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Shifting Epistemologies in the American Novel: Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, and Toni Morrison

  • Author(s): Jackson, Trevor Zane
  • Advisor(s): Camfield, Gregg
  • Hatton, Nigel
  • et al.
Abstract

This project describes strategies presented in the fiction of three American novelists which alter our relationship to the epistemological codes of modernity, standards in which we are implicated by a vast network of cultural assumptions and institutional apparatuses. Such confinement within an ethical hegemony—a system permitting only a limited range of acceptable conduct, contemplation, and resistance in both public and private spheres—restricts the bounds not only of what can be practiced but also of what can be safely thought. This system I identify as the epistemology of modernity and, ushered in by the advent of modernization, capitalist relations, and the contemporary continuation of enlightenment reason against which any form of expression must situate itself either in opposition or corroboration. Because divergence is permitted to a certain degree, the possibility of epistemological shifting cannot be achieved by outward participation in such a system and thus must be perceptual: achieved through mentality and self-awareness. The strategies involve a shift in epistemological and thus ethical relations to modernity. Briefly, for Nabokov, it is the ridding of focus on the self; for Pynchon, comprehending the influences of totality; and for Morrison, the depiction of the always-othered non-self rather than one reduced to normative social assumptions and interpretive practices.

More specifically, each author offers a particular set of insights on which to build. The project at which most of Nabokov’s (1899-1977) written work is aimed involves the generation, almost separate from the fabric of reality, of a purely aesthetic world. While much of his project is (at worst) doomed to fail or (at best) susceptible to the inevitably invasive material of the real, it remains useful in seeing what potential arises when an imaginative mind consciously attempts to work outside of and resist established systems. Pynchon (b. 1937), on the other hand, is far more rooted in the project of describing the systemic effects of a totalizing modernity. His daunting narratives (often labeled encyclopedic) depict the overwhelming saturation of apparatuses under which individuals find themselves situated and interpolated. What Pynchon’s work portrays is the oppressive and interconnected systems conducting the flow of control in modern life and, most important for this project, the realization of this as a social technology along with the means by which, once understood as such, to subversively navigate it. Finally, Morrison (b. 1931) represents the most directly and aggressively destabilizing personality of this trio. Her novels adopt as a constituted whole an aesthetic form that seeks to confront and expose the hegemonic systems responsible for the perpetuation of ideologies that come to seem natural but which need not be. Rather than constructing an alternative world or showing the means by which one can navigate the current one, Morrison assails and deconstructions the assumptions that constitute modern reality. Together, these three novelists offer distinct possibilities for epistemological change that can be wrought, and my future work—proceeding this dissertation project—will turn to transforming the literary strategies uncovered here into an actionable praxis that reaches beyond the readership of the novel.

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