The Aesthetics of Revolutionary Nationalism: Narratives of Social Movement in Ethnic American Literature

Ragain, Nathan Dale, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Rody, Caroline, Department of English, University of Virginia

"The Aesthetics of Revolutionary Nationalism: Narratives of Social Movement in Ethnic American Literature" shows how writers associated with ethnic nationalist movements in the late twentieth century reconceived the relationship between history, ethnic identity, political subjectivity, and cross-racial collectivity. I focus on a strand of fiction and performance whose ambitious aesthetic aims both work within radical ethnic movements and exceed the identitarian strictures associated with these movements. Black Arts/Black Power, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the multiethnic Third World Strike were profoundly transnational and cross-racial in their theory and practice, and I show how writers working within and after these movements developed experimental forms and figures that navigate between particular ethnic identities and a universalizable collective political subject. Drawing on a long-standing body of work that has shown the inseparability of politics and aesthetic form, I place revolutionary nationalist aesthetics in dialogue with a recent theoretical tradition that has reimagined universalist politics. My project traces its argument from collaborations between Henry Dumas and Sun Ra, whose play with ontological categories does not easily fit Black Arts's strongly racialized context, through the fraught relationship between Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and AIM's political theater, to more recent retrospective accounts of nationalist movements by Karen Tei Yamashita and Jamaican novelist and anthropologist Erna Brodber. My first two chapters examine the ways that Sun Ra's 1950s streetcorner leaflets, Dumas's 1960s fiction, and Silko's narratives of natural revolution rework tropes of nature, both in order to revise the ontological ground of identity and to imagine modes of collective being. The second half of my project examines later writers who reclaim earlier movements within contexts of multiculturalism and globalization. I turn to the ways that Brodber uses depictions of spirit possession to revise Marcus Garvey's black nationalism into a model for a radical global subjectivity, and how the formal fragmentation of Yamashita's I Hotel resituates multiethnic subjectivities around their relation to global struggle. I argue that this strand of American literature offers a useful alternative to contemporary multicultural politics by developing an engaged political aesthetics that negotiates between ethnic particularity and a democratic, global commons.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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