Nation, region, and power in the Southern abject heterotopia

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Benjamin S.F. Compton (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Scott Romine

Abstract: This dissertation is rooted in an inquiry into why images of the grotesque and abjection are not only intimately associated with the American South, but also why these images are so readily produced and embraced by its writers, politicians, and artists. Is the production of these images just a question of pandering to national audience for material profit, or is there a deeper strategy at foot to assert regional identity and influence the nation? This dissertation argues the latter and asserts that a central purpose of the Southern abject is to subvert the structures of the national body and propose alternatives. Because the idea of a national body is, in itself rooted in somatic language and imagery, it is useful to investigate the impacts of transgressions of national purity in terms psychological responses to violations of bodily integrity. To this end, I will deploy ideas of abjection rooted in the work of Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler to determine the ways in which these transgressions reveal the constructed nature of the national body, denaturalizing its form, and creating a space in which alternative bodies can be formed which can exert not only regional agency, but also a form of national control. In order to do this, this dissertation examines three different “topographies” of abjection that were disruptive to the hegemonic national body’s sense purity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. First, the objective topography, a view of the national body from the point of view of types of aspects of identity and experience that are measurable and quantifiable. These include elements of the physical world like the body and the environment, as well as the experience of time. The second layer, the social topography, includes aspects of identity like race, class, and gender, which effect the immediate social view and experience of the subject. The third layer is the historical topography. This topography has less to do with the literal passage of time than the emergence of the emergence of an agreed upon an agreed upon narrative that defines the ideological progress of the nation. The reason that these three topographies were important at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries is that they represented areas in which changes in technology, medicine, and social sciences gave a new categories and language through which the national body and its threats could be defined. This dissertation argues that a supposedly progressive liberal North needed an abject South in order to perform the continual struggle for a “more perfect union: As such, the South as abject heterotopia in which abjection could be contained was, and is, essential to the nations ideological progress towards an ever more democratic nation. This containment in a grotesque “problem region”, also gave the nation a way of struggling with issues of objective, social, and historical abjection, while not confronting these same issues in the rest of the country. Interestingly, for the South, there is also a power in this abject positioning, in that the intentional deployment of forms of abjection can disrupt the supposed coherence of a national body. This is a powerful rhetorical and ideological tool that allows for a space to develop in which the norms of the national body can be challenged as unnatural and unhelpful and alternative bodies can be developed. Abjection achieves this by making plane the boundaries of the national body and revealing its constructed nature, and, in doing so, denaturalizing it so that its overarching hegemonic power is compromised by its own incoherence. The question then, is way does the South have this power in ways that other regions of the country do not? In this dissertation, I argue that the South is uniquely positioned to accomplish this because of its role as national member and outsider. The South’s unique history of separation and reunion means that the region can be seen as both a part of the national body and separate from it. The region’s role as a constituent part of the national body at its founding meant that it provided much of the leadership as the country formed its ideological direction, along with its early political and social discourse. At the same time, the region violently resisted this same national identity, forcing the nation to defeat and ideologically “recolonize” the region. This double-positioning as both a part of the national body and as the container of an antithetical ideology that had to be purged through a form of violent emesis makes the region a kind of abject heterotopia. Using the work of progressive writers like Erskine Caldwell who uses the objective topography of abjection to call attention to the ongoing damage caused by immoral exploitation of mindless capitalistic myth, and Jean Toomer who uses the social topography of abjection to disrupt national norms of race in order to argue for a different understanding of identity, this dissertation examines the deployment of abjection for alternative liberal and progressive goals. At the same time, this argument also looks to the writing of Southerners who embraced highly regressive and conservative ideologies, such as William Gilmore Simms, Thomas Dixon, and the Agrarians to argue for an alternative history and future that had hitherto been seen as contained within an abject historical topography. This dissertation argues that the topographies of Southern abjection are still essentail forces that impact and shape the the regional and national identity today as it struggles with how to define itself and its history.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2022
Abjection, Erskine Caldwell, Jean Toomer, Southern Literature, Southern Regionalism, US Nationalism
Southern States $x In literature
Regionalism in literature
Nationalism in literature
Grotesque in literature

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