Doctor of Philosophy in English (PhD)
Minor avant-garde poetry in North America
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My intent with this thesis is to outline an aesthetic relation that challenges the Lacanian conception of a human subject “captured and tortured by language” (Seminar III 243). Through a reading of two works, a novel and a film, I demonstrate that the Lacanian symbolic—the register of language—cannot sufficiently describe the processes of subjectivation manifest in the works. A consideration of the subject as participating in a reflexive construction of psychical reality through the proliferation of fantasy is necessary to comprehend these works and the unique relation among them. Jean Laplanche’s theory of fantasy serves a model for this understanding. The first of these works is a novel published by the Argentine writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, in 1941, The Invention of Morel, and the second is the well-known film from the French New Wave, Last Year at Marienbad from 1961, directed by Alain Resnais and written by novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. These works stage a scene of fantasy (a fantasy of seduction) that involves the intervention of image-making technologies—this intervention allows the fantasy scene to self-duplicate to the point of organizing the formal arrangement of the works themselves. Finally, the production of The Invention of Morel and Last Year at Marienbad comes to replicate this same fantasy scene, suggesting that fantasy itself, through aesthetic (re-)production, can perform the function that Lacan’s ascribes to the symbolic—that is, insistence.
This thesis analyzes the writings of New York artist, David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and the forms of activism that were inspired by his work as sites through which to examine the contours of politics and community in late 1980s and early 1990s New York. In his collection of autobiographical essays, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991), Wojnarowicz proposes an alternative model of selfhood and confronts his own mortality, thereby disrupting the category of the bounded individual in favour of a self that is beholden to others. His text offers an ethical revelation by asking why some deaths matter more than others – more specifically, how the death of a queer man from AIDS is perceived to be less tragic than the death of a middle-class child in America. Wojnarowicz’s reflections on the politics of mourning were taken up by activists following his death in 1992. In particular, passages of his writing insisting on the need to make mourning public inspired a series of political funerals and protest actions. My project questions an argumentative logic that insists artists and activists directly refute and undermine biomedical regulation through their work. Engaging with such arguments, I advance a reading of both Wojnarowicz’s writings and the protests his work inspired that considers the difficulty of formulating acts of resistance within a biopolitical order. Wojnarowicz’s art and the public memorial actions that followed his death enable a reimagining of community and politics through mourning in the midst of the AIDS crisis. They do so by enacting an alternative model of selfhood, confronting mortality and inspiring a politicization of grief.