Thomas Pynchon, Michel Foucault and Philosophico-Literary Hospitality


by Martin Paul Eve

The two, alternate titles proposed for my recent work are “The F Word” and “Whose Line is it Anyway?” The word in question is Foucault, as in Michel, and the “Line” is Pynchon’s, as in Mason & Dixon. The cursory glances that have been afforded to the relationship between Pynchon and Foucault have yielded an almost unanimous hostility between these writers. Indeed, one critic summarises this in his insistence that there is little in common: we should leave “Foucault and Pynchon to their respective silences”. Although it might appear paratactic, in situating Foucault between Pynchonian readings of Wittgenstein and the Frankfurt School as part of a larger study, I argue against this that the theoretical yield from enabling constraints in application and from non-identical contrast in divergence are sufficient to merit a revisionist approach of this anti-theory stance.

Working within a methodology which reconciles the interdisciplinary poles of literary studies through a historicized philosophical reading, it became clear that abstract conceptions of Foucauldian power drawn from surface readings of the monographs are insufficient to probe literary interrelations. Instead, I trawled the subdermal archive of Dits et Écrits – closer, perhaps, to the laundry lists of Foucault studies – indexing on the terms “l’Aufklärung” and “lumière” for, as Pynchon puts it “we would expect to look among the Humility, among the gray and preterite souls, to look for him adrift in the hostile light of the sky, the darkness of the sea…”

Foucault’s thinking on Enlightenment begins, strangely enough, with curious affinity to that of Max Weber. A crude interpretation of Weber has often been seen as the Zodiacal sign under which modernity is born in Pynchon’s work; an excessive mathesis, derived from Condorcet, that eventually ensnares the subject in an iron cage of capitalism. There are, indeed, many such depictions of quantification as the predicate of instrumental reason in Gravity’s Rainbow. For instance, Phoebus, the light bulb manufacturer, surely the agent of Enlightenment, is precisely divided in ownership at “29% and 46% respectively” while Byron the Bulb recognizes his species as living and dying in a world of statistics – “a few bulbs, say a million, a mere 5% of our number” – the lifespan measured out to “600 hours”, with checks “every 50 hours hereafter”.

The second aspect of Weberian thought that Pynchon depicts, however, is a hugely problematic Calvinism. If Pynchon is seen, in Against the Day, as undertaking a dual critique of the duty-based ethical codes and paradigmatic constraints upon the subject that derive simultaneously from Calvinism and legal structures (in the form of the “Chums of Chance Upper Hierarchy”) – a condemnation of “unreflective participation” – then it is incredibly strange that the ironic inversion of Calvinist grace at the close of this novel deploys a form of epistemological post-determined certainty to achieve its metaphorical effect; we know the “grace” the Chums fly towards is World War II. As Foucault splinters from Weber in his assertion of a geographically and temporally phased Enlightenment, it is crucial to note that Pynchon’s relation to Weber is also fractured through this strange Calvinism; the dominant voice has been displaced to let its theoretical subaltern speak.

As Foucault’s thought moves towards a refusal to (negatively) judge Enlightenment, he states that “[a]s for the Enlightenment, I do not know anyone, among those undertaking historical analysis, who see it as the factor responsible for totalitarianism”. Most readings of Pynchon have gone against this grain seeing an abundance of antirational tropes as resistance to Nazism. I am inclined, having examined these stances, to agree. Pynchon’s historicity, outside of the California cycle, is formed on the basis of trans-temporal metaphor and relativising connection: the Herero with the Holocaust in V.; World War II with Vietnam and the Cold War threat of Mutually Assured Destruction in Gravity’s Rainbow; Enlightenment taxonomy and mathesis with contemporary hegemony towards unethical conduct in Mason & Dixon; the Anglo-Russian conflict over Central Asia with the Cold War via the translation of Bol’shaia Igra as “The Great [великий (vyeliki)] Game” in Against the Day, to name but a few examples. These metaphorical leaps across time and space would potentially exclude Pynchon from the group Foucault terms “ceux qui font des analyses historiques” because the inductive reasoning implicit in his novels, inferring universals from the specifics, negates the archaeological nominalist specificity of institutional practices upon which Foucauldian genealogy is predicated, despite the fact that Foucault’s own work is predominantly used in this exact relativising, trans-epochal fashion.

The final stage in this tripartite structure sees Foucault returning to the underlying tension with Kant that pervades his work. To only describe one such element here, Foucault raises the concept of revolution and resistance. For Foucault’s Kant, Enlightenment is not the event, the revolution which causes change; it is the spark kindled among the damp tinder of the populous with no more impact than a smouldering. It exists with only the forever-deferred future hope of fire. Is Pynchon, the Slow Burner perhaps, so very far away from such a stance? As Sam Thomas points out, it is foolhardy and impractical to read Pynchon as straightforwardly endorsing a revolutionary event; the boundaries between representation and reality forbid this. Yet, conversely, there is a degree of permeability between mimesis and its object that runs through all Pynchon’s novels in the form of hope, for consider von Göll’s “seeds of reality” in Gravity’s Rainbow, or the debate in Vineland’s 24fps: “’Film equals sacrifice,’ declared Ditzah Pisk. / ‘You don’t die for no motherfuckin’ shadows,’ Sledge replied”. For both Pynchon and Foucault, Enlightenment and revolution constitute at once event, permanent process and unrealistic hope; a regulative idea of Utopia.

While such readings are interesting, why should we care about philosophical readings of literature? When Kant wrote of empty concepts and blind intuitions, nothing could have been further from his mind than a metaphorical application to philosophy and literature, but the comparison is apt; literature can give philosophy content and philosophy can help literature see. Yet, the path taken must be carefully paced between “application” and “historicity”. Where philosophy and literature share thematics, this can be useful, but not as a supposition of a shared endpoint. Where the endpoints appear to coincide, this should not be used as inference of a common teleological arc or genesis. Philosophy and literature must touch at their intersections and diverge at their junctions. These meetings and departures must be thought of historically, but with recourse to neither speculative biographical contingency nor an entirely disconnected non-identity under the rubric of literary influence. Under such a schema, at the supposed extremes of Pynchon and Foucault, an interdisciplinary hospitality can, perhaps, begin to be extended.

About the Author:

Martin Paul Eve is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex. His work has been published in Textual Practice, Rupkatha and he has forthcoming pieces in Pynchon Notes and a book chapter from Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée.