Michael Zeitlin

Associate Professor

Relevant Degree Programs


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - May 2021)
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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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2020)
Tertium datur: making contact in Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star (2018)

Ratner’s Star is considered one of Don DeLillo’s more inaccessible texts, and with good reason: taking the history of mathematical progress as its major temporal arc, Ratner’s Star eschews many conventions of fiction in order to create a unique system that operates—as manycritics have noted—on a complex interplay of opposites.Fewer critics, however, have noted the importance of genre to this text. Going beyond the customary nod to Menippean satire, critics David Cowart, John Johnston and Mark Osteen, in particular, investigate the history of this genre to pose texts such as Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland as important models for Ratner’s Star. Extending existent scholarship, this present study roots DeLillo’s text firmly within the tradition of Menippean satire as defined by M. M. Bakhtin, not only to situate DeLillo’s concerns within the context of satire (this hasalready been accomplished) but also to activate a full-scale analysis of Ratner’s Star in Bakhtinian terminology.With Raphael’s School of Athens as a visual touchstone, this study investigates how DeLillo frames and re-frames the tension between the mathematically abstract and the materially tangible by employing Bakhtin’s definitions of the grotesque and heteroglossia. As a stronglygrotesque character, Robert Hopper Softly and the “antrum” of his creation encapsulate such interplay of the abstract and the tangible while leaving this tension ambivalent and unresolved. The “New York episodes,” brief flashbacks where DeLillo grounds his protagonist in prosaiclife, present a world according to the Menippean style of carnivalesque “slum naturalism,” wherein languages live and are lived in, rooted to their surroundings. On the other hand, Logicon, an artificial “universal” language, opposes the lived experience and heteroglossia of these New York episodes. In order to demonstrate DeLillo's suspicion of the destructive capability of such a universal language, this study concludes by defining Logicon as the primaryantagonist of the novel, a tyrannical and abstracting force that threatens heteroglossic language and the plural realities it represents, Menippean satire as a genre embracing relativity, and most crucially, the artistic discourse of the novel itself.

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