"And in this task we create the self": Reading Race and Twentieth-century American Literature

Larkin, Lesley Alexandra. "And in this task we create the self": Reading Race and Twentieth-century American Literature. 2007. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation is a study of and intervention into the discursive production of "the reader" as a figure of liberal subjectivity. Performing a critical genealogy of academic practices of reading race, covering early sociology, mid-century New Criticism, and contemporary multiculturalism, feminism, and postmodernism, this project finds that academic scenes of reading continue, problematically, to produce readers as privileged, liberal subjects through identificatory transactions with narratives of racial difference. Two critical and pedagogical concepts are offered as alternatives to these transactions: "Critical self-reflexivity" describes a reading posture that encourages critical reflection on racializing transactions at scenes of reading. "Collaborative reading" militates against both singular interpretations of texts and singular identities for readers. Returning reading to the center of literary inquiry, this project corrects its elision from contemporary critical and theoretical practice and claims that the literary "work" emerges at imaginative and material scenes of reading. This claim is pursued in dialogue with contemporary theorists of reading race but its primary interventions emerge from encounters with literary works. Arguing that twentieth-century American literature offers unparalleled inquiry into the politics of reading race, the chapters of this dissertation perform re-readings of works by James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Meridel Le Sueur, Ralph Ellison, Jamaica Kincaid, Ana Castillo, and Toni Morrison for their transcription of historical practices of reading race and for the alternatives they theorize and perform. These rereadings are directed, ultimately, toward resisting the reproduction of neoliberalism's privileged subjects at academic scenes of reading.