Ineluctable Modality of the Other: The Ethical Excess in the Selected Works of William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace

William Tucker

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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In his seminal study of postmodern literature, Brian McHale contends that the primary concerns of postmodern fiction tend to be ontologically, rather than epistemologically, dominant. This thesis will challenge McHale’s claim by analyzing how three American post-war novelists self-reflexively adopt and subvert various epistemological approaches to understanding the world in order to reveal the pitfalls associated with the reductive impulse to categorize disparate data and make it present-at-hand within epistemic frameworks. The ultimate aim of these efforts is to highlight an ineffable alterity—the ethical excess of the Other—that eludes codification. In doing so these authors indicate how ontological questions and their implications are predicated on the question of the Other, which is not primarily an ontological query but equally—or even more so—an epistemological one.

The first chapter will explore how William Gaddis was one of the earliest post-war American authors to negotiate epistemic closure in favor of an alterity that cannot be totalized within his proto-postmodern novel, The Recognitions (1955). Through his aesthetic vision espousing a return to the primordial first idea as well as an ethics of indeterminacy in order to foster an agape with the unthematizable Other, Gaddis promotes the ethical imperative of the “self-who-can-do-more” who consequently attempts to “make negative things do the work of positive ones” by maintaining a responsibility to the ineffable Other in a modern world devoid of absolutes.

Gaddis’s quixotic attempt to redeem a culturally-vacuous post-war society that is ultimately more ignorant than malicious will then transition to the second chapter exploring Thomas Pynchon’s more cynical view in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) of a world dominated by malicious epistemic systems of control where active resistance against these systems can become totalizing acts themselves. Pynchon therefore attempts to combat determinate modes of thought through his notion of “illogical negativism” designed to maintain a non-committal, liminal position in order to remain truly open to an “Other Order of Being” by avoiding rationalizing the problem of alterity altogether.

The final chapter will analyze how David Foster Wallace’s exploration of a “cohesion-renewing Other” in Infinite Jest (1996) attempts to renew cohesion between the different positions previously adopted by Gaddis and Pynchon. Conscious of both the need to adopt an ethical imperative for the Other while also being mindful of the necessity of having to engage with totalizing epistemic frameworks at the expense of alterity in order to convey meaning, Wallace adopts a neopragmatic approach that maintains a faith in language but nevertheless repudiates epistemic foundationalism and acknowledges the radical contingency of language and selfhood as communal constructs dependent on the Other.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Fordham, Finn, Supervisor
  • Eaglestone, Robert, Advisor
Award date1 Aug 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - 2017

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