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Strangers in the City: U.S. Liberalism, Literary Realism, and the Politics of Illegibility

Hisayasu, Curtis Toyo. Strangers in the City: U.S. Liberalism, Literary Realism, and the Politics of Illegibility. 2013. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Strangers in the City offers an account of the historical production of representational illegibility and, in doing so, proposes a critical re-assessment of the function of cultural narrative in the context of liberal-nationalist social formation. American Cultural Studies scholarship has often centered on a critical understanding of narrative form as a privileged terrain within which imaginations of national community and liberal-nationalist citizenship are negotiated, constructed, or contained. In doing so, it has offered a conception of narrative representation as a site of struggle for an anti-foundationalist conception of national identity. But in the process, these perspectives have tended to construct an easy binary between what the text "contains" and what “escapes, ” “exceeds, ” or is anxiously “excluded ” from its vision. My goal in this project is to complicate this political conception of the limits of representation. Drawing from materialist critiques of liberal citizenship and the public sphere, I argue that national culture is also the domain where liberal consciousness negotiates its own relation to narrative and representational limits - where it cultivates an account of an authentic and essentially "free" liberal subject who always lies underneath or beyond the particular categories or legibilities that constitute representational presence. Liberal notions of freedom and equality are often staged in opposition to cultural difference as such, and articulated to conceptions of universality that establish a privileged position for identities or collectivities that go unmarked as forms of difference in their own right. Thus, it is not enough to simply look to the terrain of cultural legibility as the field of the subject's interpellation into liberal-nationalist norms; the limits of liberal narrative, representational legibility are not coextensive with the limits of liberal socio-political consciousness. Rather, the meaning of cultural illegibility is itself a domain of cultural, political struggle which liberalism has, over the course of its varied history, routinely colonized with its own privileged figures and values.

To investigate the liberal production of the limits of cultural narrative, I turn to the urban stranger as a narrative figure of non-recognition or illegibility that, I argue, often operates in the service of liberal-nationalist foundationalisms. Especially in situations where literary representation is deemed socially useful for a liberal-democratic order, I argue that the stranger allows for the articulation of representational illegibility to the meanings that are privileged by liberal consciousness, especially when that consciousness needs to maintain its authority by positioning itself outside of representation and culture altogether. The stranger, in this account, is a culturally-produced figure who proposes the possibility of seeing and being "beyond" culture - a figure whose position outside of culturally-bound frameworks of recognition signifies something that is supposedly more foundational than cultural signification itself. In tracing the strange career of this figure in the literary productions and discourses of nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. urban realism, I hope to call attention to the ways in which the U.S. liberal imagination has itself, explicitly or implicitly, defined the meanings of representational illegibility as a way of preserving the sanctity of its own abstractions and conceptions of political reality.

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