Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

 

The objects within : an applied OOO literary criticism Public Deposited

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  • For centuries, continental philosophy has clung to the belief that the world only meaningfully exists through human perception--that, in other words, when a tree falls in the forest, it does not make a sound. Literary theory, which has strong roots in continental philosophy, followed suit, remaining tied to humanism even as philosophy has begun its "posthuman turn" to admitting nonhuman actants into philosophic consideration. This thesis attempts to reconcile literary criticism with the posthuman turn, considering nonhuman objects at work in literary texts and demonstrating the ways that those objects can reflect back to us the limits of our own subjectivity, and in the process can open up new ways of ethical being-in-the-world. In particular, I take up a variety of posthumanist theories, including speculative realism (Quintin Meillassoux), object-oriented ontology (Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Ian Bogost), vibrant materialism (Jane Bennett), and actor-network theory (Bruno Latour), all of which reject the notion that the world only exists as it is perceived by humans, instead insisting that, though we as humans can never objectively know what the world is like outside of our perception, this does not mean that we cannot speculate about this very real world. I apply these theories to a selection of literary texts, each of which demonstrates that, though the field of posthuman philosophy is relatively new, literature has been post-humanist for decades and nonhuman objects have long played important roles in literature. In Chapter 1, I explain how the modernist poetry of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens prefigures object-oriented ontology's assertion that objects exist outside of human perception. In Chapter 2, I examine Kurt Vonnegut's novel Bluebeard and Joel and Ethan Coen’s film Burn After Reading to show examples of moments when human perception fails to grasp the real nature of nonhuman objects, just as Harman writes that objects withhold their reality from our perceptions of them. And in Chapter 3, I present what is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of my project: I argue that by allowing readers to project themselves into the subjective experience of nonhuman characters, literary works like Cormac McCarthy's novel The Crossing, and less traditional forms of literature like the videogames Portal, Shelter, and Flower, can teach us the limits of our own subjectivity, reminding us that we are not, as enlightenment idealists would have it, the measure of all things, but rather just a few entities among many, all of us enmeshed in the same network of being.
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