Theses Doctoral

Afterlives of Violence: The Renewal and Refusal of American Carnage

Birch, Campbell

This dissertation offers a history of the perilous American present. Through a series of timely case studies I investigate the constitutive force and present-day regeneration of political and racial violence in the United States. Drawing on a range of contemporary critical thought, "Afterlives of Violence" constellates scenes from recent works of memoir, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and film, my principal interest in each case being to excavate the temporalities, the effects, and the disavowals of American carnage—understood less as a damaging deviation from a “great” past than as precisely that past’s unceasing, pernicious fallout. Where often violence continues to be conceived of as an event, my research and readings draw on examples from twenty-first-century American literature, politics, law, and culture to present it instead as a haunting structure that is enduring at least in part because of the very illegibility and deliberate obscuring of its aftermaths under certain idioms of thought and norms of representation. Bookended by discussions of a white supremacist’s massacre at a Charleston church (in July 2015) and of the national memorial to racial terror lynching established in Montgomery (in April 2018), the dissertation offers a series of figures for thinking through history’s afterlives—both in the grim renewal of its violences in the U.S. today and in the imaginative arts of refusal which its inheritance inspires.

In the first two chapters of the dissertation, I critically explore the ways that recent African American and Native American literature maps, respectively, the residual afterlives of slavery and ongoing menace of antiblack animus, and, the blind spots in settler colonial law that simultaneously conceal and extend the violence of occupation, in particular exposing the lives of Native women to harm across time. Through extended readings of texts including Saidiya Hartman’s "Lose Your Mother," Dionne Brand’s "A Map to the Door of No Return," Louise Erdrich’s "The Round House," and Layli Long Soldier’s "WHEREAS," I demonstrate how the wounding attachments of history and the longing for a different future they prompt are, in turn, exacerbated and thwarted by injurious mnemonic and political legacies that the authors present as essentially unfinished with their lives. I also show how these texts perform a fundamental critique of liberal gestures of redress and apology, as well as concomitant invocations of closure associated with the politics of recognition. Here, the present is celebrated for its being newly distanced from a past we have come to identify as imprudent, with the meaning or substance of race additionally believed to have been at long last left behind. Quite to the contrary, the texts I analyze have us understand that these efforts too often only seek to acknowledge the traumatic specters of history in order to more quickly forget the tenacious continuing hold of their traces on modern American life. In the work of Hartman and Brand, for instance, the physical and metaphorical abyss which is the Door of No Return ensures that the losses of history remain irreparable, while Erdrich and Long Soldier each demonstrate how the precedents and aporias of settler law guarantee that they survive.

Where the opening chapters are in some fashion concerned with the aftereffects of a violence often interpreted as historical, the later chapters of the dissertation shift to examine two emergent technologies of state violence: the drone and the border wall. Beyond the immediately notable racial dimension that ties them to the preceding case studies, these forms of violence also have their own genealogies, too, which I read back into them. Further, I propose that their ominous afterlives are prospectively prefigured in our own destitute times, even as I also insist the future necessarily remains undecided. Concentrating, in the first case, on the visual and temporal regimes of extraterritorial drone killing—which I argue can be revealingly likened to the death penalty in the conception of “future dangerousness” each shares—and, in the second, on the brutalist aesthetics and political rhetoric of walling plans for the U.S.-Mexico border—which in specific ways derealize the lives that this architecture is intended to target—these chapters use primary legal documents to draw out the logic and justification of preemptive and protective violence. I pay particular attention to how these respective forms of harm are frequently legitimated on the basis of their being humanitarian in character. In an extended analysis of a trio of Hollywood “drone films” I show how they troublingly come to adopt this same frame, staging targeted execution as a regrettable necessity and lesser evil, while in readings of executive orders and government reports pertaining to the southern border I unweave the misleading mobilization of human rights discourse to justify wall construction. With the assistance of decidedly more critical texts, including Solmaz Sharif’s "LOOK" and, in the context of the militarized borderlands, Sara Uribe’s "Antígona González" and Valeria Luiselli’s "Tell Me How It Ends," I provide a distinct rejoinder to this mode of thinking. I highlight the authors’ formal efforts to bring back into view, first, the ways of seeing and types of narrating that make possible the conversion of calculated erasure and cruel destitution into ethical action, and, just as importantly, the bodies affected and existences wrought in the wake of political violence.

Beside its sustained insistence on the need to truly reckon with the fact that everything which has happened will never not have happened, ultimately at stake in the symphony of reflections offered by "Afterlives of Violence" are questions of how we recognize, think, describe, and, perhaps finally, refuse or resist violence. Inspired in large part by the multitemporal geographies of loss and hope, of suffering and flourishing, traced in the work of American studies and feminist scholars including Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Colin Dayan, Avery Gordon, Patricia Williams, and Judith Butler, I wager to break the hold of the past—or to derail the perils of the present—in the service of a more just future, at minimum their multifarious and continuing afterimages of violence must first be properly pictured. Insofar as law, photography, and history must be understood as other names for the transmission of the past, I have found them useful instruments to think with in this endeavor, while literature, broadly conceived, I have interpreted as a site for the performance of thought’s suspension, its undoing, its reinauguration.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Hirsch, Marianne
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 28, 2019