Emily O'Rourke

Dissertation Title

Custodians of Value: Meritocracy, Classlessness, and Other Late Modernist Myths

Image of Emily O'Rourke

Research Interests

modernism/modernity, film and media, modern social and political theory, moral imaginaries specific to capitalism, literary theory, political economy, feminist theory, visual culture, cultural history, globalization


My dissertation, “Custodians of Value,” critically reassesses how we read and understand modernist literature, culture, and thought in the late context of the postwar rise of meritocratic beliefs under conditions of growing economic equality in advanced industrial democracies. I analyze and excavate postwar developments in literature, drama, moral philosophy, psychoanalysis, and documentary film to show how transatlantic figures like D.W. Winnicott, Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch, and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman became custodians of a seemingly universal, transferable, and immutable set of meritocratic values revalued and reworked from foundational modernists like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, James Joyce, and Max Weber. I trace how notions of equality of opportunity, child development, home space, bodily discipline, everyday observation, exposing abuses of power, and private moral conscience functioned and flourished late modernist thought and culture to reinforce and mediate discourses of individual upward mobility. My research shows how these late modernist values subsequently underwrote the rise of an international moral order of liberal democratic values of equality, merit, and right predicated on modernist dreams of the free individual development for all through critical awareness, hard work, self-development, everyday goodness, meritocratic rewards, and global market progress. My critical account of late modernism brings new political economic histories of the twentieth century to bear an aesthetic, moral, and psychosocial developmental values—values that have been “custodialized” across the globe since the 1970s, which is to say, well past the postwar economic conditions and the territories and cultures that birthed them.

My work has been funded by a Jacob K. Javits fellowship, the Rhetoric Department, and the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley. I have taught a range of courses in the Departments of Rhetoric, English, Global Poverty and Practice, and Interdisciplinary studies. In 2018, I was awarded as an Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor with a university-wide honor for teaching excellence at UC Berkeley.

In Spring 2019, I will be a Thinking Matters Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University teaching design thinking. My latest research concerns cultures of economic stagnation, and my article, “Rineke Dijkstra and the Dream of Classless Society,” on social dreams at the museum and youth at the beach in the 1990s in the large-scale portrait photography of Rineke Dijkstra is forthcoming this winter in Theory and Event.

I am also an accomplished and experienced academic editor that served as Chief Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences from 2013-2016. To review the issues I directed and edited or see the editorial board’s latest work visit Duke UP: https://www.dukeupress.edu/qui-parle.