This dissertation, Not To Repeat History: Racialization and Combinatory Textuality in Contemporary Asian American and African American Experimental Writing, examines the relationship between textual strategies and political imagination at work in Asian American and African American experimental writers Nathaniel Mackey, Myung Mi Kim, and Ed Roberson. Providing one of the first cross-cultural studies of contemporary Asian American and African American experimental writing, I contend that these writers pit two aspects of literary form against each other so as to stage a confrontation between the experience of racism and the possibility of escaping its logic. I argue that all of these writers turn to serial literary forms as a way of imitating what they take to be the power of racism to make individuals merely identical. At the same time these writers imagine the building blocks of textuality as sites of provisional abundance, either because of the traditionally combinatory possibilities of texts, or because those possibilities are made evident anew once texts are brought into relation with other media (for example in relation to music). I call this relation between serial literary forms and combinatory textual possibilities "racial constructivism." In other words, I argue that the poets share an understanding of racialized identities as both interchangeable and discontinuous, and so counterpose a combinatorial textuality which imagines both space and time for grief, renewal, or repair. My dissertation argues that inasmuch as these imaginings of the resources of textuality for poetry are pitted against an experience of racism as departicularizing, the poets help us to move beyond the antinomy of a postmodern "poetics of form" and a postnationalist "politics of cultural difference."
My first chapter, entitled "An Axiomatic Chorus: Improvisation and Imagined Identities in Nathaniel Mackey's From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate," argues that Nathaniel Mackey's interest in musical improvisation pushes past texts in order to return to them with a renewed sense of combinatory possibilities. By utilizing the epistolary novel form, and refusing linear narrative development in favor of oblique chains of association, and taking jazz improvisation as a model for black experimental literary practice, Mackey not only produces a restless variety of figures for expressive force but also invents a digressive form spacious enough to hold them all in tension. In Mackey's epistolary novel series, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, the protagonist N. writes letters to an interlocutor known only as "The Angel of Dust," whose responses are alluded to but absent from the texts. In these letters, N. chronicles the performances of an imagined group of avant-garde jazz musicians, the "Molimo m'Atet," and searches for linguistic analogues to musical improvisation. While readers are kept guessing as to whether the anonymity or pseudonymity of the "Angel of Dust" names an imagined muse, an addiction, or perhaps Mackey himself, the combination of the particulate metaphor of dust with the implicit animating power of "angel" provides a compact description of the novels' assemblage of figures out of permutable textual building blocks. I argue that the novel series both embodies and diagnoses the limits of such a constructivist impulse by revealing how such combinatory literary strategies mime racialization processes in order to overcome them. I argue that at key moments in the novel series, this racial constructivism is problematized by the protagonists' immobilizing experiences of contingency and automaticity
In my second chapter, "`What is nearest is destroyed': Myung Mi Kim's `Thirty and Five Books' and Racial Comparison," I show how Myung Mi Kim's interest in the "recombinatory power of language" (Kim, Statement 251) functions both as a metaphor for cultural hybridization and as a set of formal strategies capable of representing interracial conflict and the dissolution of intercultural social bonds. In this chapter, I analyze an underexamined feature of the poet's works in a poem entitled "Thirty and Five Books" from a more recent volume, Dura--the essential political ambiguity of the poem's use of "recombinatory" or serial forms, the problem of the comparability of nonwhite communities during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and finally the significance of the systems of counting, accounting, and measurement which permeate the poem. "Thirty And Five Books" takes this interest in "accounts and recounting" and interrogates the hierarchical racial schemas which structured media representations of interracial conflict between African American and Asian American communities during the Los Angeles riots in 1992 in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King. I contend that the systems of measurement and classification which organize so much of the poem are inseparable from the poem's vision of non-hierarchical social relations modeled after the linguistic hybridity of what the poet calls a "A banter English."
My third chapter, "Infinite Regressions: Ed Roberson, Serial Identities, and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement Lunch Counter Sit-Ins," performs an extended close reading of Roberson's poem "Sit In What City We're In," from the author's 2006 book City Eclogue. Roberson's poem reimagines the waves of 1960s lunch counter sit-in's as an opportunity to pose fundamental questions about the nature of racial representation in the post-civil rights era. Roberson does this by reconfiguring the sit-ins in space and in time: spatially, by tracking how mirrors behind a lunch counter create an infinite regress of reflected images of protestors and counterprotestors alike; and temporally, by reconnecting the evanescent figure of the city to the earth and enduring cyclical geological processes. Roberson's poem "Sit In What City We're In" commemorates the lunch counter sit-in movement which swept the south in the 1960s by dilating the moment and the movement in space and time and by refusing the kind of distanced, spectatorial historical framing which would safely consign the antiracist ideals of the civil right movement to the past. Instead, Roberson reimagines the scene of the sit-ins as what I want to call a failed dialectic of racial recognition in which the promise of formal equality, desegregation, and equal protection gives way to a meditation on the homogenizing force of such ideals. I argue that Roberson stages the civil rights sit-ins as a moment of conflict between an integrationist politics in pursuit of equal citizenship rights and a later pluralist multicultural politics of recognition which emphasize cultural difference rather than similarity. As a result, the poem, and I would argue the City Eclogue as a whole, pioneers a novel mode of historical recollection which reveals both the appearance of the past in the present, and vice-versa. Finally I argue that Roberson's interest in the figure of the city, and the anonymity of urban life, allows the poem to represent the promise of formal equality as fundamentally compatible with segregated social relations.