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Narrating Normal: Arabs, Queers, Neoliberal Spectatorship


Queer and Arab, as both social movements and signifiers of cultural difference, have shared surprisingly similar historical trajectories within American culture and politics since the late 1960's. The historical parallels become especially relevant to this project with the arrival of the 1990's, when the United States witnessed the roughly simultaneous consolidation of (1) identity politics and (2) a multicultural ideal in which difference is at once defining and irrelevant. Like other racialized/stigmatized social groups, Arab and queer identities post-1990 have been folded into larger debates on the creation of a new multicultural America in which differences of gender, class, and race are supposedly null and void. In this model, Arab and queer subjectivities can pass and/or cover as normal, as good, as worthy of heteronormative and white privilege and full citizenship, if they adhere to the narrative benchmarks (monogamous marriage, procreation, the accumulation of capital) that have become common sense.

Narrating Normal argues that being a spectator/subject in a neoliberal multicultural era is inherently about the recitation of the same scripts with different casts, in which difference is subjugated/erased and sameness amplified and spectacularized, creating what I call the Neoliberal Multicultural Spectator. This subject does not exist. It is, rather, an ideal subject evoked for political speeches, televised news, and media and entertainment. As a performance studies project, this dissertation utilizes concepts of theatricality and the performance of self in everyday life to examine the current spectacle of the real we are all embrocated in. Although we know that we can never really possess all of the positive attributes, moral clarity, and desire for a concrete, stable, normal life that make up the neoliberal multicultural spectator, there is still societal and personal pressure to embody the values and desires of that unattainable, non-existent spectator. The constant barrage of media today, both in terms of cultural production and the production of the self, makes the lines between one's own subjectivity and one's performance of self tenuous at best, causing us to live in what many critics have called a &ldquo spectacle of the real, &rdquo trying to find some sort of normative narrative fulfillment.

Each chapter of this dissertation examines certain spectacles of citizenship, analyzing specifically the ways in which difference is both underplayed and amplified. This is first apparent in the Arab American National Museum where a variety of camp aesthetics are utilized in order to make clear how normal and acceptable Arab Americans are, and have always been, creating a spectacle out of rituals of normative American citizenship and assimilation. Next, I look at two different spectacular narratives that have become intertwined in the past decade; the inherent Orientalist spectacle of melodramatic narratives about Iraq and Afghanistan in the years of U.S intervention and the tales of immigrant assimilations to the American polity. I execute this work by analyzing the narrative similarities between The Kite Runner and Bilal's Bread, two novels that became word of mouth sensations from 2003-2005. Next, I examine how even intimate moments found in small-scale theatrical productions (Jeff Key's The Eyes of Babylon and David Adjmi's Stunning) can set the stage for their own form of pyrotechnics. In Key's piece, this spectacle comes in the form of a positivist and life-affirming disembodied kiss between an American solider and an Iraqi queer while Adjmi's form of spectacle concerns the violent whitewashing of a queer women of color. My analysis of the spectacle of everyday life reaches its apex in Chapter 4, which analyzes the two very different performances of self found on TLC's All American Muslim and Bravo's The Shah's of Sunset; while the former underplays differences and overplays normalcy, the latter underplays normalcy and overplays artifice. The last spectacle of normalcy I examine is the wedding ceremony, looking at how different non-normative sexual subjects (queers, Muslims, and Mormons) have been represented in popular media, giving way to what I coin a contemporary monogamy panic that elucidates the limits of both neoliberalism and multiculturalism as political and social projects.

Central to this project is the inherent double-bind that lies at the heart of our contemporary relationship to identity: it is limiting and liberating, essentializing as well as essential to democratic engagement. It renders difference both invisible and highly visible in the performative tactics used by othered/non-hegemonic subjects. This dissertation takes lessons from the affective and historical similarities of Arab and Queer in the hopes of elaborating new aesthetic and social forms of recognition that are both hopeful and pragmatic, optimistic but not limiting, and critical and forgiving of reiterated concepts of &ldquo identity.&rdquo

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