Monthly Archives: August 2012

In this second post discussing aspects of David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of History (2011), specifically his reference to Foucault’s work on genealogy as a way of reading Against the Day (AtD, 2006). I want to explore further what Cowart thinks AtD is ‘about’. In Chapter 7 (‘The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History’), we find, after Mendelson, a reference to ‘Pynchon’s encyclopedism’ (198). Cowart writes of Pynchon’s work generally: ‘Pynchon seduces the reader with the promise of something like the big picture: read this book and you’ll understand the age and its enormities.’ And then, a couple of pages later, this encyclopedism is related to Frye’s work on Menippean satire, ‘characterised, from antiquity into modern times, by its ungainliness, its voluminous, encyclopaedic ambitions, its scatology, its digressiveness, and its descents into the fantastic’ (200). Pynchon is here constructed as a writer whose narrative is discursive, availing itself of no end of connections; yet to suggest the reader might believe they will, or indeed ought to, ‘understand the age and its enormities’ is to invoke a very simplistic view of the transmission of knowledge. It is striking that this (modernist) line of inquiry remains blissfully unaware of Foucaultian genealogy. One might make the point that the perceived encyclopedism of Pynchon and others (as listed) is a way to resist closure (on ‘the labyrinth’ as a possible, Foucaultian, alternative to ‘the encyclopedia’ see Gerhard Hoffman, From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction, 2005: 414ff).


To better understand Pynchon’s supposed encyclopedism in relation to Foucaultian genealogy, we might return to the essay quoted at the beginning of Chapter 6 (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Paul Rabinow ed, 1984). Here, Foucault suggests that genealogy ‘must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality’ (Foucault, 76). This ‘monotonous finality’ would be the closure brought about by generalisation; hence, ‘the singularity of events’ must avoid the predictability that generalisation confers. Later, in deconstructing the quest for origins that conventional history is concerned with, Foucault insists that ‘[g]enealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people’ (81). Cowart does not explore these arguments in relation to AtD, even though, in this chapter, he goes on to claim that ‘Pynchon … aspires to the calling of fictive genealogist’ (Dark Passages, 164). Subsequently, there is an apparent confusion of form and content: ‘Against the Day sketches the genealogy of the world conflict that sets its stamp on the twentieth century’ (174), which recalls the suggestion that AtD be grouped with the first three novels in dealing with ‘the unfolding of the twentieth century’ (60). By implication, the novel itself, as written, is somehow separable from ‘the world conflict’ that provides subject matter. This might be what Cowart means by encyclopedism. However, it is not the genealogy that Foucault has outlined.


Cowart suggests that AtD belongs to ‘a neo-Continental or global period’ (59); and we might ask if this is an attempt to deconstruct the nation state (as suggested in Sascha Pöhlmann’s ‘Introduction: The Complex Text’ in Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives, Pöhlmann ed, 2010). Again, we never really find out, given the treatment of content and form. On 18 there is a reference to the novel’s ‘extraordinary geographical range’ and Pynchon’s ‘global perspective’; and then, on 173, he mentions the way Pynchon chose to introduce his novel (the jacket ‘blurb’ posted on in August 2006, some three months or so before the novel was published). This ‘witty description of the novel’ is used to bear out the view that ‘[t]he past actually mirrors the trajectory of the present’ (emphasis in the original). However, there is no attempt to follow up this particular construct as a way of addressing discourses of globalism, and this is what I would now like to do.


In August 2006, reading the blurb with nothing else to go on, it was striking to see how the narrative flowed, as the first paragraph, below, illustrates:


Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, Against the Day moves from the labour troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-last-century New York to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska event, Mexico during the revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.


In a few lines we have chronology (‘the period between …’ etc); specific events (‘the Chicago’s World Fair …’ etc); as well as geographical locations. The listing of signifiers in this way – in itself a very Pynchonian construct – encourages the reader to ask how the narrative will link them.


Further, we should read the blurb in tandem with the novel extract published in Penguin’s catalogue (4-5, still available here). One can infer that publication of these two texts (unlike the Guardian’s publication of a version of Chapter 8 in November 2006) were sanctioned by Pynchon as a way of introducing the novel (if the strategy invokes the cinematic trailer, an alternative to the absent film it suggests, one has only to think ahead to the trailer produced, in 2009, for Inherent Vice). The extract is taken from Chapter 25, and features the meeting of Willis Turnstone and Jimmy Drop (309-310). Willis is ‘freshly credentialed from the American School of Osteopathy’ (309) and here confronted by Jimmy ‘in classic throwdown posture’ (310). Most obviously this scene articulates an uneasy relationship between tradition and modernisation, as signified by Willis’ ‘antiquated Colt, in whose use he was far from practiced’ (309). Yet one should also take into account that Willis, as an osteopath, is far from representative of an unproblematic modernisation or Weberian disenchantment (much later in the novel, on 996, he will introduce Frank to Zhao, the acupuncturist). Not least, juxtaposition of these texts draws on a macro-micro spatial metaphor: the blurb constructs a macro level, and begs the question as to how the narrative relationship between ‘events’ and ‘places’ is going to be written, not least with a final comment (‘one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all’) that emphasises the writing of social reality. The Willis/Jimmy extract then offers a micro-level or interactionist alternative, one that, again, draws attention to the contested nature of any knowledge. We shall find this spatial metaphor challenged again and again throughout AtD.

The UCAS Tariff will be familiar to those of us who have anything to do with university applications and/or admissions. Recently UCAS has carried out a consultation regarding the future of the admissions system, leading to the publication, at the end of July 2012, of the UCAS Qualifications Information Review (QIR, available here). Somewhat predictably the Telegraph has announced that the Tariff ‘is likely to be axed following claims the existing system is outdated’; further, this is a move that ‘could give institutions greater freedom to prioritise candidates taking the toughest courses’.


The Telegraph then recycles an article from August 2011 to remind us of David Willetts’ concern that the Tariff fails to differentiate between subjects. What Willetts and the Telegraph want is a system that defers to the higher status accorded to ‘classic’ subjects; and this is, evidently, what the Telegraph means by ‘outdated’, that the current system does not defer to those subjects. Hence: ‘It may also lead to some academic subjects such as maths, science and foreign languages being given higher ratings than more vocational qualifications.’ What Willetts calls ‘not core academic subjects’ are more often called ‘soft’ subjects, of course. (For the Telegraph’s take on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses used to boost league table positions, see here. On subject choice and university applications, Fazackerley & Chant, 2008, provide background for the Telegraph/Willetts position.)


What the Telegraph means by ‘greater freedom’ is less clear. Universities already have as much freedom as they want to make offers based on grades, points or a combination thereof, offers that respond to the individual student’s application to a given course. If they have no interest in using the Tariff they are free to ignore it; and some might already publish lists of preferred/non-preferred subjects.


Moreover, if we read the QIR, the results are less clear-cut than the Telegraph’s triumphalism might lead us to believe. According to the QIR the ‘gradual withdrawal’ of the Tariff (Recommendation 2) is supported by two-thirds of HE respondents, but this ‘did not represent a significant change in practice’ (8). This does not read like a clear and unequivocal consensus in favour of change, a view corroborated, as shown below, by responses to Recommendations 3 and 4, where questioning explicitly addresses consequences. Moreover, those who support the Tariff do so because it is more flexible: ‘For HEIs who use the Tariff for setting entry requirements and making offers the recommendation was generally not supported’ (9).


One can see, then, that the QIR does indicate, at the very least, conflict between those institutions who think the Tariff hampers them and those who think its withdrawal would undermine their independence. This conflict is evident also in what is said regarding Recommendation 3 (The development of a rigorous means of comparing ‘demand’ across different qualifications) and Recommendation 4 (The provision of a simple qualifications metric for management information); and discussion here takes us back to ‘classic subjects’ and ‘not core academic subjects’.


On Recommendation 3 the QIR suggests a divergence between those wanting to emphasise ‘academic demand’ and those who preferred ‘a broader measure of demand, recognising the value of a wider range of skills’. Hence, ‘a narrow focus on academic demand would risk devaluing qualifications that aim to provide progression to employment as well as HE’ (10).


Moving on to Recommendation 4, we find ‘[c]oncerns … that a measure based on academic demand would devalue vocational qualifications and may impact on HEIs’ league table positions, widening participation, student recruitment and learner behaviour’ (11). A minority (‘[l]ess than a third’) of HEI respondents ‘agreed that such a qualifications metric should be based on measures of academic demand and qualification size alone’ (11).


One can readily understand that the Telegraph has no interest in reading and reporting what the QIR says. It might well be that the UCAS Tariff will be dropped; it would, however, be a mistake to see this move as representing any kind of consensus among HE providers.

David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of History (2011, details here) is made up of chapters published at different times, from the late-1970s to one (‘The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History’, 189ff, offered here as a conclusion of sorts) that has also been published, in a shorter version, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Dalsgaard, Herman & McHale eds, 2012). Dark Passages discusses all of Pynchon’s work but I shall confine myself to comments on Against the Day (AtD, 2006).

Chapter 6 (‘Pynchon, Genealogy, History’) begins by emphasising ‘the centrality of historical questions’ to Pynchon’s work (159), and Cowart here brings in Foucault. Indeed, the chapter heading echoes Foucault’s own ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Paul Rabinow ed, 1984), an essay cited when Cowart refers to Foucault’s use of genealogy as a kind of historiography: ‘gray, meticulous and patiently documentary’ (160). Previously Cowart has focused his attention on the content of Pynchon’s novels, hence the importance accorded German culture in Chapter 3 (57ff). Now, to put it in perhaps simplistic terms, he addresses form to describe the work of genealogy: ‘the genealogist-historian lays bare the play of power that so swiftly seeks to disguise its workings’ (160). Hence, ‘readers who find the overall point of Against the Day elusive’ might still ‘recognise the technique as that of the genealogist’ (160); and then, a few pages on, ‘Pynchon … aspires to the calling of fictive genealogist, the most historically meticulous of storytellers’ (164). But what does this mean? Cowart has already concluded the reference to Foucault’s work by suggesting that Pynchon, the novelist, might be better at ‘imagining a world in which various oppressive forces can be countered, dismantled, resisted’ (161); and one might ask if this is what Pynchon, indeed, is – and always has been – about. Nonetheless, for Cowart, the novelist enjoys a licence denied the historian/genealogist (ie Foucault); and so ‘what hybridizes Pynchon’s work is his contempt for objective distance, his passion for justice-based chronicle’ (165). It is the ‘justice-based chronicle’ – ‘Pynchon insists on writing the history of the marginalized or, as he calls them, the preterite’ – that gives the novelist an advantage here.

With regard to AtD Cowart now goes on to refer to Scarsdale Vibe’s lengthy speech, the ‘orgy of self-congratulation’ (168) that opens Chapter 67 in AtD. He concludes that ‘the author makes his political views clear, but such extravagance is balanced and framed by incremental intimations of other ideas the more powerful for their oblique presentation’ (169). Here we see, juxtaposed, the real beliefs of the text’s author – which pre-exist the text but shape the writing of character (‘Pynchon makes no effort to temper the expression of his disgust’) – and ‘other ideas’, the ‘oblique presentation’ of which will emphasise the role of the canny reader in deciphering the text: one must ‘peel the onion of appearances’ (169). Do these ‘other ideas’ also belong to the author? Presumably so, but Cowart appears to distinguish between the mere content of Vibe’s speech and another kind of expression: the example he gives is AtD’s use of ‘artful indirection’ in the writing of World War I (170), eg Franz Ferdinand’s visit to the United States rather than his assassination (171, followed on 173 by War references that ‘do not gather to a narrative climax’ but ‘fall as solitary pebbles in history’s great, echoing bucket’). Given the way Cowart moves rapidly from Vibe’s speech to a consideration of the writing of War, we might ask if, indeed, we are expected to conclude that ‘artful indirection’ is absent from the passage that features Vibe’s speech.

At the start of Chapter 67 (AtD, 1000-1001) Vibe addresses a like-minded audience (the L.A.H.D.I.D.A.) of rich white men. On 1000 the narrative indicates (‘Scarsdale well into what by now was his customary stem-winder’) that some at least will have heard it all before: hence ‘the expected arm gesture’. The speech is a performance, a rehearsal of agreement; however, on 1001 it ends with Vibe betraying the distance between him and Foley Walker. Vibe speaks generally of those ‘whose future … was always to toil for us’ and then avoids eye-contact with Walker. The latter (‘attentive back in the shadows’) might now be aligned with the ‘observer’ of the opening paragraph on 1000, implicitly an outsider called upon to interpret what he sees, an outsider with whom the reader might be positioned. If we read the speech as no more than the author’s heavy-handed signposting of political views we miss the substance. On these two pages, then, the speech constructs the general while the narrative disrupts that overview with the writing of agency (a feature of the text that I shall discuss in my next post). If nothing else we might also recall the times when AtD offers that kind of political statement, or history lesson, as a speech delivered by a character: as examples, consider the narrative function of speeches by the Cohen (230-231), Ratty (808-809 and 937-938) and Danilo (828).

What Foucault calls effective history ‘deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations’ (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,’ 88). One can indeed see here the strategy adopted by AtD, where the content of the Vibe speech (and the others indicated above) is challenged in the writing; and one would have liked more than the brief references to Foucault that do appear in Dark Passages (Foucault does not feature at all in Chapter 5, ‘The Luddite Vision: Mason & Dixon’, originally published in 1999; and should also be considered influential in the writing of Vineland and Slow Learner).

Which is not to say that Pynchon has been directly influenced; it would matter little if he announced he had never heard of Foucault, let alone read his work. Concluding his discussion of V, Cowart offers Pynchon as ‘one of [the] most important harbingers’ of  Said’s postcolonialism and White’s postmodern historiography (56), intellectual developments he associates with the 1970s, although that should not lead us to suppose that Said and White have been directly influenced by their reading of Pynchon. Elsewhere, Cowart relates Pynchon’s work to the history of criticism, specifically Watt (23) and Frye (200) in the 1950s; and White is also discussed in relation to Frye (45). In such passages Dark Passages starts to outline the manner in which the Pynchon-text emerged (and has continued to re-emerge). However, given the genesis of the book over more than 30 years, it is not surprising that there are two brief references to Shawn Smith’s Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (2005); and no references to Amy J Elias’ description of a metahistorical romance in Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001), even though Cowart does mention the challenge postmodernism poses to historical fiction (161-162, with implicitly a reference to the effective history outlined by Foucault).