The flight of the ordinary: narrative, poetics, power and UFOs in the American uncanny

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Lepselter, Susan Claudia

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This dissertation on uncanny narrative in America during the 1990s is an ethnography-based contribution to studies of narrative, poetics, the uncanny and American popular culture. Scholars in a range of disciplines have been drawn to study the “uncanny” as part of an effort to theorize the social, aesthetic and psychological characteristics of modernity. Uncanny discourses are stubbornly resistant to, yet inextricable from, modernity’s processes of rationalization and disenchantment. This dissertation argues that while the experience of the uncanny is irreducible, the specific content of UFO abduction narratives, fantastic conspiracy theories and stories about uncanny synchronicities draws on narrative fragments from a range of social memories. The dissertation looks closely at the poetics of stories to trace the ways in which disturbing cultural narratives and images are condensed and intensified in the uncanny. I argue that the intertextual parallels of various social memories are foregrounded in xi uncanny stories, and that the uncanny thereby reveals a popular theory of power in contemporary life. Among other themes that emerge in the uncanny, the dissertation looks at ambivalent and naturalized expressions of American class, and the tropes of mobility and paralysis as part of a larger “structure of feeling.” I situate UFO abduction narratives in relation to the foundational American genre of Indian captivity narratives and discuss the ideas of captivity and abduction as open-ended tropes. I draw on stories both from texts that circulate in popular culture and from stories I heard during fieldwork in a UFO experiencers’ support group in Austin, Texas, and as a worker at a UFOthemed café in Rachel, Nevada, a former mining town next to the Nevada nuclear test site and the secret military base known as Area 51. This area has spawned conspiracy theories and rumors of UFOs, and I look at how uncanny stories there, and in Texas, interact with the spoken and implicit stories of ordinary life.