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The Unquiet Dead: Race and Violence in the "Post-Racial" United States

Murr, Jed. The Unquiet Dead: Race and Violence in the "Post-Racial" United States. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation project investigates some of the ways histories of racial violence work to (de)form dominant and oppositional forms of common sense in the allegedly "post-racial" United States. Centering "culture" as a terrain of contestation over common sense racial meaning, The Unquiet Dead focuses in particular on popular cultural repertoires of narrative, visual, and sonic enunciation to read how histories of racialized and gendered violence circulate, (dis)appear, and congeal in and as "common sense" in a period in which the uneven dispensation of value and violence afforded different bodies is purported to no longer break down along the same old racial lines. Much of the project is grounded in particular in the emergent cultural politics of race of the early to mid-1990s, a period I understand as the beginnings of the US "post-racial moment." The ongoing, though deeply and contested and contradictory, "post-racial moment" is one in which the socio-cultural valorization of racial categories in their articulations to other modalities of difference and oppression is alleged to have undergone significant transformation such that, among other things, processes of racialization are understood as decisively delinked from racial violence. The project demonstrates how antiblack and related forms of racialized and gendered violences are crucial to the production of "post-racial" forms of common sense and the relations of value they help to govern. These formations of common sense work to crowd out and subsume subaltern and other common senses of race and value, even as they draw upon and transmute radical and decolonial histories in complex ways.

Following work by Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Kara Keeling and others, common sense is understood here as a site of struggle over the possible. It lends the present its moments of seeming coherence, but it is also where the past asserts itself in the service of potential futures that call out to the present in partially occluded and potentially redemptive ways. Engaging with scholarship in US American studies, Ethnic Studies, and related fields, the project turns to a wide range of cultural sites and forms.

Chapter One turns to Paul Beatty's novel The White Boy Shuffle to build the theoretical and historical scaffolding for the project's approach to the "post-racial moment." My reading attempts to think through the way the novel invokes different forms and histories of antiblack violence to apprehend the racial present and to imagine how social lives and landscapes survive, surreptitiously, (in)visibly, and sonically. Chapter Two takes up mainstream film to think through the development of common sense(s) of white anti-racism, with a particular focus on how white male heteromasculinity remakes itself in popular culture through an intimacy with racialized suffering and both critiques and renewals of US state power. Chapter Three extends in another direction the theorization of whiteness as a structure of racialized and gendered violence by turning to the purportedly oppositional common senses of race, rebellion, and exchange that circulate in rock music cultures. In attempting to sketch anew a series of (im)possible connections between presumptively white indie rock music cultures and racial blackness, my focus is on opening ground for investigating how material histories of race, gender and sexuality are embodied, animated, reworked and lived in writing, performance, and sound. Chapter Four reads visual artist Nick Cave's soundsuits as interventions into the dominant logics of the post-racial moment. Cave's mobile assemblages or ensembles of discarded objects cite and embody and sound out whole histories of fabrication, collective acts of world-making, moving and looking. The immersive, enveloping quality of the soundsuits in exhibition and performance take in their viewers, sometimes literally, and if they flirt with exoticized and authentic otherness and with fantasies of alternative embodiment, but they also enunciate other grammars of embodiment and disallow the willed forgetting of ongoing histories of racial and colonial encounter and violence.

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