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

  • Author / Creator
    Finigan, Theo Joseph
  • 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.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2011
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
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  • Department
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Varsava, Jerry (English and Film Studies)
    • Wharton, Thomas (English and Film Studies)
    • Cowart, David (English, University of South Carolina)
    • Bishop, Edward (English and Film Studies)
    • Smith, Susan (History and Classics)