Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Barrett Watten


This dissertation examines how twentieth-century experimental women writers construct non/narrative texts whose text-subjects mediate identity and call for increased possibilities for subject-identification in the world. The use of innovative formal strategies and experiment with narrative, combined with the content of identity critique, make these texts political projects that variously explore gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in relation to contemporary American culture. In this project I bring discussions of identity into the theorization of formally innovative writing. I work to move away from the kinds of essentializing practices of identity politics--in which subjects are fit into specific identity categories--and toward more complicated, contextualized, and historical understandings of identity formation. I begin with the notion that identity categories, or markers, play out in different contexts and are, at different moments: simultaneous, fluctuating, overlapping, and spatial (instead of hierarchical). I then continue toward readings of literary texts that function as new models of identification for spatially contextualized subjects. This project is significant for the way in which it brings together a diverse selection of non/narrative writing by women in the twentieth-century, and combines textual and cultural analysis to think through identity issues in relation to contemporary social subjects.

This project is grounded in literary modernism and moves into work by contemporary American women writers at the end of the twentieth century. I begin by pairing the work of Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian in chapter 1, and that of H.D. and Beverly Dahlen in chapter 2. As modernists, Stein and H.D. are key figures who negotiate identity and non/narrative writing, and are important influences for Hejinian and Dahlen. The paring of modern and contemporary authors in the first two chapters illustrates a correlation between writing styles and practices as well as how these diverge from the early to late part of the century. Hejinian's body of work, beginning in the 1970s, can be read as coming out of Stein and thinking avant-garde practice through her own contemporary politics as a Language poet. Dahlen seems to pick up H.D.'s Freudian project, and additionally incorporates deconstruction and feminist criticism of the 1970s and 80s in her work. Hejinian and Dahlen also serve as intermediaries between the modernists and later contemporary writers--many of whom have been influenced by modernists such as Stein and H.D., as well as subsequent avant-garde authors and practices. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on contemporary prose and hybrid works by Pamela Lu, Renee Gladman, Claudia Rankine, Juliana Spahr, Gloria Anzaldua, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. These writers, to different degrees, use a variety of formal strategies and problematize narrative autobiographical writing to simultaneously focus on language as instrumental to subjectivity and to represent "experience" as cultural content. They negotiate practices of avant-garde experimentation and writing that explores identity-as-process through examinations of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and history. Their text-subjects become witnesses to the discrepancies in culturally inscribed norms, and call for expanded possibilities for narrative and social representation; their texts become new models for representing contemporary subjectivity. Reading the primary texts through theorists including Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Susan Stanford Friedman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Kelly Oliver, among others, offers me ways to show how textual practice and cultural critique in this literature lend toward theorizing expanded possibilities for personal and social subject identification--how subjects identify--in the world. This project is invested in continuing to open spaces of possibility for textual practice and social subjectivity, as well as the feminist political impulse to dissolve margins and bring those "marginalized" voices into spaces with greater potential for personal and social identifications and politics.