“Spontaneous Form: Four Studies in Consciousness and Philosophical Fiction” rethinks modernist stream of consciousness narration and its precursors in light of a critical epistemology informed by David Hume, Immanuel Kant and William James. I trace an experimental literary counter-tradition from Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison that parodies philosophical empiricism by foregrounding what Kant called the “spontaneity” of the mind – that dimension by which we actively construct our knowledge. Drawing my notion of spontaneity not from Kantian aesthetics but rather from an anti-psychologistic reading of Kant’s First Critique, I propose that formal structures of the mind are embedded in literary form. Against current trends in cognitive science-inspired treatments of the literary that regard full knowledge of “other minds” as an intellectual achievement for which fiction is a laboratory, “Spontaneous Form” argues that verbal art articulates an alternative imperative: that the presumption of exhaustive knowledge is something to be unlearned. Rather than seeing literature as merely a vehicle for the circulation of independently specifiable philosophical themes, I explore ways in which new categories for the mind can be theorized on the basis of imaginative discourse. Beyond literature, I pursue the ramifications of Kantian spontaneity for critical approaches to jazz improvisation.
The dissertation is divided into two philosophical moments. The first half describes first-person narrative strategies by Hugo and Poe in light of Hume’s critique of personal identity. The second half transitions from a Humean framework to a Kantian one, while drawing on Woolf’s The Waves and Morrison’s Jazz to move beyond extant philosophical accounts of spontaneous synthesis in the mind.
In the Introduction, “William James, Sensation and the Precursors to the Stream of Thought,” I recover the philosophical debates that motivated James to theorize the “stream of consciousness” as an explanatory construct later to be adapted for use by literary studies. I draw parallels between the “sensation tale” as a literary genre and its corresponding conceit of mental record-keeping to argue that the technique of stream of consciousness evolved out of a parodic engagement with untenable empiricist premises. The experimental, transnational countertradition that I recover for stream of consciousness literature is politically as well as philosophically significant: it begins with Hugo’s anti-death penalty tract, which is simultaneously a radically experimental work of narrative form. I argue in Chapter 1, “The Parody of Introspection: Victor Hugo’s Le dernier jour d’un condamné” that the truth content of Hugo’s novella lies precisely in its ironic failure to meet the documentarian criteria that it parodically marshals for itself through the conceit of the condemned man’s recovered journal. While Hugo ironically models his narrative on an “intellectual autopsy” (autopsie intellectuelle) that cannot be completed, Edgar Allan Poe – in a transnational dialogue with Hugo for which I adduce new archival evidence – parodies philosophical discourse in a way that sheds light on reductive models of mind. I identify Henry Thomson’s “Le Revenant,” published in Blackwood’s Magazine, as the Anglophone source text for Hugo’s Condamné.
In Chapter 2, “Poe’s Minds and the Indispensability of Form,” I read Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the lesser-known “The Man That Was Used Up” as deadpan spoofs of empiricism, which very much like Hume, expose the impasses we arrive at by trying to dissect the mind into its component parts. Through extended readings of Hume on personal identity, I suggest that his mitigated skepticism is more difficult to grapple with, and potentially more devastating for Western Reason, than the associationist paradigms that have more comfortably entered the English canon. Tracing this tradition into twentieth-century modernism, I argue in Chapter 3, “Woolf’s Bundles: Hume and Literary Impressionism” that Virginia Woolf exposes in Humean fashion the gaps that the atomistic picture of the mind is dotted with. Her fiction problematizes both the mind’s descriptive continuity (the sequential course of thought) and its reflexive unity (the cohesion of the self at any given moment). Through readings of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own, I show that Woolf’s texts disclose productive gaps in experience which are filled in by subjectivity in ways that Hume had not envisioned. In fact, I suggest that Woolf’s literary intervention into the philosophical problem of consciousness and its coherences produces something quite antithetical to the Humean notion of “fiction.”
In Chapter 4, “The Shapes My Brain Holds”: Kantian Spontaneity and Woolf’s The Waves, I propose that Woolf’s ambivalence about the sensory “atom” as a unit of mind makes her a constructivist impressionist, which is why this moment in modernism actually clarifies, in practice, some of the crucial questions at issue in the transition from Hume to Kant. But it is her later, most formally experimental work, The Waves, where she moves beyond what I call the “empiricist conceit” of naturalistic narration; and it is here that I take Woolf’s work to be most Kantian (or at least working in the impasse between Hume and Kant). This chapter offers an extended stylistic analysis of The Waves, but also proposes a method for reading literature and philosophy together, through a Kantian notion of spontaneous cognitive form that is at once flexible and linked with the underpinnings of objective knowledge.
The Interlude: “Jazz, Kant and the ‘Spontaneous Compositions’ of the Mind” uses notions of spontaneity elaborated by James Baldwin, Gary Bartz, and others to propose provisional intersections of critical theory, analytic Kantianism and jazz studies. In Chapter 5, Spontaneous Form: Toni Morrison’s Jazz as a Theory of Knowledge I position Morrison’s novel Jazz as a rejoinder to critical quandaries about spontaneity through an examination of spontaneity’s cognate term, improvisation. For Morrison in Jazz, drumming serves as the paradigm case for a cognitive act of synthesis that is gestured toward but never fully realized. Drumming in Morrison’s novel – associated with the spontaneous action of a protest march – leads to new theorizations where rhythm figures neither as intellectualized activity nor as something unthinking or unthought. Her novel’s “spontaneous compositions” upend clichéd, often racist reductions of spontaneity in popular culture, showing how jazz music undoes the binary opposition between having structure and being in the moment. Morrison’s novel therefore can be positioned as a key intervention both in the afterlife of Kantian spontaneity and in the problematic field of jazz criticism.
The Epilogue is a series of three short codas which take up the meta-theoretical implications of thinking philosophy, music and literature together, through readings of Horkheimer and Adorno, James Baldwin and René Wellek. Rather than conclusions, these are intended as indices for future research.