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Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology
Cyrus R. K. Patell. Negative Liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. xxii + 218 pp.
The latest entry in Donald Pease's "New Americanists" series, Negative Liberties examines the ideology of individualism in the United States and its historical and philosophical influence on contemporary models of political and social theory. Beginning his study by discussing liberal political ideology and its development out of Emersonian individualism and American slavery, Patell distinguishes between two theories of communitarianism: "one coercive, majoritarian, and bad; the other voluntary, pluralist, and good." "Good" communitarianism is related to "situated" individualism, in which the individual recognizes the constitutive forces of social life on identity, while "bad" communitarianism is illustrated by Reagan's use of the myth of the "rugged individual." As Patell explains in his preface, Reagan's political strategy was to emphasize the "primacy" of the individual over the community. He did this by "[appropriating] communal symbols and [bending] them to serve individualist ends [. . .]," as in his 1977 speech to the United Nations wherein he appropriates John Winthrop's "city upon a hill"—a symbol at the time of a "Community as members of the same body"—into a symbol of a nation of self-reliant individuals whose identities are defined negatively by their oppression of other individuals or groups.
Morrison's and Pynchon's fictions "transform" the ideology of "bad" American individualism into "good" communitarianism capable of achieving "the ideals that the national narrative of individualism has always held [End Page 503] up but has yet to uphold." Complex socio-cultural problems cannot be solved by what Patell calls "methodological individualism," a "reliance on abstraction and idealization" that "shuts down the cosmopolitan opportunity and promotes instead a universalism" stressing sameness over difference. Novels such as Pynchon's Vineland (1984) and Morrison's Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998) offer complex examples of individual and communal identity that promote a "good" multiculturalism, one based on a "cosmopolitan pluralism," which "instills a respect for difference" and "the links that connect" people.
Patell's readings of Pynchon and Morrison are, at times, succinct and useful: his takes on Pynchon's Lot 49 and Morrison's Sula are often compelling; his use of Emerson as a critical base appropriate; and his raising of "the problem of liberal ideology" of paramount importance. Patell reads Pynchon's first three novels—V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity's Rainbow (1973)—as attempts to create "meaning out of indeterminacy" and restore "order to the process of signification." These novels succumb to a state of non-communication that is "harrowing" because of "its corrosive effect on individuality" as exemplified by Oedipa Maas's surrender to the "self-loss" of "paranoid narcissism." In Vineland, however, Pynchon resolves this problem by replacing Emersonian self-reliance with the plurality of individual difference conditioned by a non-authoritarian respect for communal bonds. The cosmopolitan pluralism of Vineland can emerge, Patell argues, because Pynchon abandons the Enlightenment principle of reason, as evinced by his "return to the miraculous." Morrison also employs "the miraculous" as a form of redemption: "Magical Realism functions at the end of Paradise [and Song of Solomon] as a deus ex machina that paves the way—uneasily—for redemption."
But this opposition between reason and "the miraculous" illustrates Patell's tendency to oversimplify philosophical and social problems. In fact, despite his desire to distinguish good communitarianism from Enlightenment philosophy, Patell's appeal to "the miraculous" as a form of redemption closely resembles Kant's theory of the sublime outlined in the Third Critique, which proposes a non-predicative model of political and ethical engagement. Kant's and Patell's ethics negate volitional consent by relying on a transcendent "intervention" to tell people what to do. Because Patell's argument foregrounds the "necessity" of [End Page 504] consent ("the necessity to conceiving the individual, communal and national components of identity in cosmopolitan terms"), such a...