Forms of Frustration: Unrest and Unfulfillment in American Literature after 1934

Reed, Ethan, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia

This dissertation offers an account of what the condition we call frustration has meant and might mean for modern and contemporary literary study. Building on theories of affect as they relate to race, class, and gender in American literature, I focus in particular upon the articulation of feeling in the face of systemic injustice within recent US literary history. Building on recent scholarship suggesting that feeling gives structure to cultural formations, I argue that a history of unrest in America reveals a pattern of artistic response, a sensibility, precipitated by specific historical moments but translated into aesthetic practice through a stable constellation of affective structures. This constellation, I argue, is an affective situation governed not by anger, despair, or hope, but by frustration as a persistent structural condition. To this end, I examine continuities between politically-engaged aesthetic projects from three periods of discontent in American history: radical journals like Partisan Review in the 1930s; the revolutionary poetry of the Black Arts Movement in the 60s; and contemporary revenge-driven novels drawing from the Red Power movement.

In pursuing this inquiry, my work attempts to offer an account of frustration that bridges the gap between specific articulation and historical pattern. Where Sianne Ngai uses an “ugly feeling” (like irritation) to investigate how Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand articulates racial injustice, I attempt to trace a larger historical trajectory of a radical sensibility in America. Alternatively, where Lauren Berlant uses affective experience to perform a broad analysis of the false promises and “cruel optimism” of recent American and European culture, I narrow my focus to three periods of social unrest in American history and embeddedness in an affective situation shared between artistic movements from those periods. Building on other scholarship that has viewed affect as potentially pre-discursive (Massumi, Deleuze), bound up in psycho-biological drives (Sedgwick, Tomkins), or as a discursive quality itself (Berlant, Ahmed), this project looks to periods of literary radicalism in the United States with an eye for those situations governed by discontent, unrest, and frustration as structural and structuring forces—affective situations in which individuals, groups, and institutions respond to the use of power to block, bewilder, disappoint, and prevent.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American literature, digital humanities, affect
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