Theses Doctoral

The Labor of the Avant-Garde: Experimental Form and the Politics of Work in Post-War American Poetry and Fiction

Winslow, Aaron

While literary critics have explored the politics of labor in pre-war modernist
literature, the post-45 avant-garde has continued to be framed as a depoliticized repetition of previous avant-garde styles. Examining American avant-garde literature in its relation to the political and economic shifts from the 1960s through the late 1980s, my
dissertation corrects this narrative to show that labor and labor politics were central
categories in post-war experimental poetry and fiction. I argue that writers as disparate as Charles Olson, William S. Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, and Susan Howe reworked
disjunctive modernist forms to cognitively map emergent economic tendencies in the US.
Parataxis, collage, surrealist imagery, aleatory compositional methods, non-linear
plotting, and metafictional narrative conceits all constitute the stylistic techniques of an
avant-garde engaged in an extended dialogue about work and the politics of work. The
canon of experimental literature functioned as a counter-discourse that contested and
reshaped discourses of labor by considering it alongside categories of race, gender, and
By using labor as an entry point into the avant-garde, my dissertation reconsiders
the post-war literary canon, revealing an avant-garde that includes writers working across modes and genres. The adaptation of experimental techniques in genre writing turned the avant-garde into a popular literary mode. My dissertation particularly focuses on science fiction (SF), where the adaptation of experimental style played a crucial role in the development of the genre. Beginning with the 1960s British and American New Wave movement, SF writers turned to the experimental novel--often by way of modernist
poetics--as a way to challenge the reified form of mainstream science fiction novels. I
argue that this critique of the novel also functioned as a covert critique of the labor
practices of the literary market place that guided the production of genre fiction. In this
way, I contest traditional accounts that see post-war and contemporary experimental
literature as increasingly marginal and self-reflective by tracking the avant-garde's
concern with depicting quotidian work, and representing themselves as workers, to
critique institutions of intellectual and artistic production.


  • thumnail for Winslow_columbia_0054D_12481.pdf Winslow_columbia_0054D_12481.pdf application/pdf 2.23 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Golston, Michael
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 2, 2015