Risky Enterprise: Stunts and value in public life of late nineteenth-century New York
MetadataShow full item record
This thesis analyses stunts in the public life of late nineteenth-century New York, where ‘stunt’ developed as a slang term. Addressing stunts as a performative and discursive practice, I investigate stunts in popular newspapers, sports, politics and protest and, to a lesser extent, theatre and film. Each chapter focuses on one form of stunt: bridge jumping, extreme walking contests, a new genre of reporting called ‘stunt journalism’, and cycling feats. Joseph Pulitzer’s popular newspaper, the World, is the primary research archive, supported by analysis of other newspapers and periodicals, vaudeville scripts, films, manuals and works of fiction. The driving question is: how did stunts in public life enact conceptions of value? I contextualise stunts in a ‘crisis of value’ concerning industrialisation, secularisation, recessions, the currency crisis, increased entry of women into remunerative work, immigration, and racialised anxieties about consumption and degeneration. I examine the ways in which ‘stunt’ connotes devaluation, suggesting a degraded form of politics, art or sport, and examine how such cultural hierarchies intersect with gender, race and class. The critical framework draws on Theatre and Performance Studies theorisations of precarity and liveness. I argue that stunts aestheticised everyday precarity and made it visible, raising ethical questions about the value of human life and death, and the increasingly interdependent nature of urban society. Stunts took entrepreneurial idealisations of risk and autoproduction to extreme, constructing identity as commodity. By aestheticising precarity and endangering lives, stunts explored a symbolic and material connection between liveness and aliveness, which provokes questions about current conceptualisations of liveness and mediatisation. I argue that while stunts were framed as exceptional, frivolous acts, they adopted the logic of increasingly major industries, such as the popular press, advertising and financial markets. Stunts became a focal point for anxiety regarding the abstract and unstable nature of value itself.
- Theses