non-linear trauma narratives, as well as the role community plays in re-thinking the linear reading practices often privileged in response to such narratives in light of the work of innovative writers and theorists who challenge such practices in their own projects.
Embodied Politics: Crowds in Late Nineteenth American Fiction
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In this dissertation I examine descriptions and representations of politically excited crowds in selected nineteenth century American fiction from the Civil War to the turn of the century. I argue that these depictions of crowds provide new opportunities for addressing theoretical concerns about collective agency and political action in contemporary accounts of Marxist informed literary scholarship. In particular, the dissertation turns to the political and ethical philosophies of Benedict de Spinoza to emphasize the importance of thinking collective agency through embodied politics. With Spinoza's concept of affect in mind, I assert that we can best understand the collective cognition of crowd behavior in the selected fiction by reframing our interpretative strategies toward theories that develop models of bodily intelligence. To this end, the dissertation offers a new genealogy for the study of crowds that primarily attends to the fiction of Martin R. Delany, Charles Chesnutt, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Frank Norris. It it also introduces new theoretical perspectives through intensive readings of texts on group psychology, animal behavior, religious ecstasy, financial crisis, and social emotions. I imagine here a radical ambiguity about the potential for crowd behavior to become a sovereign force for collective action, but I contend that crowd sovereignty is powerful because assemblages of bodies have the capacity to act in the name of life and death through excited expressions of synchronized gestures and symbolic production.
Modeling the Feminine: The Princess Story in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film
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The fictional princess has long been a model for emulation and explication, and this was no different in and immediately following the twentieth century in America. In a princess story, the protagonist either is a princess or is attempting to become one: the girl transforms into or identifies herself as a princess through marriage or through discovered identity, or both. Princess lessons often accompany this transformation, lessons which not only educate the fictional girl but also the reader. This dissertation seeks to define the "princess story" as a means through which cultural expectations about female roles are transmitted, linking the stories' changes to the three waves of feminism. The princess story reflects and reinforces these changing meanings of being female in America. Secondly, this dissertation seeks to use the princess story to examine the dialogic nature of feminism and patriarchy. These are embodied by first, second and third wave feminist princess stories on the one hand and by Disney Studio's princess stories on the other. Furthermore, consumers and creators of princess stories are influenced both by them and by the society around them. Traditional princess stories were consumed by the girls who became second-wave feminists; as the girls matured, they rewrote the princess stories in ways that reflected their ideological goals. The most recent princess stories tensely balance romance and feminist assumptions. Chapter One, "A Little Princess: A First-Wave Feminist Girl," examines Frances Hodgson Burnett as a first wave feminist and the ways Sara Crewe embodies Burnett's feminist beliefs. Chapter Two, "Disney's First Princess Stories," explores the ways Disney's first three princess stories, promulgate a retrogressive view. Chapter Three, "Second-Wave Feminism and Ideologically Intent Princess Stories," argues that second-wave feminists used princess stories to influence their audience, and it explores some of the reasons these stories are not widely read today. Chapter Four, "Disney's `Feminist' Princess Stories," revisits Disney, analyzing the anti-feminist positions in the studio's most recent princess stories. Finally, Chapter Five, "The Third-Wave Princess Story: A Redefinition" explores the current state of the princess story in young adult novels as well as in contemporaneous Disney adaptations.
"YOU CAN TRANSCEND THIS STUPID bad girl REALITY": A Study of Hannah Weiner's "Clair-Style"
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This dissertation is a study of the poetics of Hannah Weiner, a postmodern American experimental poet who hallucinated words. She believed that these words, though debilitating, life-altering interruptions, were clairvoyantly received directions and commentary from unseen guiding spirits. Weiner created her "clair-style" poetics to record her experience as she struggled to regain control of her life and decipher the instructions for healing, transcendence, and literary success that she believed were locked in the words she saw. I argue that her mission of documenting her life is not mere transcription, but a sophisticated engagement with her disability/gift and reflection on the role of the reader. Her personal agency is diluted, but Weiner trades authority for what she wants more: poetry that leads to enlightenment by facilitating her quest. This dissertation serves as a reading guide or companion to Weiner's difficult poetry and its use of techniques including polyphony, fragmentation, overlapping type, and raw, diaristic revelations. I situate her inside a larger history of poets and the metaphysical, and explore Weiner's connections to the art communities of New York City's Lower East Side from the 1960s until her death in 1997. I examine her early works, unpublished journals, and manuscripts, tracking her predilection for the linguistic and visual codes that become pivotal in her major work, Clairvoyant Journal. In my study of Clairvoyant Journal, I unravel messages about authorship and dictation and their connection to Weiner's life. I survey her critical reception and address key but uncomfortable questions about her clairvoyance or illness and the reader's conception of it. I probe Weiner's work of the 1980s, in which she turns her focus outward and uses her poetics for political purposes, taking up the cause of the American Indian Movement, claiming to channel the voices of its leaders. I also investigate Weiner's troubled but productive identification with Indians and her own shamanistic roll. I trace, or create, a trajectory that elucidates clair-style's origins and how Weiner arrived at this radical form for her art. This work is a study of Weiner's compromised consciousness, and her process of making art from a difficult experience.
American Magic: The Importance of Seeing Shapes
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American Magic: The Importance of Seeing Shapes opens the field of American's defining philosophy of pragmatism (in a lineage that stretches from Jonathan Edwards to Emerson to William James and, most recently, to Stanley Cavell) by using the work of American avant-garde filmmaker Robert Beavers as the catalyst for realization. The project is an extended exercise in practical aesthetics, an amplifying series of essays that considers "seeing shapes" from a variety of positions - philosophical, linguistic, poetic and visual. As I investigate the crossroads of Beavers' films and philosophical texts across both time and disciplinary bounds, I trace the slow movement from belief in divinity-in-God to divinity-in-imagination, a "progress" that evolves in American over the course of three centuries. I identify in both the American philosophical tradition and Beavers' films a microscopic focus on the practices of reading and writing as means of crystallizing consciousness of the mind-at-work. This approach foregrounds an interest in the divine potential of such embodied awareness for the film spectator or reader/writer of philosophy.
The Literary Legacy of The Federal Writers' Project
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Established by President Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) put thousands of unemployed professionals to work documenting American life during the Depression. Federal writers--many of whom would become famous, including Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Dorothy West--collected reams of oral histories and folklore, and produced hundreds of guides to cities and states across the country. Yet, despite both the Project's extraordinary volume of writing and its unprecedented support for writers, few critics have examined it from a literary perspective. Instead, the FWP has been almost exclusively in the possession of historians who have rightly perceived its unique place in Depression-era history. This dissertation attempts to fill this critical void by investigating the FWP's contributions to American writing--African American writing, in particular--in the postwar era and beyond. Drawing on archival documents, critical histories, and the work of select FWP writers, I explore how this relief program helped to pioneer a new documentary form that fused literary techniques with anthropological practices in an effort to showcase the unique voices of marginalized Americans. No longer sociological specimens or symbolic agents for reform, these subjects became empowered "selves," in part because of the FWP's efforts to create a grassroots literary methodology that privileged self-expression and the first-person perspective. Scholars have traditionally framed the FWP as a Depression-era initiative whose relevance died alongside the political and social currents that helped produce it. However, I contend that by aiming their documentary lenses so precisely on individuals and their unique voices, FWP writers ultimately eschewed the social realism of 1930s culture in favor of themes surrounding personal identity and the psychological dimensions of social engagement.
Sympathy with the Devil: Ethics and Genre in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa
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Sympathy with the Devil considers textual and visual cultures in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa to examine how practices of reading and "ways of seeing" contributed to the formation of ethical relation during a period largely characterized by the absence of ethics. It focuses on reading populations generally underexamined in studies of reader response and ethical criticism, arguing that this neglect reinforces hegemonic discourses of cultural production and consumption that overprivilege the responses of certain types of readers to certain types of textual objects. By focusing on readers in positions of subjection and exploitation who consume a wide variety of textual and visual genres, Sympathy with the Devil seeks to carve out a place in the study of audience and reader reception that recognizes the ethical importance of all acts of reading. While a reader's subject position determines her ethical response, the form and content of what she reads also influences this. If reading instantiates ethical being, the ethos summoned forth varies according to the form or genre of the text itself. While most work on the relationship between literature and ethics considers the production of ethical being through the pages of so-called "high" literature, little has been done to examine how popular culture and other reading materials also do this. Thus I consider various genres of culture production, including passbooks, photocomics and testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as novels, short stories, and memoirs. The dissertation accordingly reevaluates the role of popular culture in the formation of ethical consciousness. Despite the preponderance of philosophical and theoretical scholarly work examining the nature of the ethical, this study concludes that subjectivities characterized by oppression rather than by privilege are more conducive to the conditions of possibility that give rise to ethical consciousness and ethical action.
The Masses Are Revolting: Victorian Culture and the Aesthetics of Disgust
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The Masses Are Revolting makes two overarching claims about the interrelation of disgust and aesthetics in Victorian culture and literature. First, I place the Victorian novel's focus on the newly repulsive conditions of British society in dialogue with the privileged position Enlightenment aesthetics afforded to the disgusting as the antithesis of the beautiful. An object which disgusts cannot be aesthetically pleasing, the story goes, since it is felt to be as repulsive in art as in nature. Traditional aesthetics thus prohibited the disgusting from artistic and literary composition, because it was thought to overflow the representational frame and preclude disinterested judgment. Through close readings of works by Charlotte Brontë, John Ruskin, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing, I argue that Victorian literary texts, to the contrary, took this boundary confusion between disgusting representations and disgusting realities as a point of departure, and so broke much more sharply with the 18th and early 19th century discourse of taste and beauty than has conventionally been acknowledged. Second, while emphasizing this disconnect between Victorian literary practice and aesthetic theory, I also examine the unprecedented importance that Victorians afforded to disgust as a public and political passion, focusing in individual chapters on the complex roles that disgust played in Victorian medicine, physiology, obscenity law, and sanitation. In a chapter surveying the documentation of the 1858 Great Stink of London, for example, I argue that the Victorian rhetoric of social revulsion produced in the wake of the sewage crisis derived from the Enlightenment discourse of aesthetic judgment. Thus, while Victorian literature industriously flouted the aesthetic prohibition of the disgusting, industrial society absorbed it.
Reading Films: Words on the Silent Screens of American Cinema
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In spite of frequent appearances of words on the cinematic screen, contributions of written language are often ignored or marginalized in discussions of film language. I investigate why verbal text is employed in the distinctly visual medium of film and how screen words function within the frames and on the fringes of a cinematic composition. The micro-level of analysis, the focus of the first chapter, highlights potentialities of word and image interplay within the pictorial space. On the macro-level of analysis, in the second chapter, the discussion of written language in film is situated in the context of narrative structures, cinematic tradition, authorship and ownership, and the relation to the audience. I categorize screen words into five kinds: 1) title sequences and end credits, 2) intertitles, 3) subtitles, 4) integrated verbal elements, and 5) words as the only images on the screen. Within the five categories, I outline types and functions of written language, as applicable to silent and sound films. My primary concern, however, is with the verbal-visual angle of interpretation, so I limit the scope of my detailed investigations in the third and fourth chapters to silent films. I zoom in on the screen words in select American films—of the pre-sound era and of the post-World-War-II avant-garde. In the third chapter, the verbal practices of the first two decades of American cinema are illustrated with films created by the Thomas A. Edison Company. The written language use in the late teens and twenties is analyzed in the context of comedies directed by John Emerson and Buster Keaton and of Cecil B. DeMille's dramas. I also explore contributions of screen words to several silent avant-garde films of the late twenties and early thirties. In the fourth chapter, I focus on the verbal text of the silent creations of Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, the filmmakers whose approaches to language in film, although formulated in the same climate of discourses about the politics of language, are diametrically opposed. The dissertation concludes with a functional typology of screen words.
The Specter of Art in the American Business Novel: 1885-1917
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This dissertation is an examination of the interconnection between aesthetics and business practice as it is imagined in the work of American novelists during the final decade and a half of the nineteenth century and the first decade and a half of the twentieth. Through a reading of novels about businessmen composed during the years when "men of commerce" first received wide fictional representation, The Specter of Art in the American Business Novel explores the network of values connoted by the terms "business" and "art," and finds a secretly shared vocabulary existing alongside the recognized antagonisms between activities commonly thought to comprise opposing poles of cultural heroism. Appropriating as a structuring allegory the fateful encounter between the expatriate artist and his ghostly "American" businessman double in Henry James's "The Jolly Corner," I argue that novelists such as Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Abraham Cahan perform acts of self-analysis, even exorcism, through the imaginative creation of what cultural historian Henry Nash Smith called the "capitalist hero." In this study, I draw on fin de siècle debates about the gold standard, the role of the immigrant in shaping capital/labor relations, and the tie between American "masculinity" and the (vanishing) western frontier; I re-assess powerful contemporary statements such as Thorstein Veblen's theory of the businessman as a parasite of production and Andrew Carnegie's apology for the capitalist "superman" on Darwinian grounds; and I argue for an emerging parallel between literary and financial practices in an era when the "speculative economy," one dominated by the manipulation of representations of land, natural resources, and the products of industry, eclipsed an older model based on production as an end in itself.