Paper Empire: William Gaddis
and the World System
| The year 2002 saw the posthumous publication of William
Gaddis's collected non-fiction and his last fictional work, as well as
the disposition of Gaddis's papers within the Contemporary Fiction Collections
of the library at Washington University, St Louis . A year later, the journal Conjunctions has
presented appreciations of Gaddis from more than twenty novelists and writers,
many of them in response to the sustained attack by Jonathan Franzen in The
New Yorker September 30, 2002. In England and Germany , the major
reviews have been less partisan, with Hal Foster in the London
Review of Books suggesting a reason for the widely disparate responses
to every one of Gaddis's works, up to the very last. Foster points to Gaddis's
unique hybridity, his ability to "write in the gap between the two
science and literature, theory and narrative, "different orders of
linguistic imagination." Taking up this manifold approach, we have
assembled a collection of essays by both narrative and critical writers
who will move beyond the controversy to a more sustained view of a remarkable
American literary presence. More is at stake here than an argument for
one author's importance. Rather, by seeking to understand Gaddis, the collection
probes what it means to write realistically in the current global and media-dominated
In light of the new work and the enlarged context provided by the Gaddis archive, and now that the body of Gaddis's work is finally available in its entirety, we offer a collection of summary essays -- the first such volume to appear in two decades, since Steven Moore's and John Kuehl's In Recognition of William Gaddis 1984. Capitalizing on the revived interest, both critical and commercial, surrounding the appearance of new work by Gaddis, we have solicited new essays by a mix of established Gaddis scholars and emerging scholar-critics in literature, theory, cultural, and media studies. These are fresh, focused essays, each 15 to 25 pages in length and all considering aspects of Gaddis's works in light of current, critical trends in contemporary thought. Our volume is international in scope with essays from Germany, England, and Canada as well as the U.S., and multidisciplinary in its approach, resulting in a body of work that is both innovative and recent, unique but continuing to build on established scholarship, and ultimately groundbreaking in its ability to cross academic barriers just as Gaddis's own work, slowly but surely, has escaped from such pigeonholes as "difficult" or "experimental" to become recognized as a genuinely popular, genuinely American fiction.
Gaddis "an American original," in Cynthia Ozick's phrase? The author of "the long-awaited great American novel," as the San Francisco Review of Books claimed on the publication of J R ? Such formulations begin to sound dated not because Gaddis's claim to pre-eminence has diminished. Rather, the invocation of " America" as a bounded nation-state has itself come to seem more limiting than otherwise. Among American novelists, Gaddis is at once worldly in his demeanor and specific in his American references – his later novels all are set primarily in Long Island and Manhattan, where Gaddis lived for most of his life, while as Crystal Alberts shows in her extensive biographical essay, Gaddis drew extensively on his family history for the generational histories presented in the novels. Yet his uniqueness cannot be reduced to local color or autobiography. Rather, he shows how the local, in the United States as much as anywhere, is increasingly dependent on flows of capital and crisscrossing lines of communication spanning the globe. Although Gaddis has been known as a "systems" novelist since the mid-eighties when Tom LeClair, another contributor, published his Art of Excess, our understanding of both literary and bureaucratic "systems" has developed sufficiently in the past decades -- as the world system itself has developed -- that a reconsideration is in order. Gaddis's major novels of American capitalism and corporate culture can be placed at the emergence of a particular "global" context, the current world system, that could not have been foreseen at the time when the works were written. His books are prophetic, not because they merely predict details of the current system or anticipate events such as stock market crashes or "every five-year-old with a computer", but because he understands, as only a novelist or a prophet can, how the underlying forces of capital and communication affect individual lives, and are affected in turn, however indirectly, by our lifeways.
Hence, when we call Gaddis a quintessential "American" novelist, the term needs to be defined broadly, on the order of an "American World Literature." Just as "America" itself has become a political and cultural force globally, so has our literature taken on global concerns merely by engaging with the materials, messages, concrete speech, and abstract operations of power here at home. One might argue that it has always been so. From its modern foundations in Emerson, Melville, Poe, and Stein, American writing has been remarkably conflicted about its own Americanness, even as the nation itself in a formulation advanced most recently by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire [Boston: Harvard University Press, 2000] has from its foundation defined sovereignty on a different model from that of the Roman Empire or the European nation-state. "Liberty" in the United States, write Hardt and Negri, "is made sovereign and sovereignty is defined as radically democratic within an open and continuous process of expansion" (169). Gaddis is consistent both with his country and his American literary precursors in finding an altogether unique form for such continuity and expansiveness. We can observe a formal parallel, for example, in the continuous narrative present from J R on built largely from recorded speech. No less remarkably, we see both the constraints and expansiveness of latter-day imperial power in Gaddis's decision to restrict his literary language to what can be said through actual, existing networks of communication and transportation. America is the first technological mass society, yet it uniquely and structurally defines the mass, its multitudes and its mobility, in the singular: Gaddis responds with characters no less distinct and individual than those in Dickens, although he refuses to 'psychologize' them: their qualities, like the poetic qualities of Gaddis's language, are made to emerge through the same networks and systems that both constrain and enable their lives. For it is these networks and systems that impart global dimensions to their individual pursuits and desires, a canvas much larger than that ever experienced by the bourgeois self.
While many books have taken on the question of globalization
as represented by literary texts, and while a global awareness has expanded
the range of "literatures in English," no current study to our knowledge has seriously
considered what a "Global" narrative might look like. Our argument is that
a model for such a narrative could well be the work of William Gaddis.
Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System
An Interview with William Gaddis circa 1980
The Aesthetics of First- and Second-Order Cybernetics in William
Gaddis's J R
William Gaddis and the Autopoiesis of American Literature
Cognitive Gothic: Relevance Theory, Iteration, and Style
Cognitive Map, Aesthetic Object, or National Allegory? Carpenter's
The End of Agape : On the Public Debate Around Gaddis
Writing From Between the Gaps: Agape Agape and Twentieth-Century Media
Mark the Music: J R and Agape Agape
Valuable Dregs: William Gaddis, the Life of an Artist
The Secret History of Agape Agape
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