Date of Degree

2-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Kandice Chuh

Committee Members

Eric Lott

Nancy K. Miller

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Popular Culture | Disability Studies | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Modern Literature | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies

Keywords

Twentieth and twenty-first century literary and cultural studies, gender and sexuality studies, critical race theory, disability studies, affect theory, therapeutic culture

Abstract

“I have never been able to blind myself” to the cruelty of a world that “destroys its own young in passing…out of not noticing or caring about the destruction,” Audre Lorde tells us in her 1980 “mythobiography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. This quality, Lorde says, “according to one popular definition of mental health, makes me mentally unhealthy.” In rejecting psychological self-possession as a sign of wellness, this passage also rejects it as one of sovereignty’s conditions. At the time of Lorde’s writing, this version of sovereignty already dominated the landscape of therapeutic culture in the United States, and would become only more staggeringly pervasive and profitable in the years to come. In our therapeutic age, to establish oneself as one of neoliberalism’s winners requires performing a healthist form of psychic well-being -- one that overlaps with Enlightenment ideals of autonomy and rationality.

This dissertation explores how literary genres and forms reject psychic well-being as a privilege of bourgeois liberalism and a panacea for heteronormativity’s discontents. These texts are what I read as “feminist literature.” They turn to emergent genres and forms to refigure wellness as a generative relation to difference – a relation that, in Lorde’s Black feminist framework, is always bound up with the pain of others. Specifically, I read Lorde’s genre-bending memoir The Cancer Journals; the post-2016 genre of self-care comedy; and autotheory about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as examining how sexist, racist, and ableist ideals of wellness have placed fraught and contradictory demands on the feminist subject. I argue that these texts represent the writing process itself as crucial for addressing this question: a site for revising the literary conventions that evince a liberal subject’s mind at work, as well as for interrogating how medicalized norms structure writing cultures, academic and otherwise. Writing appears across a range of genres – memoir; fiction; cultural criticism; and autotheory – as a practice that identifies illness, wellness, and aesthetics as pressingly concerned with gender and power.

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