Habitats of Abandonment: Subjectivity and the Aesthetics of Dispossession from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression
This dissertation draws on American literature from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression to fashion a theory of abandonment, a term that designates both a material reality and a conceptual framework; abandonment names what remains unincorporated into the governing economic, political, gender and racial logic. This study examines, therefore, literary representations of poverty, homelessness, forms of working-class labor, and the work that race and gender do within these conditions of existence. It arises from the intersection of the Marxist, feminist, poststructuralist, and queer theory that has sought not only to account for the inequitable economic distribution of goods but also to confront the deeper problem of injurious power structures and hierarchies.
The literature of abandonment discounts the practice of seeking recognition within a dominant structure of power; rather, abandonment brings to light the spatial practice of the subject’s struggle for re-signification of such structures. Thus, one can begin to conceive of the abandoned subject by asking what one produces when one inhabits a space typically deemed uninhabitable—by discovering forms of being where one’s being is impossible or illicit—because it is in this act that subjectivity for the otherwise abject becomes possible. This study asks more specifically how literature as an aesthetic practice imagines the production of an abandoned subjectivity and, by extension, alternative social, economic and political structures.
The driving question of this dissertation is, how can a concept such as abandonment allow one to address without interpellating its subject? That is, can one value the abandoned as such, without incorporating it into an injurious system of evaluation or the prevailing neoliberal discourse of recognition? This entails asking how these processes are represented as being deeply aesthetic and what the relationship is between literary form and “habitat.” That the fact of abandonment is not quite available for representation, at least not without recovering it from itself, but is available for inhabitation, is illustrated in each of the texts this dissertation examines. In bridging socioeconomic material and thematic readings with a study of literary form, this dissertation argues that literature itself performs the very calling into being and inhabitation of this spectral space; which is to say, literary form lays bare the spatial underpinnings of narrative, allowing one to enter into the currents of dispossession rather than their fixed social positions.
African American studies
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