Doctor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies (PhD)
Go Figure: Writing Numerate Literary Fiction
My dissertation examines popular authorship in the antebellum United States. Following the print explosion of the 1830s, American authors found themselves participating in a slowly emerging mass print culture. While most scholars agree that massification proper did not characterize the production, circulation, and consumption of popular literature until after the Civil War, I argue that the idea of mass culture emerged in the antebellum decades. The idea that reading could be a mass-scale phenomenon provoked many antebellum authors to attend to the material effects of reading, while their relative freedom from institutional constraints enabled these same authors a degree of pre-culture industrial experimentation that was unique to the antebellum period. The title of my dissertation, “Secondary Authorship,” refers to a loss of confidence in the idea of authorship as origination; authorship in antebellum America, I argue, was a circular game of observing the effects of writing and experimenting in their causes. My first chapter analyzes Edgar Allan Poe’s recasting of Kantian disinterest in terms of mass interest in his short tale “Berenice.” In my second chapter, I extend Poe’s theory of interest to a consideration of antebellum city mysteries fiction, and, in particular, to the reformist poetics of George Lippard’s The Quaker City. My third chapter reads Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, the Ambiguities as ambivalent about its participation in mass reading. Finally, my fourth chapter examines the “minor” relation to Emersonian Transcendentalism that Louisa May Alcott constructs in her novel Moods. In the course of my analyses of antebellum fiction, I make literary critical use of systems theory, Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory, American Pragmatist philosophy, and the affect theories of Silvan Tomkins.
This thesis argues that one way to resolve some of the discrepancies in the theory ofidentification proposed by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, such as his mask metaphor, is to approach his theory via theatrical conceits. By thinking of identification in the terms of an actor playing a masked character, in which to read a comic and identify with a cartoon character means to put on a mask and imaginatively play the character, McCloud’s contention of cartoons matching our basic mind-pictures becomes readily resolved by virtue of the fact that the mask is serving as a dramatic signifier of the reader’s inner reality. That is, by imaginatively bringing to life the iconic cartoon form, the reader mimetically becomes the character, hence making it entirely plausible for anyone to enter the world of the cartoon and see themselves in the faces of the characters. The mask thus becomes a logo that transforms the reader’s body into logos, granting access to the realm of the symbolic by covering up a reader’s personal identity such that he or she becomes a cipher, at liberty to see whatever he or she wants in the cartoon image. However, regarding the comics panel as a kind of dramatic stage in which the identifying reader is intimately involved as both actor and initiator of theatrical communication, raises other problems. It not only problematises the distinction between reality and artifice in an imaginative performance context, but also ignores the fact that masks are frequently used for purposes of preventing rather than promoting audience identification. McCloud’s theory, in attempting to circumvent the issues surrounding the fraught relationship between self and other that are inherent in any discussion of identification by applying the mask as a structuring term, raises new issues of its own.