Don James McLaughlin , University of Pennsylvania
Brown Bag Coordinator and
2015-2016 Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation Fellow
The Phobic Imagination in American Literature, 1765-1885”
Infectious Affect: The Phobic Imagination in American Literature, 1765-1885, accounts for the historical conditions that first prompted phobia’s rise as a political analytic. Activist uses of phobia have since become prolific. Terms such as homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia circulate globally in the present to describe and address forms of social inequality. However implicitly, these terms aspire to a widely accepted hypothesis: in short, that systemic oppression begins with and orbits around a nucleus of fear, on the part of those in power. Taking part in the new philological turn in literary studies, my dissertation shows that the –phobia suffix first began to be adapted from medical literature to describe social phenomena in the late 1700s, and caught on rapidly in the antebellum period. At the same time, in tracing this history we discover that phobia’s proliferation as a political category did not go uncontested. I take less interest, then, in those who played by the rules of a consolidating phobic imagination than I do in writers who repurposed it to counterintuitive ends. In telling the backstory of activist phobias, Infectious Affect explores the rise of a phobic imagination in medical, literary, and political contexts alike, proposing that phobia activated a new dynamism between otherwise disparate modes of knowledge production.