The Multistable Material of Modernism: Perception, Objects, and Identity

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This dissertation argues that modernist writers channeled the transformative potential of multistability, a popular concept among twentieth-century theorists of perception, into politically charged literary practices whose goals continue to reverberate in recent antiracist and decolonial theory. In the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists used the concept of multistability to explain human perception and captured this concept in paradoxical images that appear first as one thing and then another, through a shift in what the viewer perceives as figure and ground. Writers as different as H.D., Virginia Woolf, Amos Tutuola, and Wilson Harris adapted multistability into literary practices that sought to dismantle the bounds of patriarchal, imperialist, and anthropocentric hierarchies. These writers infused their representations of perception, objects, and power dynamics with a multistability that ceaselessly troubles the divide between subject and object and its related structures of social exploitation. Moreover, placing these writers’ efforts to expand what counts as a subject or agent alongside recent theories of extrahuman ontologies that seek empowering alternatives to the exclusions of Western subjectivity offers a compelling link between modernist literary experiment and contemporary antiracist and decolonial theory concerning objects, identity, and ecology.