(Late)Postmodernism, The Dissertation

Revisions, defining terms, and research discoveries during pleasure reading

It’s taken me two weeks, but I think I’ve gotten down the rhythm of this new semester. The semester began early (January 3rd), so prepping for classes was hard when trying to enjoy the one week of the holidays. But I’m caught up, the class has been off to a great start, and I’m addressing comments from a committee member, doing research to address those comments, and doing some additional research and reading.

In my dissertation, I’ve been caught with throwing in “neoliberal” and not defining the term and how it might fit in with my chapter on Wallace and the techno-determinism/libertarianism of the 90’s cyberenthusiasts. It’s funny, when I think about it, how often people joke that academics just throw in neoliberal without defining it or advise against just dropping “neoliberal” in an essay, chapter, etc, but no one, throughout my entire education, has pointed me to resources defining the term, and the nuances of neoliberalism: how it affects race, class, and gender. Instead, I was left with a vague notion of the term and advice that discouraged me from using it (and thus from researching into it).

So I’ve picked up Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, specifically their chapter on “Colorblindness, Neoliberalism, and Obama.” I’m also returning to N. Katherine Hayle’s How We Became Posthuman, in which she aligns the disembodiment rhetoric of many cyberenthusiasts with the liberal-individualist possessive individualism (which is rooted in neoliberalism, or so my other research across interviews and articles and good old wikipedia indicate). It’s a start, and it’s helping me articulate some arguments, make some connections, and clarify my understandings of the technoculture of America’s 1990s/2000s. So, it’s about time I finally started doing some digging into this concept and making an effort of concretizing my terms.

And over the break, I read a couple books for pleasure that piqued my interest in the ways that they kinda “line up” thematically. While different in its contents and subject matter, Martha Southgate’s Third Girl From the Left and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me both share a critical examination of how celebrity culture, hollywood, and the image-based culture of late 20th century America shape conceptions of the self. While I am still reading Look at Me, the protagonist is a model, who gets into an accident and re-emerges from surgery as unrecognizable to other people. Throughout the novel, she identifies the “shadow self” of people, the kind of self that everybody hides from the public view; for the protagonist, everybody lies all of the time, and everybody hides behind an image that they fashion for others to see. So, while still early on, Egan explores the implications of an image-obsessed culture on notions of the self and its relation to others. How deep this will go is yet to be seen, but I’m enjoying the novel so far.

Southgate’s Third From the Left follows three narrative arcs, but the main two arcs are: 1) a black actress that played as an extra in many blaxploitation films and 2) her daughter, and her career path in film and TV industry as a film maker/camera person. I loved this novel, as it demonstrates the ways in which black actors and black filmmakers have to thrive in an industry dominated by white supremacy; how blaxploitation films were dominated by a “white gaze,” as they were filmed and produced by white people (and so the funds went mostly straight to those white people). And the second arc illuminates the systemic difficulties in which black women face in becoming a director. While the novel hints that black male directors are getting jobs, there’s a scene in particular where the woman’s career is harmed by the errors of a black male friend, who went on to become a successful director, whereas she became a cameraperson on Law & Order and had almost given up on filmmaking (the end of the novel is ambiguous). I couldn’t help but think of the recent discussion in regards to the Golden Globes Director category and Natalie Portman’s comment, as well as the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag from a couple years back.

I’m still trying to suss out details and connections, as both these novels are really sticking with me. But I love it when you read two books back to back, and without intending to, they end up sharing something in common, something that you can work with. These books may have started off as just for pleasure, but they may soon become part of my research on American contemporary lit.


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