Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing will be the focus of a new chapter for the book manuscript based on my dissertation. This additional chapter will extend my dissertation’s argument to a text with ambivalent relationships to both the Harlem Renaissance and literary modernism and which deals with the aesthetic and socio-economic entanglements of race, gender, and sexuality in the United States in the first part of the twentieth century.
In our 21st century political epoch in the U.S., when the right to claim an “American” identity is being revised and revoked—even for elected national Representatives—Larsen’s novel not only reminds us that the right to signify as legitimate has always been a moving target for some; I suggest that the text challenges the reader to recognize the aesthetic limits of that (im)possibility. I am particularly interested in the novel’s facilitation of a critique of aesthetic and affective attachments that serve oppressive practices. In this case, national and economic systems shape how we see and feel our bodies (as racialized, sexualized, and gendered) and prevent Larsen’s protagonists from securing “safe” subject positions, even as those same systems seduce these characters (and the reader) and obscure the real risks of attraction. I argue that Larsen’s text, with its feminist baroque aesthetics, performs the “vanishing point” of American identity.
I will be presenting a paper on this new chapter for the developing book at the second conference of the Feminist inter/Modernist Association (FiMA) in April, 2021.
Meanwhile, another article from my dissertation is in preparation for submission: “The Lesson of Frau Mann: Barbette/Frau Mann and Baroque Bodies in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” Developed from a section of my fourth chapter, this essay argues that the under-examined minor character Frau Mann is based on the historical figure Barbette–and therefore Frau Mann is an important representation of interwar racial-gender anxiety that has not yet been identified in scholarship. Barbette was the stage persona of the high wire acrobat Vander Clyde, whose female impersonation act on circus and vaudeville circuits in the 1920s and 1930s caught the attention of avant-garde luminaries like Jean Cocteau and Man Ray. Barnes’s neobaroque rendering of Frau Mann presents a prescient argument about performativity that diverges from her contemporaries’ essentialist understanding of the relationship of identity, especially gender and sexuality, to performance, however. At the same time, Barnes’s emphasis on the labor of performance grounds her representation in material experience that is contingent upon the cosmopolitan economy of commodified risk. Drawing on her own interwar experiences with expatriate, circus, and avant-garde communities, as well as her research into the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, Barnes demonstrates how classical essentialism can—and can’t—be resisted, just as the stakes of identity performance rise in post-WWI Europe.
I presented a paper on this developing article at the 2019 American Comparative Literature Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.
My next major project, True Crime Discourse: Policing the Limits of Whiteness, develops from my dissertation’s finding that “whiteness” works as an affective technology and a cultural trope that travels in Atlantic Anglophone fiction. In the discourses of crime writing that have developed alongside modern justice and policing practices, shock, shame, and paranoia coerce consensus responses to violations of family and class structures. Even in the genre’s appeal to beauty—aesthetics, eroticism—it reinforces the limits of “taste” that coincide with the limits of whiteness. That is, any violation of the senses or of social expectations is a violation of the rules of whiteness. With a foundation in discourses of power, critical race studies, and affect studies, this research examines fiction, nonfiction, popular and official writing about crime in twentieth and twenty-first century culture. Of particular focus is the relationship of “crime discourse” to shaping social consensus about gender, race, and sexuality as defined by family structures and community identities.