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Performative Returns and the Rememory of History: genealogy and performativity in the American racial state


I argue that contemporary Americans of many ethnoracial backgrounds have, in the past forty years, negotiated the painful consequences of a form of multiculturalism that rewards otherness with cultural capital and punishes it with structural and symbolic abjection, through mechanisms of what I call "performative return": genealogical invocations of legitimating and mythologized origins, particularly ancestral homelands and fraught narratives of arrival to the United States, that become mobilized in performances to a range of ideological and political ends. Some of these performances are local to specific cities and some take place in a discursive realm; some are mobilized for purposes of truly liberatory democratic ends, and others to redraw the boundaries of exclusion. In the context of this dissertation, I turn my attention in particular to two narratives of transatlantic arrival to the U.S. - the Middle Passage, and Ellis Island immigration. As transatlantic arrivals to the U.S., the groups of subjects implicated in these narratives have tended to have had relatively permanent stays here - more so, for instance, than im/migrants from elsewhere in the Americas, who are more likely, on account of proximity, to navigate transnational back-and-forth relationships with their home country. But more significantly, these narratives are the purview of racial subjects in the U.S. who are implicated in a pernicious and reductive black-white binary conception of race. Resultantly, these narratives - particularly in the context of post-civil rights multiculturalisms - are articulated in relation to one another in a variety of ways.

Ratifying origins shores up legitimacy, which is to say, it shores up the felicitousness of the performative. And performativity is a deeply temporal concept - while a performance takes place as a discrete event in a bounded moment in time, performativity is the repetition and revision over a long expanse of time: it is the longue durée, the mechanism by which social and power structures are formed and upheld. Performative return is central to the process of creating usable histories to various and sometimes deeply conflicting political and ideological ends: origins shore up legitimacy so that the narratives they invoke become articulated as reality. I establish a comparative framework of racialized histories and groups, of defining moments in the construction of an American racial state, and the ways in which their consequences register and are negotiated in the present through representations that slip into various worldmaking activities. And the project is comparative and relational not only because the racial state produces its subjects relationally within the framework of slavery, genocide, conquest and imperialism, and immigration, but also because I want to demonstrate the across-the-board nature of the ways that the past, ancestral homelands, and narratives of arrival are invoked as a means of negotiating racialized subjects' exclusion and legitimacy. The performative returns that I examine articulate the racial state, as well as ground-up negotiations of groups' and individuals' own racialized experiences or categorizations, in terms of the relational context of the U.S. in the world. That is, the performative returns are produced within a historical consciousness and transnational imaginary that brings spatial and temporal causes to bear on one another and takes seriously the constitutive potential of memory, the uses of narratives, and the calling into being of re-constituted "elsewheres."

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