Date of Degree

9-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Kandice Chuh

Committee Members

Wayne Koestenbaum

Nancy K. Miller

Subject Categories

American Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority

Keywords

American Poetry, Law and Literature, Literature and Critical Race Theory, Feminist Poets, Equal Rights

Abstract

Across various academic fields and from a range of political orientations, scholars note that a pervasive rights discourse shapes the imaginable horizons of identity, politics, and social life in the United States. Many critiques of rights since the 1970s highlight a particular conundrum of this rights culture: existing rights law and ubiquitous rights invocations fail to guarantee equal conditions for thriving across racialized and gendered axes of identity. Words Are Found Responsible: Poetry’s Jurisdiction and the Transformation of Equal Rights emphasizes and complicates elements of these critiques by reading poetry of the 1970s and 1980s in relation to shifting rights jurisprudence. I argue that the work of intersectional feminist poets helps to account for the aesthetic and rhetorical strategies that enabled an ascendant radical conservatism to accrue political weight and popular support through attention to rights. In particular, poets Judy Grahn, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich point to the power of a gendered, racialized logic of protection that constrains the horizons of equality and operates through an aesthetic of uniformity that renders difference as deviance, and deviance as threat. Yet even as their poems critique the limits of institutionalized rights, they also suggest the power of heterogeneous coalitions to renovate the language of rights towards greater structural equality. Words Are Found Responsible asks that we examine how key concepts in the imagination and negotiation of rights accrue meaning and power at the figurative level, in legal and extralegal texts.

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