Disposable Life: The Literary Imagination and the Contemporary Novel

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Ciobanu, Calina


Khanna, Ranjana

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This dissertation explores how the contemporary Anglophone novel asks its readers to imagine and respond to disposable life as it emerges in our present-day biopolitical landscape. As the project frames it, disposable life is not just life that is disposed of; it is life whose disposal is routine and unremarkable, even socially and legally sanctioned for such purposes as human consumption, scientific knowledge-production, and economic and political gain. In the novels considered, disposability is tied to excess--to the "too many" who cannot be counted, much less individuated on a case-by-case basis.

This project argues that the contemporary novel forces a global readership to confront the mechanisms of devaluing life that are part of everyday existence. And while the factory-farmed animal serves as the example of disposable life par excellence, this project frames disposability as a form of normalized violence that has the power to operate across species lines to affect the human as well. Accordingly, each chapter examines the contemporary condition of disposability via a different figure of disposable life: the nonhuman (the animal in J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Disgrace), the replicated human (the clone in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go), the woman (in Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy), and the postcolonial subject (the victim of industrial disaster in Indra Sinha's Animal's People and political violence in Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost). Chapter by chapter, the dissertation demonstrates how the contemporary novel both exposes the logic and operations of disposability, and, by mobilizing literary techniques like intertextual play and uncanny narration, offers up a set of distinctively literary solutions to it.

The dissertation argues that the contemporary novel disrupts the workings of disposability by teaching its audience to read differently--whether, for instance, by destabilizing the reader's sense of mastery over the text or by effecting paradigm shifts in the ethical frameworks the reader brings to bear on the encounter with the literary work. Taken together, the novels discussed in this dissertation move their readership away from a sympathetic imagination based on the potential substitutability of the self for the other and toward a form of readerly engagement that insists on preserving the other's irreducible difference. Ultimately, this project argues, these modes of reading bring those so-called disposable lives, which are abjected by dominant social, economic, and political frameworks, squarely back into the realm of ethical consideration.






Ciobanu, Calina (2015). Disposable Life: The Literary Imagination and the Contemporary Novel. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/9955.


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