Poverty, inequality, and precarity in the U.S.; democracy and economic inequality; 20th- and 21st-century American non-fiction; media aesthetics; critical ethnographic practices; globalization and transnationalism; protests and the politics of dissent; cultural studies; literary theory; critical theory; biopolitics and class, race, and gender.
There is a paradox at the center of twenty-first-century American poverty. On the one hand, American poverty seems to have become an object of significant interest (at least to scholars and to the reading public)—as evidenced through the surge of wildly successful non-fiction books about poverty. On the other hand, American poverty, as a conceptual object in and of itself, seems to have fractured to the extent that its parameters and content are no longer clear. In response to this paradox, my dissertation examines how poverty, once a powerful means for first understanding and then mitigating social and economic inequality, has become confined to a descriptive register and is unable to ground interpretive explanations about the plight and suffering of those Americans living on the bottom socioeconomic rungs today.
Through an analysis of recent ethnographies that aim to describe and explain American poverty, I make three interconnected arguments. First, I argue that, through a rhetoric of deferral, vivid and gripping descriptions of poverty and the poor obscure socio-historical explanations of why poverty continues to exist amid so much American prosperity. This deferral is important because it reinforces the illusion that, in the absence of a convincing and rigorous explanation, poverty is a one-dimensional problem. Second, I argue that a sentimental idiom and a narrative focus on emotional and psychological interiority turn poverty from a societal problem into an individual problem. While the sentimental idiom facilitates sympathy, it becomes very difficult to understand poverty in anything other than limited individualistic terms. Third, I argue that the emergence of the American affluent society in the twentieth century shifted the foundations on which poverty, inequality, and the divisions between rich and poor and between elites and non-elites are understood. Together, these three arguments show the shape of poverty’s broken hermeneutics, whose main consequence is the seamless reconciliation of the acceleration of American affluence with the intensification of American inequality.
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