Epistemic Uncertainties: Contemporary Narratives of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Wallace, Samantha, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

“Epistemic Uncertainties” argues for the value of uncertainty to feminist theory as a way of acknowledging the complexities of sexual and gender-based violence. Uncertainty is a potentially dangerous mode for survivors. In response, US anti-rape activism has advocated for the reception of survivor testimony as credible and authoritative, in part laboring to develop what I call a rhetoric of certainty. While fiction, by virtue of being fiction, has different material stakes in comparison to a testimony that is given before the US Senate Judiciary Committee, or, for that matter, a public tweet, it too participates in discourses surrounding sexual and gender-based violence. The works of contemporary fiction discussed in this project frame key points of tension within these debates about survivor speech, reimagining them through the vicissitudes of first-person narration. These key points of tension, I argue, all crystallize around the problems of speaking about (and with) uncertainty: survivor precarity in Kate Walbert’s His Favorites (Chapter One); female desire and sexual agency in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” (Chapter Two); the apology of the accused man in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Chapter Three); and the specter of untruth in Jia Tolentino’s “We Come from Old Virginia,” an essay about sexual assault at my home institution, the University of Virginia (Coda). In a #MeToo era in which stories of sexual and gender-based violence have received unprecedented mainstream media exposure, I contend that we can treat the testimonies of survivors as credible and authoritative, and open up discursive space for their expressions of uncertainty.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Contemporary Literature, American Literature, Sexual violence, Feminist theory, Narrative, Testimony, #MeToo

Elements of this dissertation's second chapter is published in Feminist Theory. See Wallace, Samantha. "In defense of not-knowing: uncertainty and contemporary narratives of sexual violence" (2021) https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700120987387.

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