The New What’s Next: Innovation and Failure in Contemporary American Literature
Strunk, Trevor Alexander
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My research suggests that American literature from the 1970s to today is deeply concerned with a representation of social and cultural upheaval, and argues that it figures this concern through aesthetic failure, particularly the failure to formally represent the totality of late capitalist America. The literature I consider – including works by Kathy Acker, Cormac McCarthy, Willian Gaddis, Vanessa Place, and others – responds to contemporary crises, particularly the financial unrest that begins in the 1970s and 80s and resonates to today. These authors’ works conceive of this “neoliberal” or, as I would call it, late capitalist crisis not indexically, in ways that register at the level of content, but rather at the level of form. I call this literature innovative because it attempts to represent the totality of the world in crisis through new, experimental formal strategies. But when innovative literature attempts to model new ways of representing social or political totality, it fails due to the aesthetic logic of constraint by which it is defined, either through misinterpretation, formal incongruity, or the intrusion of narrative subjectivity into the aesthetic. This failure, against pessimistic descriptions of reactionary “capitalist realism” endorsed by Mark Fisher among others, defines, I claim, the very ground of productivity for innovative literature. This dissertation argues that, just as crisis impels innovation, so too do these innovative texts reveal in their formal malfunctions something about the deeply contradictory world in which they are produced. My dissertation, The New What’s Next: Innovation and Failure in 20th Century Literature, therefore begins by locating the conditions of late 20th century economic crisis in the shifting formal quality of money since the middle of the 19th century, and then turns exclusively to aesthetic considerations of literary works that engage with the symptoms of this crisis via formal intervention. Ultimately, this investigation provides not only a relevancy for literary form and practice in our contemporary intellectual moment, but in fact resituates literary aesthetics as the crucial technology for societal self-knowledge and revelation.
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