Imagining Other Worlds: Literary Constructions of Alterity through Music

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2007-05-14

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The late twentieth century has seen a significant increase in the number of literary texts turning to music for thematic content and structural form. I read musical forms as structuring or articulating new forms of nationalism, identity formation, community, memory, and exile. Using vocabulary from postcolonial theory, I argue that sites of alterity identifiable in music challenge existing, dominant cultural formations, promote ethical orientation towards others, and suggest openness to human interrelations. The texts that anchor my study articulate an aesthetic humanism that proposes the musical arts as non-confrontational conceptions of self and other, of the individual and society.

In the introduction to their provocatively entitled anthology, Dangerous Liaisons, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat insist on the value of a "contrapuntal juxtaposition" of multiculturalism in the U.S. context and postcolonialism in the international sphere. This phrase - contrapuntal juxtaposition - encapsulates the motivation for my dissertation. On the one hand, my work is contrapuntal in its interdisciplinarity. Revising the critical successes of musicologists, such as Susan McClary and Jeffrey Kallberg, who use feminist and genre theories to interrogate the gender politics readable in musical structures, harmonic progressions, and tonal qualities, I employ theories and practices of Western music to read the cultural, social, and political strategies for subject positioning and human interrelations employed by late-twentieth century novels and poetry. On the other hand, my study juxtaposes American ethnic and postcolonial writings. I use a contested scope for postcolonial literatures in order to focus on sites that might be considered "mature" in their postcoloniality and to find conditions of entrenched and deeply conflicting ideological positions. I contend that musical elements provide a means to critique dominant cultural ideologies and social constructions from within European Enlightenment, of which Western music is a product.

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