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American Graphic

  • Author(s): Clark, Rebecca Bennett
  • Advisor(s): Serpell, C. Namwali
  • et al.
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Abstract

This dissertation theorizes the “graphic” as a term seemingly at odds with itself. On one hand, “graphic” demarcates the provocative, upsetting excess of visual and/or verbal works that inadequately temper their taboo-violating content. This graphic is gross, sticky, shocking. On the other hand, “graphic” promises the geometrically streamlined—information mastered on a coordinate plane or in sleekly simplified visuals, through which people and places can be appraised from a comfortable distance. This sort of “graphic” is about calculations and schematics, detachment and diagrams, and disinterested evaluation. I examine twentieth-century American texts (primarily post-45) that perplexingly and provocatively encompass these extremes of the graphic at the same time. These are texts at once viscerally grotesque and coolly clinical. In them, readers are forced into the affective bind of a mode of identification that is simultaneously classificatory and empathic. It is only when we think about famously graphic twentieth-century American literature as disinterested and disgusting at once that we can expose the unseemliness of the lust, in our contemporary culture of information, for epistemological mastery of the bodies of others.

I analyze the “double graphic” along three specific axes: the ethnographic, the pornographic, and the infographic. Whether dealing primarily with race, sex, or data, each manifestation is marked by the discomfiting affective ambivalence of coercive identification. We both empathize with and clinically document other people in moments of taboo overexposure. So we see the conflation of racial classification and racial violence in Edgar Alan Poe’s Tslalians in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), later reimagined by Mat Johnson in Pym (2011), and evident in the visual work of Kara Walker. In these texts, uncannily animated ethnographic silhouettes—racial others reduced to flat icons—become available for both classification and laceration: produced by cutting and perhaps apt, too, to cut back. I uncover the antiseptic titillation of pornographic sex dolls in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Fran Ross’s Oreo (1974), and the work of contemporary “avant-porn” performance artist Narcissister. The sex doll—which can be uncanny, repulsive, erotic, or hilarious—materializes the lust for “the ‘knowledge-pleasure’ of sexuality” that Linda Williams locates at the core of the pornographic, replacing complex people with fully knowable things. Finally, the peripatetic protagonists of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) each engage in an infographic mode of tangential narration that becomes grossly parasitic on the intimate stories and secrets of others, transcribing personal trauma into cool data. In the graphic moment, I argue, people shift unsettlingly into and back out of things—be they flat black silhouettes, hollow dolls, or dimensionless sets of data points—and we don’t quite know how we are meant to feel about it.

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This item is under embargo until July 21, 2022.