'Decision Time: Neoliberalism Personhood, Popular Aesthetics, and the Inexorability of Agency'
In this talk, I examine the challenges that the hegemony of neoliberal forms of governance presents to our understanding of the relations among time, power and agency. While many such theorizations seek means through which agency might be located or enhanced—Judith Butler’s performativity would be one classic example—the work of many contemporary thinkers has made clear that neoliberal governance works through rather than against individual agency; it constantly requires that people make meaningful choices whose outcomes differ significantly, and it assigns sole responsibility for these choices and outcomes to the individual in question. I consider the effects of this transformation by turning to a series of texts that focus on what I term suffering agency, or the experience of agency as a form of anguished entrapment rather than self-enhancing empowerment. These works, which include texts from Dave Eggers’ novel What is the What to the torture-porn Saw franchise, offer visions of neoliberal personhood in which to be an individual making agential choice appears either akin to or literally a form of torture. I offer an account of how these works map suffering agency and the role that time plays in both generating this experience and in imagining potential alternatives.
Dr Jane Elliott's research focuses on three main areas: post-1945 fiction, with a particular emphasis on the intersection between popular forms and political theory; contemporary theory; and the novel during and after postmodernism. She also has interests in contemporary fantasy fiction and film, ethnic American literature, and contemporary American popular culture.
Dr Elliott's current research explores the conjoined aesthetic and political developments that have emerged since the turn of the 21st century and the waning of the postmodern moment. This interest is reflected in the twenty-essay collection she has recently co-edited, entitled Theory after 'Theory' (Routledge 2011); the second editor for the collection is Derek Attridge. The collection draws together a diverse body of thinkers from various disciplines, including Rey Chow, Roberto Esposito, Simon Gikandi, Brian Massumi, Elizabeth Povinelli, Bernard Stiegler and Eugene Thacker, in order to examine the ways in which theory has taken on new forms that challenge some of the fundamental intellectual stances that once defined ‘Theory’. Dr Elliott is currently working on a monograph that explores the intersection of neoliberal microeconomics, popular aesthetics and the Left theorization of agency in a variety of American and British novels and films, from the novel and film Never Let Me Go to the horror franchise Saw to Hurricane Katrina documentaries. Essays from this project have appeared in Novel and the collection Old and New Media after Katrina.
Dr Elliott's first book, Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory: Representing National Time was published by Palgrave in 2008, and her work on contemporary literature and theory has also appeared in Cultural Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, and the PMLA. In addition, she serves as the Humanities Editor for The Public Intellectual, an online journal devoted to bringing academic insights to a mainstream audience.
Borders and Change: The Temporalities of an Emerging Critical Rhetorical Theory
Claiming powerful conceptions of time is often used to legitimize the growth of an academic discipline. This study analyzes the temporal argumentation put forth in academic journals concerning the growth of critical rhetorical theory in the USA from the 1970s through the 1980s. What time did the scholarly agents presume or argue in favor of when they tried to legitimize rhetoric’s values in relation to other knowledge regimes in academia? The study shows that the various agents assumed a conception of rhetoric that was not only limited with regards to gender, class, race, and to Western liberal democracies, but that it also excluded non-progressive temporalities. The scholars at the time argued that the role of rhetoric was to study how people became good citizens, active in creating a morally sound community in search of either the ideal future or the eternal present that would enable social change. This study shows how the first, the teleological and normative temporality of rhetoric, along with the second, the eternal present temporality, both became tied to values of unity and knowledge borders in the name of change. The study shows that any temporality can become the function or underpinning logic of exclusion of alternative knowledge production when used to gain power. It invites further studies of knowledge producers’ conceptualization of time in order to find less exclusive alternatives.
Frida Buhre is a doctoral fellow in rhetoric at the department of Literature, Uppsala University, Sweden. Her research interests include, but are not limited to: critical rhetorical theory; feminist theory intersecting with postcolonial theory; rhetorical enactments of space and time; nomadism and borders; and knowledge production.
In my lightning talk I would like to flesh out some central concerns of my PhD project. My research deals with time and temporality in contemporary literary post-apocalyptic fiction. This genre is always intertwined with discourses on time. After all, according to the Christian view – which still founds the western conception of apocalypse, no matter how secular this might have become – apocalypse equals the end of history and of time. The general argument of my thesis is, thus, that the apocalyptic imagination is temporal in its very essence and that conjuring up post-apocalyptic worlds always entails a change in the way time is conceived of. In particular, in my talk I would like to focus on how the novels I analyse often experiment with counter-narratives to the Western paradigms of linear time, history and progress. Cyclical temporalities and plots abound, and so does the phenomenon I term “temporal inversion”, namely representing the post-apocalyptic future as a return to a past state in man’s evolution. These alternative temporalities, critical of the Western classic conceptions of time, are obviously aimed at communicating a sense of apocalyptic change to the readers. However, when coupled with utopian depictions of the post-apocalyptic future, they may also contribute to foster social change. In the last part of my talk I will briefly focus on Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (2007) as an example of how, by imagining a different temporality than the linear and progressive one, these authors afford a revelatory dimension which touches upon the contemporary world and its issues - from climate change, to excessive technologization, from inequalities to wars.
I graduated in Philosophy (MPhil) from the University of Milan, Italy, in 2010, with a dissertation on contemporary non-mimetic theories of representation. I am now a second-year PhD student in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. My research deals with time and temporality in contemporary literary post-apocalyptic fiction. It looks at texts written from the nineties onwards by authors coming from different national backgrounds – American, Canadian, British and French. The general argument of my thesis is that the apocalyptic imagination is essentially temporal and that conjuring up post-apocalyptic worlds always entails a change in the way time is conceived of. I have attended an Erasmus year at the department of Philosophy, Université Paris-Sorbonne, and an intensive programme in Critical Theory at Utrecht University. I have presented papers at BAAS (British Association for American Studies) annual conference and at the American Literature Symposium, University of Cambridge.
Key words: post-apocalyptic literature, temporality, critique of teleology, critique of the ideology of progress
Many current questions about connections between conceptions of time and notions of power and agency were also present within and central to the Modernist movement in literature. In particular, the challenge of presenting hero figures, who have traditionally depended on qualitative temporal concepts such as there being a “right” time for an action to occur, within a world dominated by a quantitative, clock-driven model of time led to many Modernist authors abandoning the possibility of heroism in their works. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, however, offers a potential solution to this problem through the actions of its protagonist, and, in doing so, it provides a model for blending quantitative and qualitative aspects of time that remains useful today. Clarissa Dalloway’s unique heroism lies in her ability to effectively navigate the hours of her day and fulfill her goal of creating a moment that will capture and reflect the beauty of life. She is successful in her movement through time not because she is singularly focused on forcing the party to happen when she wants it to occur but instead because she blends an understanding of quantitative aspects of time (i.e., that, in order for the party to be successful, there are practical, logistical aspects that must take place “on time”) with other temporal elements that are qualitative in nature. Awareness of these latter, Kairic, opportunities, and the courage to act within a significant moment without any guarantee of success, are what separates Clarissa from the majority of her would-be-heroic literary peers. The tension that Woolf highlights between quantitative and qualitative aspects of time is still present today, but it has been magnified in the decades since the novel’s publication. By examining Clarissa’s path, however, we may gain a better understanding of how agency is impacted by one’s temporal model.
I am an Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. I graduated in May of 2012 with a Ph.D. in literature from The University of Georgia, and my dissertation, “‘There Will Be Time’: Heroism, Temporality, and the Search for Opportunity in Modern Literature,” focuses on a convergence between concepts of heroism and temporal models in Modernist literature. My research interests include perceptions of time and agency and how they are applied in literature, particularly as they pertain to the presentation of hero figures.
from our workshop on Power, Time and Agency held in Manchester, January 2013