Sentimental postmodernism and the politics of identification

Davis, Kimberly Chabot, Department of English, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kumar, Jagdish, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

This cultural study analyzes the politics of a hybrid genre that I call "sentimental postmodernism" and offers a reception study of its audiences. I examine contemporary popular texts from literature, film, and television that invoke two seemingly antithetical sensibilities--the sentimental and the postmodern. Offering an alternative to the nihilism and political apathy associated with postmodernism, sentimental postmodernist texts foster sympathy, embrace "feminine" values, and highlight the political stakes of identity formation. Focusing on such texts as Jane Campion's film The Piano, Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and its film and musical adaptations, and the television series Northern Exposure, I examine how different American audience groups negotiate the conflicted treatment of gender, race, and sexual identity at work in these texts. Because sentimental postmodernist texts employ melodrama's essentialist stereotypes while also engaging in a postmodern questioning of identity politics, they speak to people caught between competing conceptions of the self. Contemporary debates about identity politics are highlighted by this hybrid genre and its reception. Furthermore, audiences of sentimental postmodernism experience emotionally powerful political identifications that call into question existing theories of identification in literary and media studies. Many scholars have conceptualized identification as an unconscious process of self-recognition that solidifies unitary identities among spectators and readers. My study questions this essentialist and ultimately apolitical vision of the power of identification in contemporary culture, offering a more flexible model of identification that takes into account postmodern notions of identity as fluid, ambiguous, and impure. While most audience studies investigate how reading is affected by a single axis of identity such as gender or class, my interviews with audiences underscore that the self is a web of multiple affiliations and ideologies, resulting in identifications that often exceed the boundaries of identity.  

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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