Against an Age of Legibility: Reading, Vision, and Embodiment in Twentieth-Century American Literature
Falvey, Amy Elizabeth
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This dissertation gathers twentieth and twenty-first century literary texts that contest conceptions of purity and readability that have dominated approaches to the body over the past century in the United States. In an age reputed to premise knowledge not on the visible - but on the genomic, the biological - the visible nonetheless remains absolute signifier of truth and knowledge. Beginning with a reading of George S. Schuyler's 1931 novel Black No More, I argue that a fixation on bodily and facial features as unalterable signs of otherness grew in response to the movement of bodies with both the second wave of immigrants into the U.S., and the migration of African Americans northward, between 1910 and 1930. Through its satire of racial purity and its revelation of mixed genealogical lines, Schuyler's text both exposes and critiques the growing desire to visually distinguish racial features, and to secure them as truth. I assert that both Schuyler's text and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man refute claims of national bodily purity and legibility, by challenging the presupposition that spaces of non-contact exist, and are - or were once - accessible. Each text that comprises this project poses a challenge to realism and, in turn, contests the possibility of a fully coherent narrative of selfhood or embodiment, in that both texts and bodies are ongoingly in contact, and are thus both self and not-self. In Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs parodies and undermines the power of the visible by making it infinitely unstable, and by presenting abjection - in both form and content - that refuses absolute readability and bodily coherency. The desire for legibility has also informed how sex and morphology are comprehended or imagined, and through Katherine Dunn's Geek Love and Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, I demonstrate that legibility is reiteratively performed in the name of creating stable signifying bodies that are never, in fact, stable. Approaching television and films that include David Cronenberg's Videodrome, this dissertation closes by addressing the ever-present networks of contact between bodies and foreign material through visual narratives that themselves question the coherency of the visible.