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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Trauma, 9/11, and the limits of affective materialism
by Reiser, Julie, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University, 2009, 166; 3395673
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation argues against the use of "affect" as a valid term of literary analysis—especially with regard to late twentieth and early twenty-first century American texts relating to traumatic experience. Locating recent affect theory's roots in the trauma theory that emerged in the middle 1990s, I trace out what I take to be a crucial theoretical problem for trauma theory—namely, its inadvertent dependence upon the very kind of representational logic it tries to eschew—and examine how affect theory, as trauma theory's intellectual heir, replicates the same kind of logical problem in its attempt to compensate for the inherent flaws it sees at work in more traditional modes of literary criticism steeped in rationalism, cognitive thinking, and representation.

Debunking affect theory's assumption that literary texts can be understood "affectively" without first invoking something like "cognition" or "representation," I argue that literary texts—unlike photographs, films, paintings, or other aesthetic media—always require a kind of baseline semantic interpretation, what I loosely term a mode of "representational thinking," in order to be read and utilized as "texts." In other words, I argue that it's impossible to examine a literary text as a text unless a critic actually first reads and understands the text's words (even if at the barest denotative level). And this fundamental dependence upon the reading process, I argue, necessarily relegates any kind of an affective experience of the text—whether it be emotional, feeling-oriented, pre-subjective, pre-personal, hormonal, unconscious, virtual, or otherwise—to being merely a secondary reaction. Thus, although it's entirely possible to have affective reactions to a novel, an affect-based "reading," I argue, can never be constitutive of a text's meaning because the text is, necessarily, encased within that fundamental layer of subjective, representational thought that made the reading of it as a text possible in the first place. Thus, I argue that all literary versions of affect are merely "thoughts" or "ideas" about affect—not genuinely affective methodologies, epistemologies, or practices.

After establishing my claims about affect theory, I turn to the novels and autobiographical accounts emanating out of the events of 9/11 and use them as case studies to see how affect theory has been applied methodologically by critics. I read Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, and Don DeLillo's "In the Ruins of the Future: Reflections on Terror and Loss in the Shadow of September" and Falling Man and examine the way all three authors resist the theoretical accounts that attempt to position their work as examples of affective materialism.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Hertz, Neil, Leys, Ruth, Michaels, Walter Benn
School: The Johns Hopkins University
School Location: United States -- Maryland
Source: DAI-A 71/01, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Canadian literature, American literature
Keywords: Affect theory, Affective materialism, Critique of affect, DeLillo, Don, Gibson, William, September 11, 2001, Spiegelman, Art, Trauma
Publication Number: 3395673
ISBN: 978-1-109-58549-0
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