Hidden Networks of Loss: Multi-Ethnic Media and Mourning in Twentieth Century American Literature
Stanutz, Katherine Anne
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Mourning may be generally thought of as a private matter, but it is also a set of socially regulated practices designed to determine which lives are considered socially valuable and relevant. These normative modes of mourning often dismiss the losses and griefs of certain groups. In such scenarios, how do those affected communities mourn and represent their losses? How do marginalized peoples incorporate their losses into public discourse, and how can such losses be understood as publicly grievable? As Judith Butler has demonstrated, grievability has immense political importance: to be grievable is to be acknowledged as living, while being ungrievable denies a person his or her humanity. This dissertation explores these questions via spaces of confinement – internment camps, prisons, and reservations – as they encapsulate the way dominant discourse literally brackets and marginalizes certain groups. Indeed, mainstream networks of information dissemination (like mass media) often do not imagine these communities or their grief, and if they do, it is often sensationalized. The dual pressure of confinement – restrictions regarding circulation and exclusion from normative structures of public grief – then creates a representational bind for authors. But by changing the discursive forms of mourning, writers can reach and appeal to different audiences. This project draws from literary and media sources, charting the public networks that transmitted recordings of loss and shape mourning practices from the 1930s to the 1990s, a period of increased literary publication from marginalized subjects. I use this archive to demonstrate how breaking mourning out of traditional genres – like elegy, eulogy, and epitaph – allows grief to infiltrate dominant discourse, teaching its audiences how to read loss. In other words, genre, and its accompanying expectations, creates alternative ways of expressing (and interpreting) loss that can expand the bounds of what is grievable. By crafting a history of grievable life in American literature, I show how contemporary meditations on loss are rooted in a long-standing cultural discourse and how this history can help us better understand present political protests – and further social justice aims.