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Democracy and Dramatic Form: The Figure of the Non-Citizen in the American Renaissance

  • Author(s): Bhaumik, Srabanti Munia
  • Advisor(s): Butler, Judith P
  • Saldivar, Jose David
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation offers a critical reading of the figure of the non-citizen in American Renaissance literature. Key literary scenes register the effects of restrictive citizenship on law, sovereignty, speech, and expressed political morality. In particular, dramatic techniques and form in the American Renaissance reveal the effects of pre-established semantic divisions such as "slave," "human," and "alien." I argue a specific literary mode of dramatization stages the failures of deliberative democracy and the fissures in juridical form.

Herman Melville's literary style stands out in this regard. The crafting of theatrical scene, gesture, intonation, lighting, music, and masquerade parodies legal rationality, while contrasting political authority and powerlessness. In several major scenes, the ship returns as an allegory of political repression and regulation. At the same time, representations of figures turned to stone show the perpetual entrapment of the disempowered non-citizen and allude to the violence of political exclusion. A key example is how punishments such as ritual floggings become ways of deratifying a claim to citizenship.

In general, what my work points out is that literature captures the brutal contradictions between the rhetoric of American democracy and practices of regulation.

Another feature that makes possible a critique of restrictive citizenship is the interpolation of dramatic technique into the novel form. In this context, scenic effect in Redburn and Moby-Dick importantly figures a spectator as a witness and casts this form of spectatorship as an obligation of democratic life.

Finally, I examine how a number of political theorists turn to the dramatic scene within American Renaissance writings to consider citizenship, democracy, law, and national sovereignty in the literary text. In the process, I put forth a comparative model of reading between nineteenth-century American literature, political philosophy, and cultural thought today.

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