Author ORCID Identifier
Doctor of Philosophy
Media, Art, and Text
Dr. Richard Fine
Dr. Hong Cheng
Dr. Bryant Mangum
Dr. Emilie Raymond
ALWAYS ALREADY IMPRISONED: THE PANOPTIC POWER OF CAPITALISM IN AMERICAN LITERATURE, 1900-1940
By Andrew Blair Spencer, Ph.D.
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Virginia Commonwealth University, 2019
Director: Dr. Richard Fine, Professor, Department of English
By applying the theories of control that Michel Foucault outlines in Discipline and Punish to the capitalist system, I argue that capitalism functions in much the same was as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in that it perpetually imprisons individuals who live under its purview. As I see it, capitalism works on two different tracks to exploit the human condition in order to keep those living under its purview perpetually trapped within an endless cycle of working to acquire commodities, both for our personal survival and our personal indulgence.
Advertising assumes the role of Foucauldian discourse in this model. In the United States, advertising became a commercial force in the mid-nineteenth century; by the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a fully-fledged profession that worked to fuel the bourgeoning commercial culture that was beginning to manifest itself in all areas of American life. By creating needs and desires in the minds of consumers, advertisers were able to dictate consumer behavior, thereby further locking Americans into the capitalist Panopticon.
This theoretical base becomes the foundation upon which I build my explication of fourteen representative American novels written during the period 1900-1940. I offer in-depth discussions of individual novels, paying particular attention to the ways in which authors interrogate the capitalist system in light of the image of the United States as a land of opportunity. The selection of works includes both male and female authors, as well as white and African-American writers. Characters range from very poor to exorbitantly wealthy, and include multiple examples of middle-class life, too; the collection of works I have chosen includes both native-born and immigrant populations, as well. This wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, races, and nationalities provides a comprehensive picture of how all-encompassing the capitalist Panopticon is in American society.
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Available for download on Wednesday, April 24, 2024