Precarity and the Historicity of the Present: American Literature and Culture from Long Boom to Long Downturn

  • Author / Creator
    O'Brien, Sean
  • Precarity and the Historicity of the Present provides a cultural history of rising precarity in the postwar US. I define precarity as a concept of the interregnum—precarity names the stretched-out moment of generalized decline currently unfolding as a crisis of social reproduction writ large—and I read its cultural history in order to uncover the social forms precarity takes, from racial invisibility and gendered violence to drug addiction and unemployment. But my aim is also to examine the ways in which these social forms shape subjective experience, and the chapters of this dissertation trace the negative affects, reduced expectations, distended temporalities and political impasses of precarious life, showing how precarious subjects are negatively defined by the conditions of their existence. I argue that precarity poses a problem for representation, since its subjective appearance takes the form of invisibility and disposability, superfluity and waste. Thus, in the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), in the riot poetics of Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka and Diane di Prima, and in the leftovers of the industrial proletariat that populate the pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) and the wasted landscapes of films like Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf (2016), we find life as surplus. Linking these negative impressions of surplus populations to an economic history of cycles of accumulation in the capitalist world-system, this dissertation tracks the emergence of a crisis of reproductive futurity at the level of aesthetic form, noting how precarity shapes narrative structures, genre conventions, poetic strategies and cinematic techniques in a range of literary and visual media. But perhaps more tellingly, in readings of novels, poetry, cinema and television, it also traces a movement from integration to expulsion over the postwar period, the result of a historical transformation in the structure of the capital-labour relation and the circuits of its reproduction. I argue that this transition from an expanding form of capitalism able to integrate vast populations into its cycles of accumulation, to a contracting one marked by dwindling rates of growth, mounting debt and a scarcity of work—a process of restructuring that has unfolded unevenly since 1945—implies another shift: one in which abstract identity categories are emptied of their positive social contents and political capacities, and come to be experienced as external constraints and limits to overcome. My thesis thus sets out to historicize the conditions under which precarity emerges as a political and aesthetic problem at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Dividing the postwar era into two distinct periods, I thread Giovanni Arrighi’s analysis of the US cycle of accumulation with Robert Brenner’s account of the economic shift in the latter half of the twentieth century from long boom to long downturn. Drawing also on Fernand Braudel’s structuralist model of the longue durée, with its seasonal logic of hegemonic transition in the capitalist world-system, the project includes four chapters that each correspond to what I identify as the four “seasons” of the American century: the spring of postwar American growth; the long, hot summer of urban rebellion; the autumn of economic downturn; and the endless winter of capitalist crisis. Chapter One reads Ellison’s Invisible Man and Vonnegut’s Player Piano against the backdrop of rising US hegemony to argue that a breakdown in narrative form anticipates the exhaustion of twentieth-century political possibilities. In Chapter Two, I develop a theory of riot poetics through a study of poetry by Brooks, Baraka and di Prima written during the tumultuous years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chapter Three examines Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) and Korine’s Gummo to advance a new interpretive framework that I call the cinematics of downturn. Finally, Chapter Four considers McKenzie’s Atlantic Canadian film Werewolf alongside the BBC police procedural The Fall (2013-) in order to demonstrate the global character of downturn and the transnational reverberations of American decline.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2018
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
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