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Spectacular Subjects : Race, Rhetoric, and Visuality in American Public Cultures (1870-1900)


Spectacular Subjects engages with the campaigns of three activists who inserted themselves into the nineteenth century American public sphere to combat forces of exploitation and disfranchisement in the communities they came to represent. The project is divided into three chapters, which correspond to the figures profiled : Ida B. Wells, an African American anti-lynching crusader; Sarah Winnemucca, a Native American advocate for reservation reform; and Wong Chin Foo, a Chinese American journalist for citizenship rights. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, these subjects published editorials, spoke at live events, testified in courts, appeared at fairs and exhibitions, and sat for portraits and photographs, participating in an array of cultural production over their careers. Throughout this project, I show how Wells, Wong, and Winnemucca appropriated technologies of representation across diverse textual forms to craft their public subjectivities and further their political goals. I find that these activists were savvy rhetoricians who understood how they would be seen in the public sphere, and who constructed their public images at times to conform to and at other times to challenge dominant ideologies about how they should appear. This project extends beyond prior scholarship about Wells, Winnemucca, and Wong, to consider performed, written, and visual texts, produced by and about each activist. Through an interdisciplinary analysis of newspaper articles, photographs, pamphlets, literature, and lectures (including rare archival material), I reveal how these texts worked together in the rhetorical valences of each activist's campaign and in the constitution of each one's public subjectivity. This dissertation is situated at the intersections of American literary, visual and performance studies. Rather than a comparative analysis, this is a relational study that addresses inquiries larger in scope than three individuals' campaigns : I use the campaigns as sites through which to theorize the formation of public subjectivity and the rhetorical contours of the public sphere. I find that the parallels in the campaigns of these activists shed light on the possibilities and limitations that subjects like them experienced in movements for national reform, and reveal the astounding intricacies of race and rhetoric in American public cultures during this era

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