Date of Degree
Nancy K. Miller
American Literature | Film and Media Studies | Literature in English, North America
This dissertation examines a recent decade in American history whose unique notion of self-periodization generated important questions of ethical engagement and withdrawal. Situated during a time of an increasingly complex relationship between literature and theory, thinkers in the 80s self-consciously shifted towards making claims about their present moment which were based on the logic of rupture, and which thus created an either-or logic of pessimism or optimism in response to this rupture. These kinds of self-periodizing notions generally are collected under the rubric "postmodernism" and the first chapter deals with a transatlantic movement between theorists such as Fredric Jameson and Jean-Francois Lyotard who imagine the threat of rupture and what it suggests for individual subjects living in times mandated by so many theorists as constituting a radically new epistemological model. To analyze this perceived novelty in the American cultural landscape, the next three chapters focus on "objects of knowledge," a term borrowed from Michel Foucault to describe stereotypted models of conduct: brats, surrogate mothers, and yuppies. The 80s' vision of childhood was crystallized by the notion of "Brat Packs" such as the literary one that included Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, discussed in Chapter Two. Building on that novel's construction of the brat's role in relation to dying mothers, Chapter Three deals with the important "Baby 'M'" case, which, despite involving Biblical-era medical technology, was presented as a novel legal situation that refocused arguments about how to define motherhood, particularly along the double line of a masculinist, postmodern "crisis of legitimacy" and late-70s, psychoanalytically-informed feminist debates about mothering. Chapter Four takes up the yuppie and demonstrates how that figure was associated at the end of the decade with the recently-popularized serial killer, when both were represented briefly in Hollywood cinema by the "Yuppie Psycho" film. Finally, as a counterpoint to these objects of knowledge, Kathy Acker in Chapter Five models a literary practice of "engaged withdrawal." While postmodernism's "catastrophic or redemptive" choice provides only one model for social relations, Acker's texts move past this, taking up the interrelated questions of autobiography, of the woman writer, of mothering, and of women's history.
Ferguson, Kevin L., "Engaging the Eighties: Ethics, Objects, Periods" (2007). CUNY Academic Works.