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Ethnic Vistas: Minorities, the Environment, and the Welfare State


This dissertation examines the relationship between race and the environment through three intersecting critical lenses: literature, environmental criticism, and political theory. While minority discourse has traditionally been defined by the experience of negation, I argue that as power becomes increasingly progressive and globalized in the twentieth century, there is a need to revise our geopolitical understanding of racial scapegoating and racial stereotyping. Due to the popularity of the model minority thesis that defined Japanese American exceptionalism against African American delinquency, I focus on a comparative analysis of African American and Japanese American literature that engages the technique of cognitive mapping in order to represent the function of racial minorities in relation to the expansion of the welfare state.

Using Michel Foucault's concept of biopolitics as a theoretical framework, I examine how positive and negative racial stereotypes circulated in cultural discourse concerning the future of liberal democracy in the twentieth century. I argue that racial minorities have often functioned to manage the tension within liberal democracy, or the conflict between the centrifugal force of liberal individualism and the centripetal force of democratic communitarianism. Japanese Americans and African Americans have historically been positioned ambiguously as both internal and external to the state, and objectified and subjectified by liberal capitalism. My analysis of what I call minority environmental discourse brings into relief a new critique of the state that differs from traditional right and left critiques that both imagine the state as a threat to civil society; it is not that the state is either enabling or disciplinary, but that it fails to protect and manage the productive potential within marginalized populations. Excavating the point of view of marginalized populations, minority environmental discourse brings into view "fall out" experiences that suggest how the experiences of minorities significantly render visible a critique of the limits within biopolitics, or control that is enforced through what Foucault calls the "optimization of life" that is achieved through passive environmental controls. I examine the aesthetic forms and forms of personhood that are imagined through minority literature's cognitive mapping of the environment as being invested with both energies for resistance to and participation within a globalized progressive social totality.

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