The Primacy of the Object


The Simpsons, Fox Broadcasting Company

by Julius Greve

Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno,
by Martin Paul Eve,
Palgrave Macmillan, 229 pp.

How to relate philosophical thought to literary practice? And, conversely, how to illuminate issues presented in narrative literature by having recourse to systems of philosophy? These are the two preeminent questions that Martin Paul Eve asks himself and answers impressively in his recent study Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno (2014). They are questions that have been posed often in American Studies and in Pynchon scholarship particularly, due to the notoriously difficult and multifaceted nature of Pynchon’s fiction. In a sense, the trajectory of Pynchon’s career as a novelist goes hand in hand, historically speaking, with the increasing frequency of those questions regarding the precise relationship between philosophy and literature, or theory and practice, being asked within literary studies as a whole and, above all, within the American context. Starting with highly complex and – at times – transnationally set novels like V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966 ), or Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Pynchon’s first major steps as a fiction writer fall into the period where the long reign of New Criticism within literary analysis faded and made room for French theory’s shaking, breaking, and re-assembling the foundations of what it was to read a text. Undoubtedly, this historical coincidence and Pynchon’s magisterially multiplicitous – if infamous and, at times, impenetrable – style of prose is one of the major reasons why his novels are often regarded as the blueprint of what is routinely termed American postmodern fiction.

Yet, it is precisely because Pynchon is so immersed, from the beginning of his career all the way to the most recent novel, Bleeding Edge (2013), in the philosophical discourses, scientific theories (above all the second law of thermodynamics, as evident in the eponymous short story, “Entropy” (1960)), and cultural-political contexts of his time and the many centuries that preceded it, that there is a certain resistance within his novels towards literary criticism’s establishment of the respective correlations or resonances with these contexts and discourses. This verdict holds especially in the case of literary theory and philosophical thought, since “[h]is works […] present an outright aggression towards philosophical theorisation” (1), as Eve notes on the first page. The parallel development of what issued forth in the academic circles of the 1960s and ’70s in the humanities and what eventually was termed “theory,” on the one hand, and, on the other, the onset of Pynchon’s trajectory as a novelist evidences, in Eve’s view, that “any hostility to theory within Pynchon’s novels must be recognized to some degree as an inherent part of the reflexivity exhibited by his works” (2). The task, then, is not to determine how, for instance, Pynchon’s early writings correspond to the emphasis put on the self-referentiality of language by deconstructionists and those who emulated this mode of analysis within the literary and cultural theory departments of the ’80s and onwards. Rather, “[i]t is the nature of this resistance to philosophical readings, in light of Pynchon’s ethical project, that this book addresses” (3); a project that, according to Eve, harbors an “essentialist stance towards human nature” (173).

Indeed, Eve promises “an ethical, politicised reading of Pynchon alongside a demonstration of a nuanced comparative methodology for philosophico-literary intersections” (5), and a fine-grained and careful analysis it is, often in conflict with many presumptions and prejudices concerning Pynchon that have manifested themselves within literary studies. Indeed, this critical stance of Eve’s book towards the main tenets of criticism on Pynchon is a freshly polemic element that should be applauded in the context of philosophically inclined readings of literary fiction in general. However, before we trace the workings of Eve’s “systematic, tripartite analysis of the interactions between the fiction and essays of Thomas Pynchon and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault and Theodor W. Adorno” (5), there should be a caveat as concerns the only ostensibly outmoded character of the three philosophers under consideration here. In other words, Eve’s usage of the three thinkers should not only be evaluated immanently, in terms of its effectivity as a theoretical framework to re-read Pynchon’s prose, but it should also be considered historically. That is to say, Eve’s “tripartite analysis” should be viewed against the backdrop of the contemporary emergence or partial resurgence of philosophical realism and materialism in contemporary humanities, the so-called “post-postmodernist” mood or condition that has shaped both literary theory and critical practice for almost a decade now. This caveat seems necessary in order to better situate and evaluate a book whose outspokenly philosophical consideration of one of the most complicated authors in American literary history in many ways contributes to those ongoing discussions about said condition, if only implicitly.

As philosopher Crispin Sartwell has recently stated in The New York Times, “a backlash seems to be in progress” after the long period of philosophical anti-realism, and of linguistic, social and cultural constructivism, so that “many [scholars] are now turning to the external features of the world that constitute the content of our experiences and the context of our social practice. Let’s call this phase after postmodernism post-postmodernism […]” (Sartwell). In Do You Feel it Too? The Post-Postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium, her 2010 study of the American writers Mark Z. Danielewski, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace, literary critic Nicoline Timmer promoted the idea of a literary post-postmodernism, which, in her reading, resonated very well with the theories of cognitive narratology and psychology, in sync with what is today often labelled “cognitive poetics.”

The engagement with basic, often arch-philosophical questions such as what it means to be human, or what any human being’s self-esteem actually is compared to the biological, social, or historical processes that surround it, increasingly evokes materialist answers, if the latter is conceived in a broad sense. This means – in very straightforward terms and at the risk of oversimplification – that while there is a renewed interest in objects and material processes, instead of cultural constructions and significations, what comes with that interest is exactly what Eve tries to get at, namely Pynchon’s narrative depiction of all that “ring[s] true to human existence or the existence that humans should, or could, have” (Eve 158). Put differently, and in the words of the author who wrote the equally encyclopedic fiction Infinite Jest (1996): if contemporary “[f]iction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being” (McCaffery and Wallace), the urge in early twenty-first century critical theory is to examine not exclusively human culture and its meaning-making, but rather all that is external to it, or, better still, all that gives rise to it. This external or constitutive realm includes, for instance, the neurochemistry taking place in the human brain that eventually makes for what the narratologist Monika Fludernik (1996) has termed “experientiality”; or today’s financial markets within the world system and their non-human processes of automation that have most recently spawned “high-frequency trading (HFT)” (465), whose consequences for human society have been analyzed by vanguard theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their article “On Cunning Automata: Financial Acceleration at the Limits of the Dromological” (2014). All of this, then, represents the largely unmentioned and therefore only implicit backdrop to Eve’s study and this historical framework, especially with such (quasi-) movements like speculative realism or new materialism, needs to be considered. This is because questions concerning the relationship between philosophy and literature (and art in general), the link between philosophy and science, and that between mythology and enlightenment are playing a role both in Eve and in the works of the major figures of these new developments within today’s theoretical landscape: Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Extinction and Enlightenment (2007), or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), to name but a few of the most prominent examples.

After this brief excursus on the historical background of Eve’s assessment of Pynchon and, to a lesser extent, of Pynchon’s work itself at the beginning of the new century, which already includes the three novels – Against the Day(2006), Inherent Vice (2009), and Bleeding Edge (2013) – we can now turn back to his monograph proper, starting with how he treats the issues raised at the beginning of this review regarding the relationship between philosophy, or theory in general, and the literary text. As he makes clear early on, what needs to be avoided is a straightforward “application” of the theoretical apparatus to the literary artifact , on the one hand, and, on the other, a naïve historicism that would in the worst of cases find (read: imagine) connections that are not really there to be found. Instead, he chooses to take on a critical perspective that consists of the co-implication of both approaches. Eve “suggest[s] the path to be taken must tread the space between these chasms of ‘application’ and ‘historicity’ ” (6). Or, in more detail: “The relationship under discussion here can best be thought of as a cross-cultural pollination wherein historicism, direct reference and shared thematic precepts are allowed to co-exist as equally valid, as long as no single one of these aspects dominates” (6). And this is, in fact, what the book essentially is: a “cross-cultural pollination” between thematically engaged theory brought to bear on the literature that is to be scrutinized, and an erudite and historically informed analysis of those themes delineated in both the specific philosophies of Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Adorno, and Pynchon’s fiction.

What seems crucial here, as Eve mentions time and again, is the plural form of philosophies that should be used as a framework for any given reading of Pynchon; the fact that “no single philosophical standpoint has yet to resonate completely with even one of his novels” (5). In this way, Eve’s “tripartite analysis” takes its cue from Hanjo Berressem’s important book Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text (1993) – surely the most detailed and in-depth consideration of the “ ‘poststructuralist Pynchon’ ” (Berressem 1) via Lacanian, Derridian, and Baudrillardian expositions of subjectivity and textuality. But, whereas Eve dismisses the philosophical alignment of Wittgenstein and Pynchon, he does not particularly focus on Foucault either (who, of Eve’s choice of philosophers, would be the only theorist consonant with Berressem’s trio of thinkers in Pynchon’s Poetics). In fact, it is the Adornian theoretical apparatus that is the dominant one in the book and thus Eve mentions his indebtedness not only to Berressem but also to Samuel Thomas’ 2007 study Pynchon and the Political, “the only piece of sustained Pynchon criticism to engage substantially with the thinkers of the Frankfurt school” (7). Lastly, the notion of an ethico-political Pynchon whose writings can be viewed as critical engagements with right-leaning tendencies (not only) in American society is what Eve adopts from literary critic Jeff Baker in order to proclaim not only a sincere or humanist Pynchon, but also a “critical” one (7).

Pynchon and Philosophy is structured into three parts, aside from the to-the-point conclusion and the introductory chapter on methodology used in the treatment of the subject matter, whose main elements have just been summarized. The three main parts are simply called “On Ludwig Wittgenstein,” “On Michel Foucault,” and “On Theodor W. Adorno,” respectively, and they contain meticulous analyses of Pynchon’s entire novelistic work, as well as discussions of Pynchon’s two essays “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” (1984) and “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee” (1993).

The first part deals with the allusions to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) in Pynchon’s debut novel V. It includes commentary on the syntactic intricacies of The Crying of Lot 49 and the supposedly ethical kernel of Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland (1990) and Inherent Vice; “ethical” understood not in the sense that Pynchon’s characters – rightly termed “functional puppets” (28) or “linguistic formations” (63) – in these and other novels, are designated as clichéd examples of a postmodern, unfixed subjectivity under late capitalism, but in the sense that the logical-positivist reasoning of “puppets” such as Weissmann (V.)/Blicero (Gravity’s Rainbow) implies a critical stance in Pynchon that, for Eve, recalls Adorno’s famous quip about the barbarism of writing poetry after the Holocaust: “The foremost consideration of Tractarian logic as a precursor to genocidal regimes is to be found in Theodor W. Adorno’s critique of enlightenment: the path from rationality to industrialized killing,” as Eve explains (32). Moreover, in reading Pynchon alongside Wittgenstein’s posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, the primacy of uncertainty and decentralization becomes an ethical rather than a nihilistic proposition. In other words, Eve takes Wittgenstein’s later “relativism” to be structurally akin to Pynchon’s prose in Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland and thus more helpful as a theoretical set-up to get at the ethical dimension in the fiction writer, instead of opting for a dismissal of sincerity in yet another identification of Pynchon as a postmodern relativist à la Derrida or in terms of the Foucault who spoke of the all-encompassing discursive processes and relentless power structures in the social.

Generally, it must be said, however, that the alignment of Wittgenstein with Pynchon mainly presents itself as a negative one in order to better work towards an Adornian stance in Pynchon, via Foucault’s work on enlightenment and the “care of the self,” deployed as an argumentative bridge. As already mentioned, and although Eve carefully argues for the similarity between the logical rhetorics as a stylistic element in Pynchon and the New Wittgensteinianism of the ’80s that he, following Katalin Orbán, calls “over-writing” (47), and what Berressem has called “auto-destruction” (Berressem 244), Wittgenstein is dropped eventually to make room for a fully Adornian Pynchon; and this in spite of the original premise that there cannot possibly be a dominant philosophy that is fully in consonance with Pynchon’s polyvocal lexico-syntactic gymnastics, but only philosophies.

As with the large section on Wittgenstein, Part 2 is concerned both with the early and late Foucault and how the latter’s view towards ethical issues, enlightenment, and agency bear upon “an openness to critical alterity – a very Pynchonian ethic […]” (Eve 123), as represented in the novels. The chief purpose here, apart from leading the argument of the book from a dismissal of Wittgenstein to an affirmation of Adorno as a main philosophical ally, is “to unseat [Max] Weber as the de facto framework for Pynchon’s anti-rationalist critique of modernity and thereby open a space in which Foucault can emerge” (84). Together with other commonly cited progenitors of literary postmodernism, Pynchon has been regarded as a fiction writer who equates all things rationalist and logico-positivist as instrumental in the name of (concepts such as) the state, the nation, linear time and progress. Any logic of rationalization leads to productivity and therefore to progress in the name of something higher than individual human life, in the same way that Protestantism in America feeds into a work ethic suitable for maximally effective capitalism, to use a Weberian phrasing. The Foucault part in Eve’s book, then, is a two-fold heretical move in its substitution of Foucault for Weber and in its partial reformulation of Foucauldian literary analysis itself. It is not a usual reading of Pynchon’s novels – in this case, above all, Mason & Dixon (1994) and, again, Gravity’s Rainbow – and Eve concedes as much when he writes: “ceci n’est pas Foucauldian, or at least, not entirely” (80). It is not a discernment of the discursive and non-discursive fields that get thematized narratively in Pynchon’s texts, but rather a juxtaposition of philosopher/historian and novelist on the issue of what it means to be human. Indeed, what could be said about the entirety of the book, the strength of argument is not merely internal to literary criticism or Pynchon scholarship; Eve’s analyses are also important for reasons of philosophical contextualization, especially in the case of Foucault. For instance, Eve reasons that considering a direct stand-off between Mason & Dixon and Foucault’s early essays on the question “What is Enlightenment?,” “Pynchon outdoes Foucault as the master of anti-teleologies” (100).

Further, Eve relativizes Foucault’s image within critical theory and literary studies as being one of the anti-rationalist thinkers when he mentions “Foucault’s […] prominent assertion that reason cannot be put on trial. As shall be seen, much of the logic supporting this proposition is centered around its implied negation; what would be the virtue of an unreason unchecked?” (101). Although Eve does not mention it, a version of this line of reasoning, which sees a contradictory character in the off-hand rejection of the rational by making use of reasonable arguments when doing so, has recently been repeated in favor of the rationalist tradition in Brassier’s piece “Prometheanism and Its Critics” (2014), where he defines “rationality [as] simply the faculty of generating and being bound by rules” (485). From Brassier’s point of view, this rule-governed process can be described and defended irrespective of its instrumentalization by social and institutional forms of conduct and their organs, such as, for instance, big companies like IG Farben in Gravity’s Rainbow. In Foucault and Pynchon, this is not the case at all. Both affirm that rationality is not just “historically mutable” (486) but that it is deeply ingrained into a culturally and historically specific matrix, from which it is generated in the first place. For Eve, “[i]t is right, therefore, to ask: what is Gravity’s Rainbow if not, to an extent, an exploration of these institutional practices, a re-casting of the familiar narrative of the Second World War’s political aggression and genocide in the shady realm of corporate cartels and fiscalized power-relations?” (103).

Finally, part 3 examines the ethico-political convergence between Pynchon’s middle and late period, and Adorno’s philosophy, as it is expounded in the seminal works Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Negative Dialectics (1966), and Aesthetic Theory (1970). What becomes clear early on in this section, and what has already been suggested in the two preceding parts of the book, is the way in which Eve’s reading of Pynchon points towards the near congruence of Pynchon’s narrative treatment of ethical, political, cultural, and historical questions with the stance of the famous Frankfurt School philosopher in the works just mentioned. The claim is that “Pynchon’s works project a world-view sympathetic to aspects of Adorno’s thought” (129), and it is the purpose of this third part of Eve’s study to examine in what sense this projection unfolds in the novels. It is worth noting that this examination in particular is a very technical portion of the book, theory-laden as it is with the Adornian thicket consisting of difficult philosophemes. Yet, this mention of a strong emphasis on philosophy is not meant critically at all and Eve confronts beforehand and in a competent manner the possible charge that he would dominate the novels’ uniqueness by blurring their specific contours with the screen that is critical theory (129). In his defense, he is certainly right that, like all major fiction within and without America, “[Pynchon’s] texts are more than capable of fighting back” (130).

One of the chief virtues of Eve’s exposition of his argument vis-à-vis the Adorno-Pynchon couple is the concision with which the concepts are explained, compared, and contrasted with the fictional universe in the novels, and particularly in Against the Day, Mason & Dixon, and Inherent Vice. Negative dialects, for example, which is indeed one of the most notoriously nerve-wrecking notions of Adorno’s, is surmised in one single, but impressive sentence: “negative dialectics is the primacy of the object” (131). The thinking subject, the story-telling narrator, or, for that matter, the literary critic, is always confronted with the situation of giving an account of that which is perceived by him or her: the object. It is the contention of Adorno, from Eve’s point of view, that there is always an excess of this object with respect to the perceiving subject, due to the “imperfection of the concept” (131), its inability to hold all that the object is. In other words, the subject’s conceptual powers are inadequate to the object’s totality.

With this definition of negative dialectics and the entailed presumption that this attitude is assumed by the narrator in Pynchon’s narratives – an attitude that promises and demands “to respect the unique, rather than to dominate through identity thinking or exclude through contradiction” (132) – Eve enters the aforementioned debate on realism and new materialism without saying so. This is because the idea of an mentally ungraspable object that disables dialectical unity and conceptual synthesis can be reformulated by using the terminology of Adorno’s arch-enemy – Martin Heidegger – and thus by stating that the object cannot be adequately captured by the concept because the former withdraws from the latter and consequently shows itself only in part. This thesis is precisely what some proponents of speculative realism have proclaimed, chief among them Harman and his enjoining into the post-postmodernist chorus of a “new sincerity”; even though his plea is not for an engagement with the question “what it means to be a fucking human being” (Wallace) but with what it means to be an object in the world.

Perhaps inadvertently, another parallel to Harman’s work is established when in Eve’s discussion of Pynchon scholarship on the author’s ecocritical dimension we read: “could it be that nature is not natural?” (148). In the concluding pages of Guerilla Metaphysics, this question is thus affirmed: “[n]ature is not natural and can never be naturalized, even when human beings are far from the scene” (251). The rift between nature and artifice is an invalid dualism, as thinkers like Bruno Latour and others have realized decades ago, and Eve notes as much (148-9). What is intriguing here is how this argument plays itself out in regard to the question of the enlightenment discussed earlier and the related theme of the Golem made out of clay inMason & Dixon. For Eve, this theme makes for “a critique of the spheres of nature and the human as purified and discrete” along the lines of Adorno’s rejection of precisely that distinction as a self-destructive act from a human perspective (150). Moreover, the problematization of the enlightenment notion of the world’s “dis-enchantment” – coincidentally the main topic of Brassier’s Nihil Unbound – is found in Adorno (and Horkheimer) in terms of Greek mythology and in Pynchon on occasion of the surfer, doper, and hippie counter-culture in Inherent Vice. Eve achieves this problematization by means of a truly ingenious reformulation of Adorno’s quip that “’[m]yth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology’ ” (146), when he writes that “[h]ippiedom is already repression and repression reverts to hippiedom” (154); an argument that is related to similar issues in the history and theory of subculture, as noted by Eve later in the book.

However thought-provoking the link between the dialectic of dis- and re-enchantment in Adorno’s critique of modern life and that of Pynchon’s diagnosis of cultural resistance, it is precisely this topic of the reification and intra-repressive tendencies within a subculture such as jazz in the first half of the twentieth century that the consonance between Adornian philosophy and Pynchon’s fictions partially falters and tends towards its opposite, that is, dissonance. Despite the overall convincing threefold structure of Eve’s study of Pynchon from the first acknowledgement and later dismissal of Wittgenstein; to the dethroning of Weber as the prime theorist to dissect the theme of rationalization in the novels and his replacement with a Foucauldian theoretical apparatus; all the way to Adorno as the actual spine of the argument, the anchoring point of an eminently philosophical reading of Pynchon that focuses on the critical, ethical, and political aspects of his novelistic work; it is somewhat puzzling that Adorno’s conservatism in matters of jazz music and his style of writing in particular should be less of an obstacle for Eve’s diagnosis that proclaims a “deep-rooted affinity” (173) between the Frankfurt school thinker and the American writer of many encyclopedic fictions. While he is aware that there are indeed divergences between Pynchon and Adorno, formulations such as the following betray the implicit wish that it should be otherwise: “In terms of jazz critique, Adorno may be wide of the mark. Yet Pynchon retains some of that critique, demonstrating its pre-emptive infection by the wider culture” (168). Conversely, while Pynchon notes the commodification of any form of culture, including jazz, by means of “that special Death the West had invented” (Pynchon 857) – capitalism – it is debatable whether “Pynchon retains some of [Adorno’s] critique” in regard to jazz, or whether he hails jazz for its own critique of that solemn and particularly European culture of which Adorno was himself a part.

Thus, while Eve’s thorough and subtle readings and analyses of Pynchon via Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Adorno make for a highly sophisticated argument for an ethico-politically engaged Pynchon, there are two main drawbacks that need to be mentioned in summary of the present review. First, as the study engages three philosophers vis-à-vis the oeuvre of a contemporary fiction writer whose point of view is characterized from the start as “quasi-materialist” (5), it is regrettable that Eve does not mention earlier important readings of Pynchon with a materialist bent, such as Friedrich Kittler’s essays on V., Gravity’s Rainbow, or Against the Day. Nor does he sufficiently contextualize his own account within the current debate on realism, materialism, and ethics in fiction and philosophy. Second, it seems that the laudably critical distance deployed in the first two parts of his monograph is slackened a bit in the Adorno section, doubtless because “it is upon the work of Adorno that this entire study has, in one way or another, rested,” as Eve readily admits (128). However, if, rather than the respective novels being in need of a single philosophical framework, “it is more accurate to say that the truth content of Pynchon’s artworks requires philosophies” (174), as he paraphrases Adorno in the admirable closing sentence of his monograph, it would have been commendable to keep the same methodologically fruitful distance to the Adornian framework that made for the critical fervor of the rest of the book. Eve’s argument for the “primacy of the object” in Pynchon becomes synonymous with an ethics of “the unique,” and eventually of human essence. Apart from being a new and incisive intervention in the scholarship, Pynchon and Philosophy therefore offers a compelling, if tacit, contribution to current debates in fiction and philosophy from a largely Adornian perspective. What remains to be said is how this perspective would look like if fully explicated with regard to those debates’ subject matter, namely, objects and material processes.

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Works Cited:

Berressem, Hanjo. Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Print.

Brassier, Ray. “Prometheanism and Its Critics.” #Accelerate. The Accelerationist Reader. Eds. Mackay, Robin and Armen Avanessian. Falmouth/Berlin: Urbanomic/Merve, 2014. 467-487. Print.

Eve, Martin Paul. Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. Print.

Fludernik, Monika. Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

McCaffery, Larry, and David Foster Wallace. “A Conversation with David Foster Wallace By Larry McCaffery.” Dalkey Archive Press 1993. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. 1973. London: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.

Sartwell, Crispin. “Philosophy Returns to the Real World.” The New York Times. April 13, 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. “On Cunning Automata: Financial Acceleration at the Limits of the Dromological.” Collapse VIII (2014): 463-506. Print.