Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Queer Kin-aesthetics: Thomas Thistlewood and the Plantation Grotesque
by Vermeulen, Heather Victoria, Ph.D., Yale University, 2017, 452; 10633266
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation brings the eighteenth-century papers of Thomas Thistlewood, an overseer, slaveowner, and landowner in British colonial Jamaica, into conversation with literature and arts of the African Diaspora. Using a critical framework I term the plantation grotesque, I demonstrate the ways in which enslaved persons were forced into intimate relation with plants, animals, and objects. In particular, I examine how the rape of black women was central to Thistlewood's intellectual pursuits. At the same time, I read for glimmers of enslaved women's opposition to his modes of surveillance and torture. Through a combinatory historiographic practice that I term queer kin-aesthetics , I read across time periods, genres, and geographies to expand the boundaries of the archive, revise genealogies of ecological crises, and queer forms of kinship.

The first three chapters of the dissertation focus on ecologies in the narrower sense of site-specific, inter-special and animate-inanimate relations. Chapter one, "Oceanic Feelings, Queer Atlantic Afterlives: `Invention,' `Evidence,' & the Anthropocene," challenges the kinds of evidence that "count" in scientific narratives of the Anthropocene. Through works including Ellen Gallagher's art and Robert Hayden's poetry, I reinsert transatlantic slavery into the Anthropocene's genealogy, arguing that the Atlantic archives an oceanic diaspora of the dead. I consider the implications of this aquatic history for social and environmental justice in the present.

Chapter two, "Prospects of the Plantation Grotesque," situates Thistlewood's introduction to eighteenth-century Jamaica's grotesque ecologies, analyzing his literal and figurative attempts to order his "new" world upon arrival. It combines readings of Thistlewood's diaries and visual culture from the period with texts such as Elizabeth Alexander's 1990 poem "The Venus Hottentot (1825)."

Chapter three, "Ecologies of the Plantation Grotesque: Thistlewood & the Silva," argues that Thistlewood engaged in that which I term a libidinal Linnaean project in which rape, slavery, natural history, and surveillance coalesced. Where Thistlewood's accounting sought to compartmentalize his daily practices—sexual assaults of enslaved women, hunting birds, collecting plant specimens, policing plantations, and reading myriad sorts of literature—my close analysis of his diaries and commonplace books identify their grotesque combinatory logic.

Chapters four and five engage ecologies in the broader sense of a system of relations, queering human relations in particular, while demonstrating their entanglement with the ecologies discussed in the previous chapters. Chapter four, "Queer Kin-aesthetics: Toward Decolonizing the Plantation Grotesque," focuses on enslaved persons and various creatures populating Thistlewood's diaries who eluded his grasp and even directly thwarted his aims, if only on occasion, or for an instant. This revisionist reading places Thistlewood's diaries in conversation with Dionne Brand's 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Here, Joscelyn Gardner's lithograph series Creole Portraits III: "bringing down the flowers" (2009-2011), and Aracelis Girmay's poem "Elegy," from her collection Kingdom Animalia (2011).

Chapter five, "Feeling for the Homocolonial Queer," mines Thistlewood's diaries and related material, particularly satirical prints, for "feelings"—often mediated through local ecologies—that challenge current scholarly notions of Thistlewood's (hetero-) sexuality and complicate analyses of the erotics of colonial power more broadly.

Chapter six, “Re-inhabiting the (Plantation) Romance: Toward Revising `the Human,” reapproaches the enslaved woman who has garnered the most attention in Thistlewood scholarship—Phibbah, with whom he had a relationship of thirty-three years. Historians have crafted a plantation romance out of this relationship, despite the fact that we have only Thistlewood's account of their interactions, which occurred in a landscape forged through racial and sexual terror. I critique such readings through a turn to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861) and to speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler's interrogations of race, gender, sexuality, and the human in her 1980 novel Wild Seed and her papers at the Huntington Library. I aim to consider the challenges that slavery poses to historiography and raise questions about the role of genre in relation to how one imagines "the human" in light of the plantation grotesque and its afterlives.

Finally, the Epilogue, "Waste / Disgust: Toward an Anthropocenic Grotesque," moves into consideration of what might constitute an aesthetics of the Anthropocene. Through the lens of that which I term digestive capital, I place in conversation a passage from Thistlewood's diaries regarding an enslaved woman named Coobah and Wangechi Mutu's 2013 animated film The End of Eating Everything, produced in collaboration with the music artist Santigold.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Carbv, Hazel V.
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 78/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, Caribbean Studies, Ethnic studies, Gender studies
Keywords: Aesthetics, Anthropocene, Archives, Ecology, Sexuality, Slavery
Publication Number: 10633266
ISBN: 978-0-355-10558-2
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