Embodying Ethics: At the Limits of the American Literary Subject
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This dissertation inquires into the ethical, embodied subjectivity in American literature since World War II. It demonstrates how texts that register embodiment operate at the limits of the human and the literary, exposing those limits. I argue that this exposure itself can function ethically, even as it calls into question conventional modes of and categories in literary work and epistemology more generally. Emmanuel Levinas comprehends his conflict between established forms of speech and the newness of ethical speech with his terms "said" and "saying." In Otherwise Than Being, Levinas argues that the vigilance of the subject's responsiveness to the Other, revealed in the renewal of language that is "saying," is crucial to ethical behavior. Levinas's structure of thinking, which I amend in dialogue with Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and others, is applied to texts from a variety of genres--the novel, poetry, nature writing--and to texts that resist generic categorization. Hybrid generic work, like situated subjectivity, is shown often to derive from the authors' ethical, worldly concerns. My readings of Ernest Hemingway's later books connect his awareness of heterogeneous, embodied subjectivity to his ethical desires. Frequently in Hemingway, ethical action is enabled by awareness of the subject's physicality. Analysis of three participants at the 1955 Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco--Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder--demonstrates their uneasy efforts to bring abjected elements of American culture into the literary, thereby remaking both culture and literature. Their anxieties of identity center on the status of the body and the status of other marginal identity attributes like race. Terry Tempest Williams's work in mixed genres is read as indicative or symptomatic of the unspeakable in embodied subjectivity. She reveals the ethical requirements of patience and silence implicit in the recognition that language can only ever partially communicate. Leslie Marmon Silko's revolutionary novel Almanac of the Dead reveals the transformative potential of stories. Silko's advocacy for hybrid subjectivity has its correlative in the hybrid novel/political tract/statement of sovereignty that is Almanac of the Dead, revealing (and renewing) how the literary utterance, embodied in text, forges identity.