Feeling Impersonal: Gender and the Art of Detachment in post-1960s American Literature

McCobin, Julianne, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia
Shukla, Sandhya, Department of English and American Studies, University of Virginia


“Feeling Impersonal” offers an account of how American women writers take up and rework impersonality as a gendered aesthetic mode in the post-1960s, after the advent of second-wave feminism and amidst an increasing cultural fixation on individual feeling management and therapeutic self-fashioning. I trace the literary careers of three famously “cool” female prose stylists—Susan Sontag, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Lydia Davis—to examine how and why these writers participate in, reflect on, and revise an impersonal aesthetic (inherited from modernism and often associated with postmodern masculinity). Reading across genre, I show how these writers theorize selfhood and emotion on the page, as they each undertake stylistic and narrative experiments to figure poses of detachment and unfeelingness not as passive disengagement but as effortful and embodied tasks of self-performance, affective discipline, and social positioning. Reapproaching questions of postmodern cool in light of gender studies and the emotional imperatives of U.S. therapeutic culture in this period—and thus newly bringing together an aesthetic history with a cultural one—I suggest that stylized female unfeelingness on the page is more curious and complicated than narratives of postmodern affectlessness allow.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
feeling, impersonality, gender
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