Meet the Fellows: 2019 Newcombe Fellow Dwight Tanner

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2019 class of Fellows includes Dwight Tanner, a doctoral candidate in English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dwight gives the origin story of his research focus:

As a critical race scholar, I spend a great deal of time talking with students about the historical and contemporary narratives that we tell about race and difference. I also work with students to explore the ways that these stories aren’t as temporally distinct as we often pretend. For example, in the antebellum period, slavery was justified with invented narratives that Africans were subhuman and could not take care of themselves; today, we tell similar stories about non-white criminality to justify mass racial disparities in incarceration rates. Once students come to understand the social consequences of these stories, I challenge students to consider how we go about changing the narrative so to speak, and thus (hopefully) changing the policies and inequalities that are inexplicably tied to stereotypes and other socially constructed narratives. But, as anyone who works in social justice or any kind of advocacy for change can tell you, imagining and enacting meaningful social change is difficult—often ridiculously so. We tend, instead, to remain entrenched in ways of being and ideologies of the present and past. Thus my research and teaching are often centered on examining both the successes and failures of our attempts to imagine and create meaningful change.

So how has a fascination with social stasis and change led me to a project about apocalyptic narratives? The connection to social change—and how I became intrigued by the genre of science fiction in the first place—is rarely clear. As a reader, I’m generally not drawn to the fantastic, but my interest in apocalypse largely began while researching the genre for another project. I quickly came to realize the unique and generative ways that apocalyptic narratives are inexplicably, and perhaps paradoxically, tied to engagements with change. As James Berger has argued, the end is never really the end in apocalyptic texts, but is instead a chance for a new beginning. Indeed, following Elizabeth Rosen, I argue that even early Sumerian and Hebrew apocalyptic texts engage in the promise of a radically different and better future. The Greek origins of the word apocalypse mean to uncover or reveal—but if real-life destructive events should function as a moment of revelation and a chance to change what has been revealed, why is it that humanity tends to simply keep engaging in the same destructive, damaging tendencies and behaviors? I believe that an examination of the ways we try, regularly fail, and sometimes succeed at enacting change in our popularly imagined apocalyptic narratives can in fact help us to better understand and perhaps alter society’s strategies and self-imposed limits on imagining and achieving radical change.

Dwight’s dissertation, titled In the End: Apocalyptic Literature, Minoritarian Identity, and Hopeless Futurity, focuses on apocalyptic narratives and the role of minoritarian perspectives and identity as praxis for imagining and enacting a productively different future. For more information on the 2019 Newcombe Fellows, click here.


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