Unthinkable, Unprintable, Unspeakable: Transgression in Postwar African American Literature

Wachter-Grene, Kirin. Unthinkable, Unprintable, Unspeakable: Transgression in Postwar African American Literature. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation argues that African American literary representations of transgression, meaning boundary exploration, reveal a complex relationship between sex, desire, pleasure, race, gender, power, and subjectivity ignored or dismissed in advantageous yet constrained liberatory readings/framings. I trace transgression to confront the critical dismissal of, or lack of engagement with African American literature that does not "fit" ideologically constrained projects, such as the liberatory. The dissertation makes a unique methodological intervention into the fields of African American literary studies, gender and sexuality studies, and cultural history by applying black, queer writer and critic Samuel R. Delany's conceptualizing of "the unspeakable" to the work of his African American contemporaries such as Iceberg Slim, Octavia Butler, Gayl Jones, Hal Bennett, and Toni Morrison. Delany theorizes the unspeakable as forms of racial and sexual knowing excessive, or unintelligible, to frameworks such as the liberatory. The unspeakable is often represented in scenes of transgressive staged sex that articulate "dangerous" practices of relation, and, as such, is deprived of a political framework through which to be critically engaged. I argue that the unspeakable can be used as an analytic allowing critics to scrutinize how, and why, much postwar African American literature has been critically neglected or flattened. In tracing this negligence I contend with the conservatism of much contemporary African American literary scholarship that continually reads through frameworks of respectability, resistance, and liberation.

I am participating in the construction of what I call "Delanyian theory." To articulate and advance new reading/archival practices of African American literature this project uses the unspeakable and Delany's use of Jameson's "paraliterature" to develop a Delanyian theoretical approach through which to analyze transgression. While scholars have acknowledged Delany as a critic in his own right, none to my knowledge have published an application of his theories to the literature of his African American contemporaries. In applying Delanyian theory I advance a reading practice that recognizes and values alternative African American political gestures. The chapters pair texts that were produced during the postwar time period of the 1960s-1980s but that have not been historically read together. That period saw an uprising of liberatory identity politics and counter-cultural movements and their aftermath, such as second-wave feminism, gay rights, Civil Rights, and Black Power, thus I consider how the texts' use of the unspeakable implicitly or explicitly critiques the epistemological and political structures, including the liberatory, informing the context of their production. Reading transgression in the canonical texts allows me to analyze the unspeakable elided in liberatory framings. Reading transgression in the lesser-known texts, when paired with the canonical texts, allows me to argue for the critical value of paraliterature in reimagining the archive.

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