Aesthetic counter-traditions: anti-identity and nineteenth-century Anglo-American literature
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This dissertation examines English and American authors of the fin de siècle whose depiction of failed artists functions as a critique of the predominant modes of identity formation under capitalism. Scholars have tied the transatlantic aesthetic project of literary realism with the social project of the reform era, a political practice of small gains that served to reinforce the identities produced by the division of labor and the hoarding of capital. The late-century fictions presented here protested the conventions of reform fiction and the sociopolitical consequences of the movement, advocating the depoliticized practice of art as an alternative means of identification and a form of political engagement in its own right. Chapter One shows how Rebecca Harding Davis and Oscar Wilde envisioned the work of art--divorced from the identity of its producer--as the ideal body. Through the depiction of collective works of art that outlive their producers, Davis and Wilde assert the primacy of the work itself over authorial identity. The contemporary artist Banksy, an anonymous street writer whose works gesture towards a future society fueled by aesthetic participation, later employs the same aesthetic strategy in his critique of late capitalism. Chapter Two examines Kate Chopin and Thomas Hardy's response to the fragmentation of the fiction market in the eighteen-nineties. Their feeling that mass-produced art like photographs, popular sheet music, and especially reform fiction had hijacked the creative freedoms of the artistic sphere and its potential to offer an alternative mode of identity formation is present in their depictions of mimetic artist characters whose work reinscribes them into an increasingly professionalized and consumerist society. Chapter Three identifies a compromise formation in the fictions of George Gissing and Edith Wharton, who wrote explicitly about the artist's engagement in social and financial markets. Their novels envision the replacement of identities and communities formed through the production and reception of art by the rise of brand culture, wherein consumers identify with the imagined identities of corporations. This prescient vision is ultimately realized in the work of the American street writer turned entrepreneur and marketing guru, Shepard Fairey.