Reading into Race: Unsettled Reading and the Performance of"Race"
Swift, Julie Burton
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Reading, race, and the primary productive link between the two--performativity--are the subject of this dissertation. By reading the formative discourse of phrenology and Ethnology, as well as nineteenth-century textbooks which teach reading, I suggest a context in which reading operates as an expressive framework for the problematics of race. In considering selected works of Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Herman Melville, I examine the uses to which reading is put, not only to elaborate, but to perform race. By looking at unsettled reading--breakdowns of reading, failures to read, readings that prove unaccountable to the text--I emphasize the unsettled and unsettling aspects of reading and readers, particularly with regard to race. For, these very disquietudes promise to be most revealing about the relationship of reading to race. In these places, where the seams of reading show, race is revealed to be a constructed concept rather than the natural quality nineteenth-century Ethnology claimed it to be. This dissertation will strive to walk a middle road between the text-based concerns of more traditional reader-response critics, and the more recent work of reception theorists, in an attempt to prioritize acts of reading performed within the text as models of reading which operate on actual readers and reading communities. The dissertation interrogates texts which problematize reading/interpretation. By studying the forms this problematics takes, as well as the historical context in which it functions, the dissertation will suggest another way of reading reading that incorporates many of the textual concerns of reader-response criticism while uniting them with the historical context of reception theory, yet without focusing exclusively on reception by reading communities. Incorporating the notion of performativity will allow us to reconceptualize reading, not simply as a function of the text, nor solely as a set of strategies employed by discrete reading communities. Instead, my arguments recognize features of the texts that materialize race through reading strategies the texts model and challenge.