Aesthetics of Presence
The Invention of Survival in the Twentieth-Century
At the heart of my book project, Aesthetics of Presence: The Invention of Survival in the Twentieth-Century, is a reversal of existing accounts of narrative and trauma: rather than situate trauma as the sine qua non of language’s inability to represent experience, I read the work of black, women, and/or queer writers as engaging a radical creativity called forth by the imperative to survive. In chapters on Langston Hughes, H.D., Djuna Barnes, Zora Neale Hurston, and an epilogue on Toni Morrison, I examine how these writers reimagine ruptures in linear time as access points to the present moment—which I argue is survival’s temporal domain. Tracing this discourse back to Sigmund Freud, I suggest these writers take a starkly different approach to survival than that of psychoanalysis with its focus on the belated and fracturing effects of trauma. Broken time has long been linked to twentieth-century aesthetics, particularly vis à vis depictions of war catastrophe; yet the authors at hand write “in the break”—to borrow Fred Moten’s apt phrase—rather than in spite of it. Furthermore, through their address of systemic oppression linked to race, gender, and sexuality, they shift trauma’s temporal scale from the singular event to the quotidian; demanding, in turn, that we read survival as an ongoing and multivalent part of everyday life.
By locating survival’s creative impulse in “the now,” I argue these writers make use of aesthetic possibilities to create temporal ontologies of presence. Take, for instance, Hughes’s call-and-response techniques in his jazz poetry: they engage the reader in an improvisational dialogue about the haunting legacy of slavery. By tapping into the performative dimensions of reading, Hughes, along with the other writers, invites readers to mindfully inhabit an aesthetic present and thereby participate in the invention of survival, as the title of my project announces. With its focus on the quotidian afterlife of trauma, my project is in conversation with such recent work as Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake and Kimberly Juanita Brown’s The Repeating Body. My dissertation, on which this project is based, was supported by a competitive Office of the Provost Dissertation Completion Fellowship. At this juncture, I have discussed my manuscript with presses including NYU.