Senseless Violence? Fiction and Feeling in Contemporary America

Ioanes, Anna, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, English, University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, English, University of Virginia
Shukla, Sandhya, English, University of Virginia

“Senseless Violence” analyzes depictions of violence in contemporary American fiction that refuse to offer an ethical payoff, social critique, or cathartic release. Critics tend to focus on representations of violence that have straightforwardly political intentions, such as those in Richard Wright’s Native Son. As Wright himself explains in the essay “How Bigger Was Born,” his protagonist’s violent behavior is best understood as a symptom of the racism and misogyny of American culture. The kind of violence represented in Native Son has shaped the broader discussion of representations of violence in relationship to marginal identities. However, many representations of violence in African-American, feminist, and queer literature and art make no sense in a social or political context. Critical emphasis on social and political context, moreover, has foreclosed other important aspects of literary violence, particularly the emotional work such representations have historically done.

By depicting scenes of violence that defy familiar kinds of interpretive closure, texts by Toni Morrison, Kara Walker, Kathy Acker, Riot Grrrl artists, and James Baldwin are freed from overdetermined readings that link marginalized identity formations to predictable kinds of meaning. These texts, I argue, point us toward the volatile relationship between representations of violence and affects including disgust, shock, and shame. Senseless violence in minority fiction highlights the risk inherent in expecting representations of violence to provoke predictable emotions or do straightforward ideological work. By examining texts that refuse to let violence play a predictable ideological role, my project complicates the distinction between representations and acts of violence and between literary and visual representation. Senseless violence thus marks the space where affect’s precognitive, biological jolt meets emotion’s unavoidable social determinism.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American fiction, affect, queer theory, critical race theory, gender, feminist theory, Toni Morrison, Kara Walker, Kathy Acker, Riot Grrrl, James Baldwin
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