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Documenting barbarism: the violence of the archive in contemporary American fiction Open Access


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Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Finigan, Theo Joseph
Supervisor and department
O'Driscoll, Michael (English and Film Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Bishop, Edward (English and Film Studies)
Varsava, Jerry (English and Film Studies)
Cowart, David (English, University of South Carolina)
Smith, Susan (History and Classics)
Wharton, Thomas (English and Film Studies)
Department of English and Film Studies

Date accepted
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Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This dissertation analyzes representations of the archive in four late twentieth-century American novels: Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World (1993). In depicting a series of distinct periods in American history—colonial settlement, westward expansion, Reconstruction, the Cold War—these revisionist, “postmodern” texts all draw self-conscious attention to the process of representing the past by including archival documents, sites, and practices within the textual frame. The novels thus emphasize the necessarily mediated nature of historical knowledge by depicting both events that occur in the past and the deployment of the archive to represent and understand those events in the present. In emphasizing these novels’ self-reflexive engagement with the archive as a crucial site for the production of knowledge about the past, this project takes its cue from the recent and widespread critical-theoretical “refiguring” of the concept of the archive in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (1995). The novels analyzed in this dissertation engage in a similarly self-conscious—albeit fictive—theorizing and critique of the archive. Focusing on the representation of a range of troubling events in American history, including colonialism, genocide, slavery, sexual abuse, and political assassination, this project argues that there is, in fact, a fundamental connection between such scenes of violence and the turn to the archive as a trope for the representation of history. In these novels, the seemingly benign gesture of archivization—the collection, ordering, and recovery of traces of the past—is implicated in the more obvious material violence of the historical events contained within the archive. Thus, even as they strive to counter hegemonic understandings of the American past through the construction of fictional “counterhistories” of resistance, these novels simultaneously seek to complicate any straightforward equation of revisionist historical undertanding with the redress of past injustices. By implicating what I call the process of “archival recovery” in the very violence it is ostensibly designed to mitigate, these texts problematize the privileging of the “historical” in late-twentieth century academic and popular culture, thereby casting doubt on the archive’s ability to enable an ethical or redemptive encounter between present and past.
License granted by Theo Finigan ( on 2011-09-30T17:24:41Z (GMT): Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of the above terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis, and except as herein provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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