"Crafting" the Race House of the Domestic Individual: Political Subjectivities, Hierarchy, and Value in the Crafting and Do-It-Yourself Labors of Domestic Fiction, 1850 - Present

Schmidt, Suzanne. "Crafting" the Race House of the Domestic Individual: Political Subjectivities, Hierarchy, and Value in the Crafting and Do-It-Yourself Labors of Domestic Fiction, 1850 - Present. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.
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`Crafting' the Race House of the Domestic Individual: Political Subjectivities, Hierarchy and Value in Crafting and Do-It-Yourself Labors of Domestic Fiction, 1850 - Present is an interdisciplinary cultural studies project that argues for the continued relevance of the domestic individual as she seeks to buttress or completely renovate the (contemporary and historical) race house. Throughout the project, I examine the constitutive function of crafting and do-it-yourself (DIY) labors in domestic fiction and DIY narratives in order to explore how domestic individualism remains a generative model of civic self-production, especially in relation to an increasing wariness of the capitalist market in the twenty-first century. I read contemporary narratives of crafting and DIY as a motivation to delve deeper into the history of women's domestic labor in the United States while examining the importance of literature for comprehending the contemporary DIY crafting subject. In doing so, I seek to understand the longevity of the domestic individual in American literature, despite the fact that this figure is commonly linked only to 19th century sentimental fiction. I take the presence of crafting as a persistent thematic in American women's writing (of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries) as an impetus to bring these fields together in new and productive ways. The recent popularity of the DIY movement (and its formulation as a distinct ethos and political project via craftivism) provides an occasion to consider how the value of crafted objects and the virtues of creating them are narratively constructed.

My first chapter reads contemporary DIY/craft narrative against the Feminist Commodity Chain Analysis in order to assess whether and how DIY constitutes a unique identity category that provides a space for political invention in the present moment (and as a specific instance of what political subjectivity looks like in neoliberal consumer culture). I analyze DIY narratives such as Craft: magazine and Levine and Heimerl's Handmade Nation in order to posit an epistemology of DIY that generates space for deeper historical and theoretical engagements with DIY in the crevasse between critical dismissal (DIY as a mere instantiation of the neoliberal subject) and compulsory celebration (craft as inherently emancipatory, empowering and/or political) that characterize contemporary accounts of DIY. Chapter two locates the political potential of crafting by historicizing the use of women's domestic labors and crafting as narrative devises and also as a primary means for female writers to be politically active during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin alongside and against African American women's fiction such as Francis Harper's Iola Leroy, Pauline Hopkins' Contending Forces, and Nella Larsen's Quicksand in order to reconfigure the political utility of the domestic individual as these novels utilize domestic labors and spaces in different ways to reimagine standard boundaries of inheritance and configure new models of self-possession. These investments travel into chapter three, "Housekeeping in/of the `Race House': Crafting and Household Labors of the Domestic Individual in Contemporary American Fiction," which introduces Toni Morrison's concept of the race house as a structure that might help to domesticate what has been articulated as an elusive race-free paradise. I ask, through an examination of various works of contemporary fiction, what it means to do housekeeping labors in and of the racial house, thinking especially about the role of the domestic individual in this process. The final chapter reads Fae Myenne Ng's Bone as an instance of a contemporary crafting narrative that demonstrates the much more diverse possibilities of these labors in the present - especially through the figures of the protagonist's parents: Mah, a garment worker, and Leon, a tinkerer/handyman/maritime laborer. Rather than dismissing the DIY subject as merely another instantiation of the neoliberal subject, this chapter takes the reimagination of the crafting subject in Bone as an opportunity to extend one's understanding of the crafting subject in the present moment.