The neo-historical aesthetic: mediations of historical narrative in post-postmodern fiction

Harris, Katharine (2018) The neo-historical aesthetic: mediations of historical narrative in post-postmodern fiction. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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This thesis defines the neo-historical aesthetic: a post-postmodern literary response to postmodern theories about the limitations of narrative for accessing the past. Variably present in each of the fictional texts considered here, I argue that the neo-historical aesthetic embraces the radical flexibility of postmodernism’s deconstructions of narrative and maintains a commitment to coherent narrative (after historiographic metafiction). My identification of the neo-historical aesthetic is a substantial, original contribution to knowledge, establishing the ongoing development of post-postmodernism in contemporary culture and diagnosing a contemporary relationship to history, fiction, and narrative.

Chapter one defines post-postmodernism as self-contradictory, the product of neoliberal consumer capitalism, via theorists such as Jeffrey T. Nealon, Fredric Jameson, and Peter Boxall. Redefining ‘authenticity’, through #liveauthentic on Instagram, further discerns a changed relationship to ‘truth’ in post-postmodern culture. I demonstrate the neo-historical manifestation of this with analyses of anachronisms and narrative in Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask (2004), Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009). Chapter two recognises the longstanding significance of women’s historical fiction, via Diana Wallace, arguing that Sarah Waters’s middlebrowness is (problematically) imbricated within her invention of neo-historical, post-postmodern histories for those marginalised from canonical history. Defining the middlebrow, alongside Beth Driscoll and Nicola Humble, and analysing representations of class in accessible novels The Night Watch (2006) and The Paying Guests (2014) positions that middlebrow as both influenced by and resistant to postmodernism. Chapter three analyses historical fictions about ghosts—novel Dark Matter (2010), and films The Others (2001) and The Awakening (2011)—connecting the neo-historical aesthetic to neo-Victorianism and the Gothic. Using Jacques Derrida’s and Peter Buse and Andrew Stott’s works, I explore how the logic of haunted spectrality, which is ontologically uncertain and combines temporalities, encourages this coexistence of postmodern and pre-postmodern relationships to narrative. This is visible in Derridean spectral, trace meanings (e.g. Waters’s use of ‘queer’) and haunted proleptic ironies in Wolf Hall. Via Buse and Stott, in the fourth chapter I explore how contemporary literary steampunk seeks to resolve this; its solid technologies and bodies effectively de-spectralise those real/not-real neo-historical ontologies.

This thesis articulates a post-postmodern, self-contradictory relationship to history and narrative as manifested in the previously unrecognised neo-historical aesthetic. Haunted and ontologically uncertain, but accessibly middlebrow, the neo-historical aesthetic’s anachronisms, proleptic ironies, and non-chronological temporalities do history in fiction.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Media, Arts and Humanities > English
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR0161 By period > PR0401 Modern > PR0471 20th century
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 18 Jun 2018 14:03
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2022 15:48

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