Dispossessive citizenship
: Property and Personhood in Speculative Narrative

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis examines the production of political subjectivity in narrative. Focusing on citizenship as a discursive instrument of interpellation, I consider the ways that narratorial engagements with liberal personhood both resist and reinscribe norms of subjectivation such as recognition, representation, and appropriation.

Two of the key claims that emerge from this work are closely linked. The first is that citizenship is dispossessive. Using the history of American citizenship as a case study, I show how certain philosophical narratives of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment enabled propertied white men to develop a discourse of personhood to constitutionalise their power in the eighteenth century and maintain it, despite a phalanx of challenges, throughout the nineteenth. The second claim engages with recent debates on speculation. I argue that narrative texts, whether literary or non-literary, garner the power to shape subjectivity when they speculate on the thresholds of freedom/slavery and fact/fiction, providing imaginative visions of human life that also speculate in the economic sense, risking the stability of these thresholds and gambling on the possible outcomes.

Some of the many threads connecting the two claims are pursued in a series of readings that aim to contribute to the displacement of hegemonic naturalisations of oppression. Chapter 1 interrogates the depiction of reproductive slavery in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, arguing that the fraught racial and gender dynamics indexed in the text reveal the stratification of citizenship achieved in early American republicanism. Chapter 2 considers Matigari by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which suspends the proper norms of literary character to produce a messianic critique of neocolonial Kenya, but not without betraying some proprietary presuppositions, which I trace back to the text’s Marxist-Hegelian framework. In Chapter 3, I investigate the relationship between the narrative conventions of the novel form and the frames of recognition that regulate political subjectivity under citizenship, reading An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, a neuroqueer neo-slave narrative that 5 stages a disidentification with the subjugating dialectics of relationality. Chapter 4 seeks to denaturalise the powerful metaphorics of economised life through an analysis of artificial intelligence in Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, arguing that the text’s depiction of non-human consciousness uncovers the proprietary assumptions that embedded dispossession within Enlightenment narratives of representation.

These readings are complemented and interrupted by short interchapters that problematise the fact/fiction boundary in three ostensibly non-literary texts: Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs; and Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. No less than the novels do these texts speculatively challenge our certainties about how safely we may anchor the notion of truth within discourse. By placing them in conversation with literature, I can assess different strategies to counter the axioms of self-mastery that continue to reify and immunise the epistemic threshold, gestures which – however unwittingly – reinforce the presuppositions underpinning the colonial ontologies of race and gender.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorLiam Connell (Supervisor) & Mark Devenney (Supervisor)

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