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Talk Title: “Death as a World of Art”: Nationalist Masculinity, the Death of the Other, and the Political at the End of Ethics in Oscar “Zeta” Acosta’s Revolt of the Cockroach People
The Chicano Civil Rights lawyer and writer, Oscar Zeta Acosta, remains a controversial figure among Chicanx literary scholars long after his disappearance under mysterious circumstances in 1974. In addition to Acosta’s unapologetic depiction of misogyny in his autobiographical novels, this critical ambivalence is due in large part to his narrator’s explicit and unresolved anxieties with his racial and political identity. Indeed, in narrativizing his adventures as a Civil Rights attorney in East L.A., Acosta’s narrator, Zeta Brown, wracked with guilt and self-doubt, continually questions his commitment to the political and social movements that he is legally representing—and that the author himself legally represented—in U.S. courtrooms. Therefore, despite Acosta’s participation in and commitment to the “Chicano” nationalist movement, his literary work seems to lack a coherent political strategy of any kind, making Zeta Brown as a subject, as well as Acosta’s oeuvre, difficult to situate.
This talk explores a particularly gruesome scene that deeply unsettles Acosta’s narrator in The Revolt of the Cockroach People that describes in graphic detail the autopsy of Zeta Brown’s client, an autopsy that he, as legal representative, is forced to lead. Reading Zeta Brown’s ensuing guilt at the literal dismemberment of his client, in particular the dismemberment of his face, through Emmanuel Levinas, I argue that Zeta Brown’s negotiation of competing claims to both a political identification with the corpse as well as a sense of ethical responsibility for the dismemberment of the deceased’s body illuminate a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the categories of the political and the ethical in the Western philosophical tradition. In this way, this talk proposes that we can begin to read Acosta’s narrative as constituting not a cohesive political project fully worked out in advance but rather a meditation on the (limits of) concept of the political.
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