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  • Rethinking Postmodern Liminality: Marginocentric Characters and Projects in Thomas Pynchon’s Polysystemic Fiction
  • Marcel Cornis-Pope (bio)

As with a natural system, which needs . . . heat regulation, cultural systems also need a regulating balance in order not to collapse or disappear. This regulating balance is manifested in the stratificational oppositions. The canonized repertoires of any system would very likely stagnate after a certain time if not for competition from non-canonized challengers, which often threaten to replace them. . . . [W]hen no pressures are allowed release, we often witness either a gradual abandonment of a system and movement to another . . . or its total collapse by means of a revolution.

—Itamar Even-Zohar (1990b, 16)

For it is by living on the borderline of history and language, on the limits of race and gender, that we are in a position to translate the difference between them into a kind of solidarity.

-Homi Bhabha (170)

It is an established principle of polysystem theory as developed by Itamar Even-Zohar and other members of the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics (Tel Aviv), 1 that the boundaries and prescriptions of a cultural system become visible when one looks at the larger processes of production which include, in addition to “standard” works, peripheral phenomena such as “misreadings,” “imitations,” non-canonized works, parodies that pose a challenge to the assumed center. In traditional uni-system theories peripheries were often excluded as extra-systemic; by contrast, polysystem theory refocuses attention on peripheries, allowing them to create tension [End Page 27] within one system and become centers of other adjacent systems. We are urged to think of polysystems not “in terms of one center and one periphery, since several such positions are hypothesized,” 2 but as dynamic stratifications which continually redefine center and periphery.

Itamar Even-Zohar’s basic assumption is that systematicity does not preclude multiplicity or heterogeneity. Nor does it exclude conflict and mutual readjustment, as Jurij M. Lotman’s cultural semiotics makes abundantly clear. The cultural framework within which texts are being continuously (re)written is pictured by the Tartu scholar as an intercrossing of variously positioned discursive universes rather than as a stable, hierarchical order of thought systems. Divisions can emerge between the different sets of codes that a text carries, or between these and the repertoire of cultural and literary associations embedded in the “language of the reader.” 3 Likewise, in Even-Zohar’s concept of “stratified heterogeneity” tensions intervene at all levels: between coexisting functions and subsystems, canonized and peripheral positions, as well as between potential options or models of production. A polysystem, then, is “a multiply stratified whole where the relations between center and periphery are a series of oppositions” (1990a, 86–87). A polysystem maintains itself “not by staying untouched,” but through intersystemic struggle and change. Heterogeneity is a condition for its preservation: the “insufficiency” felt within one system encourages “interference” with other systems, which results in “innovative transfers” of items, features and functions. 4

This theoretical perspective is quite useful for a discussion of postmodern narrative practices such as those of Thomas Pynchon, which reconsider the rapport between margin and center, dominant and secondary structures. Unlike other systemic perspectives which have appeared resistant to issues of marginality and minority positions, remaining essentially “system building” approaches and “thus imposing unjustified borders on literature and exposing the problem of theory transfer and Eurocentrism,” polysystem theory allows a focus on alternative experiences. 5 The multicentered, functionalist approach of polysystem theory can help us rethink the postmodern project, moving beyond an earlier critical emphasis on the disruptive function of postmodern practices, to a more balanced view that takes into account postmodernism’s effort to reintegrate excluded voices and cultural peripheries. We could thus argue that postmodernism employs strategies of systemic disruption (frame-breaking, decentering, fragmentation) as part of a larger transformative agenda that converts closed, hierarchized systems into [End Page 28] dynamic polysystems. Narration itself will be redefined as a “far-from-equilibrium system,” 6 allowing innovative transfers between peripheries and centers.

Anticipations of a polysystemic mode of thought can be found in nineteenth-century literary and theoretical discourse. Consider Hawthorne’s conclusion to “Wakefield” (1835):

Amidst the seeming confusion of our mysterious world...

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