Raw Feelings: Ecologies of Race and Sexuality in Contemporary American Literature

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Raw Feelings reads contemporary literary texts, from Derek Walcott to Carmen Maria Machado, that are characterized by what I call “raw feeling.” I theorize this term as narrative moments that turn to more-than-human raw matter—for instance, the pulpy flesh of fruit, fresh roadkill, or even bad weather—in response to racist and misogynist gaslighting. Drawing on phenomenology, affect theory, and queer studies, I argue that these moments of interspecies comparison enable characters to reclaim the truth content of their perceptions by new means. I contextualize how this contemporary literature, from queer, trans, Latinx, African American, and Caribbean perspectives, reappropriates and redefines raw feeling from its earlier uses in colonial logics of the environment. Additionally, against the term’s original psychological meaning as the “inner” and “private” parts of an individual’s consciousness, I suggest that these texts instead tap into a more colloquial sense of feeling raw: the everyday ways that bodies soothe themselves when faced with conditions of pain and violation. In this regard, raw feeling points to alternative forms of agency, and even erotic pleasures, that appear in unexpected places. Chapter One offers an initial definition of raw feeling through reading Carmen Maria Machado’s 2017 collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties. The chapter focuses on the feminine, queer, phenomenological dimensions of raw feeling as a form of surprising eroticism. Chapter Two contrasts Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 novel Salvage the Bones with William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, in order to look at how atmosphere and climate have been conceived as responsible for molding human bodies’ racial and sexual “character.” Chapter Three compares Négritude’s anti-colonial interest in the idea of the “plant-human,” with Shani Mootoo’s 1996 novel Cereus Blooms at Night, where the narrator comes to understand their status as transgender through botanical comparisons to nonbinary plants. Chapter Four reads Derek Walcott’s environmental poetry, which suggests that landscapes are alive, and even have their own language, while at the same time warning readers against the expectation that environmental rawness can automatically provide a more “authentic” identity.
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240 pages
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Anker, Elizabeth
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Crawford, Margo
Culler, Jonathan Dwight
Melas, Natalie
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English Language and Literature
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Ph. D., English Language and Literature
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Doctor of Philosophy
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dissertation or thesis
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