Pursuing unhappiness: city, space, and sentimentalism in post-Cold War American literature

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Aaron Chandler (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Christian Moraru

Abstract: My dissertation examines how contemporary American writers have revived and revised literary sentimentalism to fashion their engagement with publicized scenes of suffering, to critique dominant narratives of national identity, and--in some cases--to offer alternate notions of publicness built on fellow-feeling. I propose that much American literature of the 1990s and early post-millennium--texts often characterized as postmodern--evince a profound, yet veiled investment in sentimentalism's characteristic mode of affective pedagogy. In the texts examined here (including works by Philip Roth, Anna Deavere Smith, John Edgar Wideman, Chang-Rae Lee, Jonathan Safron Foer, John Updike, and Don DeLillo), one encounters a recurrent mode of affective engagement: a suffering figure is spectacularly exposed, sometimes "directly" to the reader but much more often through an intermediary figure whose sympathetic, affective, and/or diagnostic reaction to the suffering pedagogically models ideal affective responses for the reader. One also encounters many of the tropes and topoi characteristic of sentimentalism in the 19th century: a metaphoric linking of domestic, familial spaces for the space of the nation, sustained grief for the lost child, and the possibility of a redemptive community established through fellow feeling. Popular American culture has never set aside its investments in the power of sympathy, the guile of sentiment, and the lure of the endearingly oppressed, but the intertextual recovery of sentimentalism's pedagogical modes, tropes, and topoi by writers renowned for their sophistication, experimentation, and reflexiveness would seem more remarkable. Indeed, this resurrection of an aesthetic mode built on feeling goes directly against the diagnosis of Fredric Jameson, who declared famously that postmodern culture is characterized by a "waning of affect" (10). On the contrary, because many "postmodern" writers in the post Cold War period have made use of the performative power of sympathetic witness and reengaged with the nineteenth-century sentimentalist tradition, I maintain that, if anything, the cultural power of affect has been magnified and inflamed. Thus, this dissertation studies the ways in which many contemporary American writers, writers customarily thought of as literary, academic, and postmodern, have borrowed much from a discourse generally considered popular and debased, have employed sentimentalism's tropes for their power, modified its affective pedagogy for their political purposes, and revised many of its assumptions about the power of sympathetic witnessing. I attempt to elucidate these literary reengagements and give shape to my broader inquiry by situating them in relation to scenes of urban crisis, ruin, and unrest--that is, by reading them in relation to the changes characterizing American cities during the post-Cold War period and in the years immediately preceding it. Following the implementation of neoliberal austerity in the late 1970s, a process of deindustrialization and social stratification that had began in the 1960s rapidly accelerated. During this period, urban life in America was marked by the increasing immiseration of the underclass, the massive influx of new immigrants from Asia and Central America, conflict over scant resources, and an escalation of tensions between the highest and lowest elements in society. Using urban conflict to contextualize these postmodern revisions of sentimentalism is not an arbitrary choice; I follow the lead of the texts themselves. In each chapter, I consider how these authors bring the power of sympathetic witness and the hope of a coherent social body built of fellow-feeling--bring, in short, the power of sentimentalism--to bear on scenes of urban tension, strife, and ruin. The net is cast wide enough to include the relative banality of anti-immigrant chauvinism alongside the spectacular explosion of the 1992 Los Angeles riots as well as the smoldering urban ruin left in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Though these events and circumstances differ in vast and important ways, each can be thought of as fiery evidence against narratives of America's pastoral unity, coherence, and placid omnipotence. The writers who responded to these sites of turmoil made use of sentimentalism's power and investment in sympathetic projection to engage candidly with the suffering of others, to pedagogically mold the affective responses of their readers, and to suggest the existence of a social body to which both sufferer, witness, and reader belong. However, these texts reveal a persistent ambivalence over sympathy: its nature, its power, and its political provenance. Furthermore, because many of these authors model emotional engagement and witness through the figure of the writer, their scrutiny of the politics of sympathy is inseparable from their performative duplication of it. Thus their ambivalence about the community of fellow feeling goes into the text's performance and reception. Reading these authors for their thematic treatment of America's politics of feeling necessarily leads to reading their modes of sentimental ambivalence performatively. The reading practice governing this study therefore reveals the ways in which these writers entangle the publics they address in powerful sympathetic bonds while nevertheless calling into question what power feeling really has.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2009
Affect, Intertextuality, Post Cold-War , Postmodernism, Sentimentalism, Urban life
American literature $y 21st century $x History and criticism.
American literature $y 20th century $x History and criticism.
Sentimentalism in literature $z United States.
Postmodernism (Literature) $z United States.
Social values in literature.
National characteristics, American, in literature.
Affect (Psychology) $x Social aspects.
Politics and literature $z United States.

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