A Sick Archive: Reproductive Flesh in American Modernity Open Access
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"A Sick Archive: Reproductive Flesh in American Modernity" traces the revolutionary potentiality of the sick femme in literary and filmic narratives of failure, suffering, and confinement from pre-Civil War U.S. to the present. I use the phrase "reproductive flesh" in this project to both index female conscription to biological reproduction and to signify for the viscerally abused and politically excluded racialized bodies that fuel the political and material economy of American modernity. In conceptualizing a "sick archive," I riff on the lived material trace denoted by "[sic]," which suggests the reproducing scribe's textual eruption onto the page. My dissertation develops "[sic]k" reproductive flesh as an analytic for reading crip embodiments and performative practices as a dynamic archive that registers, reproduces, and critically disrupts the textual fabric of the American cultural imaginary. In my primary texts, passing, autobiographical writing practice, self-harm and domestic violence, and instances of infant morbidity are all instantiations of embodied sick speech-acts of reproductive flesh. My readings of this sick archive show how the depersonalized and commodified femme qua reproductive flesh exerts critical agency from within a social script that would simultaneously objectify, pathologize, and consume her. This femme practice is revolutionary in the sense that her refused subject of modernity disrupts idealized structures of white heteropatriarchal domesticity and political economies. The revolution here begins with a close reading practice of attunement that these texts invite, toward a potential unraveling of lived time and space "as we know it." My readings track hybrid aesthetic production and communicative acts between reproductive flesh, the world of objects and commodities, and pathologizing discourses. I argue that such hybrid methodologies subvert and circumvent hierarchical political grammars, and gesture toward a "crip," non-normative "something else to be." My first two chapters read pre-Civil War and early 20th century U.S. literary texts. Later chapters include contemporary South American and African diasporic films alongside U.S. literary texts from the late 20th century. I begin my dissertation with a consideration of the political work of haunting, and the difficult questions of the stakes of witnessing and transmission, as presented in Toni Morrison's Beloved. In chapter one, "A Study in [Sic] Passing: Birthing the Spectral Object," I read the fatally failed racial and social passing of Joe Christmas and Lily Bart in William Faulkner's Light in August and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth as a willful citational critique of the sentence of social death. My second chapter, "The Shape of Her Hand: Revolutionary Textuality and [Sic] Autobiographical Praxis" explores hybrid tactics in autobiographical writing as embryonic articulations of resistant non-normative domesticities in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. Chapter three, "Diagnostic Violence and Disavowal: Cutting Reproductive Flesh in Vita and Corregidora," tracks private, familial trauma working in concert with biopolitical medical practice. I read discursively hybrid resulting sickness and injury in the stories of Ursa in Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Catarina in João Biehl's Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment and I argue that these stories reveal a targeted political and economic eugenic violence, which these women tactically subvert through poetry and the Blues. Chapter four, "Disorganizing American Grammars: Cultural Seeing, Toxic Consumption, and Revolutionary Aesthetics" examines morbid illustrations of consumption and materializations of the toxic effects of antiblackness in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Wangechi Mutu's The End of eating Everything. I argue that both texts deploy intentionally disorienting aesthetics, and embody what I call a "toxic futurity" that articulates a not-quite-articulate horizon of hope through visceral witnessing. I close my dissertation with an reading of "Meat Patties," a YouTube video circulated by the Free Alabama Movement in connection with a prison labor strike. I connect the film's aesthetic invocation of the hunger strike to potent imaginative aspiration toward a crip political practice.