Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Thadious M. Davis


Ambitious Confusion: Recovering the Unthought in Contemporary Memorials to the Antebellum South

Aundeah J. Kearney

Thadious M. Davis

This dissertation examines how contemporary authors and artists who craft memorials to the antebellum South reconcile the presence of disruptive artifacts with narratives of history they inherit as members of a national collective, actively engaging with shared memories of critical moments in the nation’s past. In this study, I identify ambitious confusion as a generative state which moves beyond mere recognition of conflicting histories toward a memorial that successfully manages the reintegration of previously excised artifacts of history. I borrow the term “unthought” from Rinaldo Walcott, and deploy it rather than the more innocuous “forgotten,” to refer to these disavowed artifacts, as the term acknowledges the intentional actions that led to certain exclusions from the privileged narrative.

Throughout the dissertation, I use ambitious confusion to read memorials that engage what I determine to be the four dimensions through which narrative is constructed as a rhetorical event: time, place, body, and law. In each chapter I demonstrate that an analytical posture informed by ambitious confusion illustrates how contemporary artists, for instance Kara Walker, and authors, such as Harryette Mullen, Natasha Trethewey, and Edward P. Jones, destabilize the boundaries that demarcate each of these four dimensions to provide space for the reintegration of the unthought. Attending to the formal qualities of the memorials, which include Walker's silhouette tableaux, and her more recent Sugarbaby, Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary, Trethewey’s Native Gaurd, and Jones' The Known World, ambitious confusion exposes fractally dense temporalities, slippery subjectivities, and a unique state of temporally ambiguous being which I call “static animation” as fecund sites for memorial projects. Memorial narratives, as continuously revised and performed rhetorical events, allow for understanding ambitious confusion as a new method of reading that can account for the diverse influences and innovative techniques that often surface in contemporary memorials as moments of disjunction or even nonsense. Ambitious confusion allows for reading not only memorials that blatantly resist the excision of the unthought, but also for looking again at memorial sites deemed beyond reclamation, such as controversial monuments to heroes of the Confederate Army, for the dynamism that belies voices long thought lost.