Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Challenging Swedishness: Intersections of Neoliberalism, Race, and Queerness in the Works of Jonas Hassen Khemiri and Ruben Östlund
by Gullette, Christian Mark, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2018, 140; 10821833
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation explores the work of author Jonas Hassen Khemiri and filmmaker Ruben Östlund, examining the ways both artists consistently negotiate racial identification and “Swedishness” in neoliberal economic contexts that are often at odds with other Swedish, exceptionalist discourses of social justice. Khemiri and Östlund represent contrasting perspectives and tonalities, yet both artists identify the successful competition for capital as a potentially critical component in achieving access to “Swedishness.” Khemiri and Östlund recognize that race and economics are intertwined in neoliberal arguments, even in Sweden, something their works help to elucidate. The implications of such similar observations from very different artists might go overlooked if discussed in isolation.

I argue that it is crucial to analyze the negotiation of identity in these works not merely in abstract economic terms, but through their use of a very specific neoliberal economic discourse. In Khemiri’s and Östlund’s work, characters-of-color and white characters alike employ and internalize this neoliberal discourse as they compete in a highly racialized Swedish society filled with increasing economic precarity. I will also discuss the ways Khemiri and Östlund continually undermine these characters’ attempts to succeed in this economic competition, and what this may say about the need for the ultimate deconstruction of normative categories of identity.

Another aim of this dissertation is to explore the ways Khemiri and Östlund use queerness as a conceptual strategy to mediate the understanding of race and economics. Nearly every one of Östlund’s films and most of Khemiri’s novels and plays feature queerness in the form of homosexual characters, homoeroticism, and/or homosociality. The ubiquity of queerness in their work helps us understand the connection between masculinity and the maintenance of economic privilege. Queering this connection can generate narratives that undermine normative categories and present new ways of thinking about neoliberal ideology.

However, both Khemiri and Östlund frequently undermine the potential positives of what Jack Halberstam calls “queer failure” and portray what appears as actual failure (Halberstam 2011). Khemiri and Östlund leave queer characters or characters who experience queerness in ambiguous positions, in which their queerness either fails to rescue them from toxic hetero-masculinity and/or becomes a symbolic manifestation of the dissolution of stable sense of selfhood amid competing discourses of “Swedishness.” This dissertation will examine the implications of actual queer failure in relation to neoliberalism in these works. The tension between competitive success or failure becomes even more pointed for a spectator or reader when the competitors are children, potential symbols of Sweden’s future. In both artists’ work, the figure of the child continually represents this tension between competing, social-justice and neoliberal discourses.

Chapter One examines Khemiri’s first two novels, Ett öga rött (2003) and Montecore – en unik tiger (2006), as well as his play Invasion! (2006), exploring the way characters interpret and perform neoliberal economic values and how success and/or failure either jeopardizes or enhances a stable sense of identity. Chapter Two shifts attention to Östlund’s earlier films, focusing on his first widely-released and controversial films De ofrivilliga (2008), Play (2011) and Turist (2014), considering how characters embody or challenge notions of the neoliberal subject of capacity. In Östlund’s films, this struggle with “Swedishness” is often portrayed as a Nietzschean tension between individual will and social pressure. Chapter Three will compare and contrast Östlund’s and Khemiri’s most recent works ≈[ungefär lika med] (2014), Allt jag inte minns (2015), and The Square (2017). In this final chapter, I argue that Khemiri’s and Östlund’s most recent work demonstrates a departure from their previous plays, novels, and films in two critical ways. First, all three works situate capitalism as the overarching cause of internalized tensions between the individual and society. Second, characters in these later works who embody neoliberal values symbolize the ultimate fractured identity. Östlund and Khemiri appear to have followed a similar arc toward representing actual physical and mental embodiment of the effects of economic systems. The dissertation’s conclusion suggests additional perspectives on the above works and offers ideas for potential future scholarship.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Rugg, Linda H.
Commitee: Chen, Mel Y., Sandberg, Mark
School: University of California, Berkeley
Department: Scandinavian Languages & Literatures
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 80/03(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Sexuality, Icelandic & Scandinavian literature, Literature, Film studies
Keywords: Khemiri, Neoliberalism, Queerness, Race, Sweden, Östlund
Publication Number: 10821833
ISBN: 978-0-438-65416-7
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