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Promiscuous Contextualities: Race, Sex, Gender, and the Problem of the Stereotype in the Politics of Representation

Morse, Jason H. Promiscuous Contextualities: Race, Sex, Gender, and the Problem of the Stereotype in the Politics of Representation. 2013. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

My dissertation project deals with the problem of the stereotype in the sexualized racialization of African Americans in the U.S. since Reconstruction. The stereotype has thus far been primarily understood as a social psychological problem rectifiable only by correcting stereotypes as "false" representations in people's minds. More recently, postcolonial and performance studies have focused instead on its deconstructive "productive ambivalence" and the theoretical possibilities of critically inhabiting the stereotype in parodic, disidentificatory performance. I argue, however, that these treatments remain corrective, invested in the idea that a re-presentation of the stereotype will "correct" it (as if this correction would quell its representational powers or that a pre-existing, non-stereotypical "reality" exists), while also seeming to be inadequate for understanding the stereotype's paradoxical efficacy in the present moment's hegemony of post-racial, colorblind, and/or multicultural discourses that purport to have moved beyond stereotypical thinking. Promiscuous Contextualities builds upon this stereotype scholarship and insights from woman of color feminism and 1980-90s cultural studies' theories of representation to ask questions about the stereotype's representational intractability. Promiscuous contextualization names a reading practice that takes as axiomatic that stereotypes' empirical correction is impossible and so focuses instead on understanding how stereotypes represent. This project looks to cultural production as a site from which to develop a reading practice that dwells not on "undoing" stereotypes, but instead on understanding how their protean, often contradictory, representational logics - including deploying historical narratives to produce ahistorical "natural" definitions, producing and simultaneously disavowing their own truth value, and fixing bodies to particular social definitions while remaining themselves adaptable to changes in social attitudes - might reveal their role in the relations of power that instigate them, and, more broadly, their role in framing relations of desire and identity formation as well as historiography and historical narrative and other forms of scholarship that focus on racial, gender, and sexual formation.

To do so, this project tracks the role of stereotypes in the gendered sexualization of African Americans in the historical period between the post-Reconstruction era and the emergence of the African American Civil Rights Movement. The "American dilemma" of re-signifying black bodies from enslaved property to emancipated subjects involved a war of representation that forged America's most dangerous and enduring stereotypes, such as the "Black Buck/Rapist" and the "Mammy." The chapters progress as a series of interfaces between these stereotypes, how they are represented in cultural texts, and how these representations are engaged by scholars. I read these texts against the grain of their usual readings as correctives to stereotypes, readings that I argue are framed by particular understandings of stereotypes. Each chapter models a promiscuous contextualization of a cultural text while also showing how the texts perform their own promiscuous contextualizations of the stereotypes they engage. The first chapter reads James Baldwin's Another Country as a theory and experiment in reading the "Black Rapist" stereotype that makes apparent its inescapability within relations of interracial desire. Baldwin's promiscuous contextualization maps the circulation of the stereotype in these relations and in so doing reveals the extent to which his audience must reconcile their complicity with the way stereotypes frame their reading practice. I then read Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices as a re-narrativization of the history that defines African Americans as "Primitive" Others to U.S. progress. In his re-historicization, Wright figures men as historical agents while continuing to define Black women as the gendered, sexual stereotype of the Mammy, as the "Primitive" Others to the now-progressive Black men. Re-contextualizing this feminist reading within the documentary discourse of the U.S. state reveals the problem of trying to undo the stereotype's historical indexicality. The final chapter understands Ida B. Wells's anti-lynching pamphlets and speeches as the conditions of possibility for later work like Baldwin and Wright. I argue that most scholarship reads Wells's anti-lynching writings as a de-bunking the Black Rapist stereotype, which requires centering this stereotype within the lynching narrative as "truthful" in ways that Wells seems to trouble. I read Wells as using evidence from the white press to carefully disarticulate the relationship between the material practice of lynching and the "Black Rapist" stereotype in order to show how the white press produces this relationship.

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