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Family Incorporated: William Gaddis’s J R and the Embodiment of Capitalism

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 102-122 | 10.1353/sdn.2013.0010

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Family Incorporated:
William Gaddis’s J R and the Embodiment of Capitalism

The chaotic and discordant world portrayed in William Gaddis’s J R is one against which not even the family can offer comfort or safe haven. In a novel composed mainly of fragmented speech, where people break promises, ethical codes, and hearts, it is hardly surprising to discover the various families in J R frequently broken or breaking-up as well. Indeed, family structure in J R appears to be fractured beyond repair, making Dan diCepahlis’s crumbling house an apt metaphor for all the “houses” or families in the novel. Their construction is tenuous, and they are all either falling apart or are in danger of doing so.

The only family that truly thrives in the novel, regardless of its ultimate disassembly, is eleven-year-old J R Vansant’s—not, of course, J R’s actual family but the “Family of Companies” that flourishes after he starts a corporation from a phone booth at his elementary school. Because Gaddis closely ties the fortunes of families to family “fortunes,” however, a curious relationship develops between the growth of J R’s Family of Companies and the dissolution of the “traditional” nuclear family in the novel. By adopting the discourse of the family and family relations, J R’s business model effectively conflates the “public” world of business with the “private” world of the family. This intertwining of business and family is hardly new to capitalism—it is vital to it—yet young J R’s crossing of the discourses between these two usually separate spheres indicates something remarkably novel in capitalism’s ongoing expansion at the dawn of the neoliberal age. For through the discourse of the family, capitalism is given a metaphorical body in the figure of the multinational corporation, granted all legal rights pertaining to it, and subsequently adopted [End Page 102] into a newly imagined global family. What begins, then, as a diversification or decentering of capital itself, a telling instance of its flux and tendency to destabilize various institutions, is later recaptured by the comforting image and discourse of the family, which recasts such potentially troubling revelations under the signs of stability (the family structure) and autonomy (individual family members).

The invention of J R’s Family of Companies, then, is one of J R’s most innovative capitalist strategies because it radically “capitalizes” on the structural changes occurring in the American economy during the 1970s, which demanded a more dynamic and fluid mode of production than earlier economic and business models allowed for. In response to the stagnation of a Keynesian model of capitalism, which had been in place since the New Deal and demanded strict monetary policy, careful regulation of business and financial markets, and active government spending, proponents of a new mode of capitalist production, neoliberalism, would argue for, and eventually win, the liberalization of capital through massive deregulations in industries and financial markets, and a weakening of government in its ability to spend and to oversee business as usual. J R resurrects an older corporate image-construction (the family) at this key transitional moment in capitalism and revitalizes it. Just as an increasingly unfettered capitalism continues to give rise to greater social instability, J R seizes on an image, perhaps the image, of “traditional values” that promises to stabilize and counteract this crisis.

J R ultimately suggests that the use of this family discourse by corporations is a way in which capitalism incorporates or embodies itself, and that this incorporation comes at the expense of not only nations, but individuals and individual social relations as well. At the same time that capitalism is embodied in and imagined as a transnational corporate family, individuals themselves are disembodied, and social institutions, such as marriage and the family, find their bodies or structures transfigured and transformed, and not so much consumed, but increasingly produced by the irrepressible flow of capital.

(Dys)Functional Families

In its absorbing family drama, J R can be placed firmly in the tradition of novels centered on troubled families, in which the family often holds a metonymic relationship to the larger nation and world it inhabits...