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Abstract

This dissertation elucidates the neglected yet intimate history of literature and sociology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I use “sociopoetics” to distinguish texts marked by a self-conscious, reciprocal cross-pollination between literary and sociological vocabularies, forms, and methods of inquiry. My approach to such objects involves a combination of historical and formal analysis that accomplishes two major aims. First, in order to illustrate the widespread presence of sociopoetics, I assemble a diverse archive of works that places social theorists, researchers and literary writers in conversation for the first time. Second, drawing on the rhetorical theory Kenneth Burke, I argue that sociopoetics is most productively construed as a strategy. More specific than forms or genres, strategies name and navigate typical, recurrent situations in the world that correspond to the particularities of social structures. Conceived of as a strategy, sociopoetics adopts an interactive, problem-solving attitude to issues like racial and economic inequalities as well as to more abstract questions around disciplinary modes of inquiry, authority, and representation. Bridging aesthetic and social structures, sociopoetics animates meaningful connections between competing ways of apprehending human actions, interactions, and cultural products. I demonstrate that the tensions between “the evident rhythm of human action” and “the evident incalculability in human action,” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it in 1902, has implications for debates about the distinctiveness of aesthetic objects, the association of literature with the “incalculable” aspects of experience, and contested practices of close reading. I build upon “sociological turns” in literary criticism—digital humanities, surface and flat reading, thick description, and actor-network-theory—that apply interpretative methods rooted in social science, but have yet to assess the substantial range of interdisciplinary experiments on which I elaborate. Through four conceptual chapters, I examine how writers and sociologists negotiated emergent paradigms for thinking about human beings both empirically and imaginatively, as a matter of fact and feeling. Chapter one tracks sociopoetic practices in the 1930s, when sociological studies of “typical” people as well as documentary-literary works were newly proliferating. I read Robert and Helen Lynd’s bestselling Middletown community studies alongside works by James Agee and Muriel Rukeyser that challenge the conflation of social type and subjective self. Their accounts of a typical Midwestern city, an average family of tenant farmers, and a representative incident of industrial atrocity deploy objective, empirical approaches infused with humanizing, individuating poetic tropes and forms. Chapter two shifts away from the issue of totalizing types and towards post-WWII experiments concerned with the statistical enumeration and fragmentation of individuals as well as with literature’s capacity to express social facts at scale. Using the attitude studies of social psychologist L. L. Thurstone, I highlight the relational, provisional character of probabilistic inference. Then, attending to a broader cross-section of poets into the twenty-first century, from W. H. Auden and Langston Hughes to Evie Shockley and C. D. Wright, I draw connections between statistical vocabularies and literary devices like enjambment, anaphora and parataxis as they function to divine knowledge about radically indeterminate subjects. Chapter three arranges my growing archive around the themes of self-reflection, self-fashioning, and self-expression in response to the forms of address constituting survey research. Understanding surveys as linguistic sites at which negotiations between the coded worldviews—what C. Wright Mills called “vocabularies of motive”—of individuals, collectives, and institutions take place, I consider texts that ply the unequal power hierarchies of everyday interrogation. While Charles Bernstein, John Ashbery, and Ron Silliman disturb the dynamics of asking and answering, Bhanu Kapil and sociologists conducting “poetic inquiry” remediate actual survey responses, recovering voices otherwise rendered into quantitative trends. The final chapter develops around the recalcitrant social and conceptual problem of singularity through a case study. I reframe Richard Wright’s engagements with sociology in terms of tensions between “personality” and “environment,” rehearsed throughout his oeuvre, on the stage of global race politics. Focusing on 12 Million Black Voices and The Color Curtain, I explore narrative shifts between abstracted social forces and mass agency to the particularized emotions and experiences of people of color. I conclude with a meditation on the haiku Wright composed serially in his final months, reading the poems as a means to reconcile singular and multiple through a lived practice of accumulation.

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