Pynchon and Morrison reveal the official narrative of individualism as encompassing a complex structure of contradiction held in abeyance. This narrative imagines that the goals of the individual are not at odds with the goals of the family or society and in fact obscures the existence of an unholy truce between individual liberty and forms of oppression. By bringing these two fiction writers into a discourse dominated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, George Kateb, Robert Bellah, and Michael Sandel, Patell unmasks the ways in which contemporary U.S. culture has not fully shed the oppressive patterns of reasoning handed down by the slaveholding culture from which American individualism emerged.
With its interdisciplinary approach, Negative Liberties will appeal to students and scholars of American literature, culture, sociology, and politics.
About the Author
Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Professor of English at New York University. He is the author of Joyce’s Use of History in “Finnegans Wake” and a contributor to the Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 7: Prose Writing, 1940–1990.
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Negative Liberties - CL
By Cyrus R. K. Patell
Duke University PressCopyright © 2001 Cyrus R. K. Patell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNarrating Individualism
St. Augustine sets the problem. Mankind has, in its sin, two freedoms, to choose and to choose rightly. It cannot do the second without Divine Grace. Even if we could believe in that, it would not come to us in the ordinary course of history. In the absence of such a god, we are left with what we now call negative liberty, but there is no great joy in that for many political theorists, even those who recognize that positive liberty in the hands of human, not divine, hands is an invitation to unrestrained coercion.-Judith N. Shklar (1987)
The problem ... is that the Constitution is a charter of negative rather than positive liberties.... The men who wrote the Bill of Rights were not concerned that government might do too little for the people, but that it might do too much to them.-Richard Posner, Jackson v. City of Joliet (1983)
When the communitarians attack liberal society, they are really attacking individualism, because to them it represents the heart of liberalism.-George Kateb (1992)
Two-thirds of the way through Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon (1997), a Chinese Feng-Shui expert named "Capt. Zhang" looks with dismay upon the "Visto"-the line that thenovel's protagonists have been hewing through the American wilderness: "Terrible Feng-Shui here. Worst I ever saw. You two crazy?" Arguing that "ev'rywhere else on earth, Boundaries follow Nature ... so honoring the Dragon or Shan within, from which the Landscape ever takes its form," Zhang declares that "to mark a right Line upon the Earth is to inflict upon the Dragon's flesh a sword slash, a long, perfect scar, impossible for any who live out here the year 'round to see as other than hateful Assault" (542; my ellipsis). Later he will tell the surveyors that their Visto may well be "an Agent of Darkness": "To rule forever ... it is necessary only to create, among the people one would rule, what we call ... Bad History. Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Content, through the midst of a people,-to create thus a Distinction betwixt 'em,-'tis the first stroke.-All else will follow as if predestin'd, unto War and Devastation" (615; Pynchon's ellipses). Pynchon's earlier novels abound with examples of Bad History at work, from the European incursions into Southwest Africa depicted in V. (1963) to Brock Vond's attempts to impose a restrictive communitarian culture on the United States in Vineland (1990).
Toni Morrison is another writer who knows all about Bad History and about distinctions between peoples. Her most recent novel, Paradise (1998), is set in the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma (population 360), whose inhabitants have drawn a line between themselves and the outside world. Morrison describes Ruby as "a sleepy town with three churches within one mile of one another but nothing to serve a traveler: no diner, no police, no gas station, no public phone, no movie house, no hospital" (12). It is a town whose obsession with its own history and traditions is personified in its leading citizens Deacon and Steward Morgan, twin brothers who "have powerful memories," who "between them ... remember the details of everything that ever happened-things they witnessed and things they have not," who remember above all the "controlling" story "told to them by their grandfather," a story that "explained" why the inhabitants of Ruby could not "tolerate anybody but themselves" (13). It is a story about racism-by whites against blacks, by blacks against blacks-that leads the town to mimic the intolerance once directed against them. In Paradise, as in her earlier novels The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Beloved (1987), Morrison shows how black communities subjected to Bad History create bad histories of their own. Morrison's novels indict black communities for the perpetuation of Bad History, but they trace the genealogy of the problem back to the racist narratives generated throughout U.S. history by a dominant culture ruled by whites.
Bad Histories and Official Stories
Morrison confronts the specter of Bad History directly in her introduction to the anthology Birth of a Nation'hood (1997). She looks at the events surrounding the first O. J. Simpson trial and sees not just "a hot property of mayhem loaded with the thrill that a mixture of fame, sex, death, money and race produces" but also an example of "the construction of a national narrative, an official story." Such a controlling narrative, she writes, "is born in and from chaos. Its purpose is to restore or imitate order and to minimize confusion about what is at stake and who will pay the price of dissension. Once, long ago, these stories developed slowly. They became over time national epics, written, sung, performed and archived in the culture as memory, ideology and art" (1997, xv-xvi). In democracies like the United States, Morrison contends, "the manufacture of a public truth is harder" than in countries where "the construction of a national narrative is given over to a government agency"; the process occurs more slowly because it is "cautioned and delayed by a free press, an openly dissident citizenry, a reversible electorate" (xvi). What Morrison finds alarming in the case of the first Simpson trial is the rapidity with which the official story was constructed and disseminated, an example of the way in which "democratic discourses" can be "suborned by sudden, accelerated, sustained blasts of media messages-visual and in print-that rapidly enforce the narrative and truncate alternative opinion" (xvi). Nevertheless, Morrison argues, no matter how, or how rapidly, they are produced, official stories have the same "consequence and function": they serve "to impose the will of a dominant culture" (xxviii).
Morrison's description of the relation between storytelling and cultural dominance aligns her with those Americanist historians and literary critics who have found inspiration in the tradition of ideology theory that views ideology as fundamentally "a discursive or semiotic phenomenon" (to use Terry Eagleton's phrase ). For example, in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), David Brion Davis uses the term
"ideology" to mean an integrated system of beliefs, assumptions, and values, not necessarily true or false, which reflects the needs and interests of a group or class at a particular time in history. By "interest" I mean anything that benefits or is thought to benefit a specific collective identity. Because ideologies are modes of consciousness, containing the criteria for interpreting social reality, they help to define as well as to legitimate collective needs and interests. Hence there is a continuous interaction between ideology and the material forces of history. The salient characteristic of an ideology is that, while it is taken for granted by people who have internalized it, it is never the eternal or absolute truth it claims to be. Ideologies focus attention on certain phenomena, but only by arbitrarily screening out other phenomena in patterns that are not without meaning. (14)
This description of ideology as an internalized mode of consciousness that acts as an interpretive lens or filter is indebted, I think, to Louis Althusser's interpretation of the conception of ideology implicit in Karl Marx's Capital. Althusser defined ideology as "a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society" (231). In "The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History," Sacvan Bercovitch builds on this representational model by describing ideology as "the system of interlinked ideas, symbols and beliefs by which a culture-any culture-seeks to justify and perpetuate itself; the web of rhetoric, ritual, and assumption through which society coerces, persuades, and coheres." Ideology, for Bercovitch, is "the ground and texture of consensus" (1986, 635).
What Morrison refers to as official narratives play a crucial role within an ideology's "system" of representations. Ideology functions first by providing its subjects with a cultural vocabulary, an extended language that includes words, images, symbols, and cultural myths, and then by linking these semantic units together via associative patterns of reasoning that are analogous to such literary devices as metaphor, metonymy, oxymoron, symbolism, and intertextual reference. Elaborating on Althusser's theory, the sociologist Stuart Hall writes that "ideologies do not operate through single ideas"; rather, "they operate, in discursive chains, in clusters, in semantic fields, in discursive formations. As you enter an ideological field and pick out any one nodal representation or idea, you immediately trigger off a whole chain of connotative associations. Ideological representations connote-summon-one another" (104). Each of the representations generated within an ideological field is constructed from one or more associations, but these representations are themselves linked to one another as sequences of thought. Within an ideological field, certain dominant strands, certain characteristic patterns of reasoning, eventually emerge, becoming evident throughout a broad range of different discourses.
Where can we find a counterweight to such official narratives? Pynchon implicitly and Morrison explicitly suggest that we look to the literary imagination. In Mason & Dixon, for example, Pynchon uses fiction to create a counternarrative to U.S. frontier mythology. Capt. Zhang is Pynchon's own invention-needless to say, he appears nowhere in The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon-and his presence suggests that Pynchon is telling a story about the eighteenth-century American frontier from the vantage point of twentieth-century border studies. Indeed, it is tempting to read this episode from Mason & Dixon as an allegory of late twentieth-century developments within American studies, with Capt. Zhang representing minority discourse theory, Charles Mason representing traditionalists, and Jeremiah Dixon representing the so-called New Americanists. Mason, the older of the two surveyors, refuses to believe in the danger of drawing boundaries; in response to Zhang's diatribe against creating distinctions between peoples, Mason replies, "Poh, Sir, ... the Provinces are alike as Stacy and Tracy." Dixon, however, is already beginning to learn Zhang's lesson, "point[ing] out" to Mason, "less mildly than he might," that "Negro Slavery" exists "upon one side ... and not the other" (615). But he does not believe that the line that he and Mason are drawing has anything to do with the problem of slavery. Later, however, he will come to realize the truth of Zhang's belief that "slavery is very old upon these shores,-there is no Innocence upon the Practice anywhere, neither among the Indians nor the Spanish nor in the behavior of the rest of Christendom, if it come to that" (616). By the novel's end, Dixon understands that slavery is "the Element common to all" the adventures on which they have been sent by England's Royal Society and that they are implicated in it: "Didn't we take the King's money ... whilst Slaves wait upon us[?] Where does it end?" Dixon asks Mason: "No matter where in it we go, shall we find all the World Tyrants and Slaves? America was the one place we should not have found them" (692-93). Mason & Dixon is thus a revisionist narrative that uses the historical novel to expose the underside of European and American history.
In contrast to Pynchon, Morrison writes openly about literature's ability to engage official narratives. She begins her Nobel Prize acceptance speech by declaring that "narrative has never been merely entertainment for me. It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge" (1994, 77). For Morrison, writing a novel is essentially an act of cultural criticism. "The kind of work I have always wanted to do," she writes in the preface to her critical study Playing in the Dark (1992), "requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains" (xi). Speaking of the U.S. literary tradition, Morrison suggests that "living in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer" (xiii). The writers whom she prizes most highly are those "who take responsibility for all of the values they bring to their art" (xiii), whether those values serve or challenge the dominant culture's official stories. This perspective seems, in retrospect, to have been a part of Morrison's writing all along. "The best art," she writes elsewhere, "is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time" (1984, 345).
This conception of the cultural functions of narrative also aligns Morrison with a cadre of late twentieth-century philosophers who have sought to explore the common ground between literature and philosophy. Ronald Beiner, Stanley Cavell, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Michael J. Sandel, Steven Shiffrin, and Judith Shklar are among those who have suggested that professional philosophy has much to learn from literature's ability to dramatize the complexities and idiosyncrasies of human life. Describing humans as "storytelling beings," Sandel contends that "political community depends on the narratives by which people make sense of their condition and interpret the common life they share" (1996, 350). Beiner has faulted twentieth-century analytic philosophy for being "self-restricting and self-effacing" in cutting itself off from the kind of imaginative speculation about human life regularly found in literary works (1). These philosophers seek to remind their colleagues that philosophy has always relied on the literary: the precedent for Cavell's use of Shakespeare, for example, is Aristotle's use of Homer and Euripides. Shklar defends the explicit use of stories and storytelling as "something political philosophers used to do quite normally" (1984, 231). Beiner goes further, arguing that all philosophical writing is implicitly a form of storytelling: "In theorizing, ... we tell a story-preferably a true story" (12).
Philosophy's reliance, however, on abstract theoretical models, which necessarily simplify the complexities of human experience, can lead it to tell stories that fall short of the truth. Commenting on Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a novel that satirizes utilitarianism by imagining what it would be like if "the utilitarian norm" were "understood not just as a way of writing up reports, but as a way of dealing with people in daily encounters" (17), Nussbaum claims that philosophical reason would become more powerful if it were supplemented by the literary imagination. She follows Shklar's suggestion that storytelling should be conceived as "an addition" to "more abstract modes of analysis" rather than "a substitute" for them (1984, 231) by arguing that Hard Times does not completely discount the usefulness of political economy. Instead, Nussbaum contends, the novel "indicates that political and economic treatises of an abstract and mathematical sort would be perfectly consistent with its purpose-so long as the view of the human being underlying the treatises was the richer view available in the novel; so long as they do not lose sight of what they are, for efficiency, omitting" (44). For Shklar, this richer view entails the recognition of conflict and irrationality: "The great intellectual advantage of telling stories is that it does not rationalize the irrationality of actual experience and history. Indecision, incoherence and inconsistency are not ironed out or put between brackets. All our conflicts are preserved in all their in-conclusiveness.... Stories expose rather than create order, and in so doing they can render explicit much that is inarticulate" (1984, 230).
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Table of ContentsPreface
One: Narrating Individualism
Two: Idealizing Individualism
Three: Unenlightened Enlightenment
Four: Contemplating Community
Conclusion: Beyond Individualism