Michael Zeitlin

Associate Professor

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - Mar 2019)
Beyond fragmentation : Donald Barthelme and writing as political act (2012)

“Beyond Fragmentation: Donald Barthelme and Writing as Political Act” extracts Barthelme from recursive debates over postmodernism and considers him, instead, within the intellectual contexts he himself recognized: the avant-garde, the phenomenological, and the transnational. It is these interests which were summoned by Barthelme in order to develop an aesthetic method characterized by collage, pastiche, and irony, and which together yielded a spirited response to political phenomena of the late twentieth century. I argue that Barthelme was an author who believed language had been corrupted by official discourse and who believed, more importantly, that it could be recovered through acts of combination and re-use. Criticism influenced by the cultural theory of Fredric Jameson has frequently labeled Barthelme’s work a mimesis of an age in which meaning had become devalued by rampant production and consumption. I revise this assumption by arguing that Barthelme’s work reacts to what was in fact a stubbornly efficient use of discourse for purposes of propaganda, bureaucracy, and public relations.Drawing on the biographical material available, and integrating that material with original archival work, I uncover the specific sources of Barthelme’s political discontent: Watergate, the war in Vietnam, a growing militarization in the United States, and the ideological rigidity of the 1960s counterculture. In three biographical chapters I connect these concerns to Barthelme’s novels and short stories, which represent attempts to create avant-garde objects that might challenge the specific rationalities (the commonality of violence, for example) political action is premised upon. I show Barthelme inserting political subject matter into texts alongside a formal apparatus that suggests the way such matter had been misconceived and misrepresented, often with horrific consequences. In two chapters of close reading, I first read the short story “Paraguay,” from City Life (1970), as a critique of American neo-imperialism in Latin America. In that piece, Barthelme explores the dual ways--official and cultural--a homogenizing American influence is felt abroad. Next, I compare Barthelme to author and activist Grace Paley, whose story collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) provides revealing context for Barthelme’s own political interventions.

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Narratives of conversion and coercion : American prison life writing since 1945 (2010)

In this dissertation, I consider the relationship between the rhetoric of conversion thatinforms the American prison system and the pervasive use of the conversionnarrative in the life writing of American prisoners. I argue that ever since the firstpenitentiary opened its gates at the beginning of the nineteenth century, prisonreformers have relied on the conversion narrative to redefine the rehabilitative goalsof the modern prison. Prison reformers, moreover, have historically deployed avariety of strategies—indeterminate sentencing, the “mark system,” the parole board,and the prison file—to ensure that prisoners articulate their experiences behind barsaccording to a conversion paradigm.Reflecting the master discourse of the American prison system, the prison life writingarchive contains myriad versions of the conversion story, particularly in the post-warperiod when conversion was reconfigured as “rehabilitation” and prisoners had todefine themselves as rehabilitated before they could be released from prison. HenceI explore how the ideology of the prison is implicated in the life writing of prisonersand ex-prisoners who have achieved a notable, or notorious, visibility in Americanculture: Jimmy Santiago Baca (A Place to Stand), Jack Henry Abbott (In the Belly ofthe Beast), and James Carr (Bad). More importantly, I show how these writerscomplicate any notion that prison life is inherently emancipatory. Some prisoners andex-prisoners reinscribe the ideology of the American prison system by shaping theirnarratives according to the conversion paradigm. But others use the conversionnarrative (consciously or unconsciously) in ways radically different from thoseintended by prison reformers. Their creative, frequently subversive deployments ofthe conversion narrative end up complicating the attempt to define the emancipatoryrole of prison writing or the teleology of post-prison citizenship.

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