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The Art of the Modernist Body


The Art of the Modernist Body explores the fraught relationship between corporeality and the genesis of new language in modernist literature. The dissertation argues that the history of disability in the early twentieth century facilitates a revised account of Anglo-American modernism; specifically, the modernists' formal preoccupation with loss, deficiency, and absence, long regarded as a vital aspect of the movement, can be re-imagined productively through the heuristic of disability theory. The project likewise reveals that many of modernism's signature novelties, including free verse, Imagism, and the embrace of ordinary speech, are influenced by artists' attempts to represent physical deviance. Each text in question is generated out of repeated encounters with extraordinary figures or forms, and the artists openly challenge the conceptual, social, and political parameters that delimit the ideal human body. Their literature also reminds us that the modernist period is a remarkably inchoate time in terms of how the body is imagined. Two World Wars, the rise of the machine age, and advances in prosthetic and rehabilitative medicine are just a few of the phenomena that brought the human form to the forefront of British and American culture, with politicians, cultural critics, industrial scions, workers, artists, and soldiers all tussling over the social and economic value of imperfect bodies. Accordingly, many accounts from the period resist any entrenched, discrete notions of normality and abnormality, and acts of corporeal discipline, normalization, and rehabilitation are neither roundly condemned nor applauded. The confluence of multiple visions of corporeality not only alters the cultural landscape, but it also affects the very language through which the experience of physical difference is articulated. The novelists and poets herein record both processes, namely by producing what might be called a "contingency of corporeality:" they define the superlative modernist body as a hybrid entity, a form that registers the dueling forces of normalization and destabilization.

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