Apposition, displacement : an ethics of abstraction in postwar American fiction
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The decades following two world wars, the European Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation presented American authors with an occupational dilemma: catastrophic histories call out for recognition, but any representation of them risks adding violence to violence by falsifying the account or conflating historical acts of violence with their artificial doubles. This project reimagines the political aesthetics of postmodern American fiction through two major interventions. First, I identify an aesthetic structure of apposition--a parallel relationship between abstract works of art and the everyday world that I take from William Carlos Williams--that allows me to productively resolve a tension in the aesthetics of Hannah Arendt: because representation takes mimesis as a particular end, Arendt disqualifies representational art from politics, which she defines as open-ended action between human beings and not as end-centered state-craft. At the same time, Arendt claims that art is a product of thought, the cognitive activity she associates with political action over and against fabrication. My heterodox reading of Arendt shows that appositional narratives, like political actors, perform their own self-disclosure, beginning the open-ended chain of actions and reactions that Arendt identifies as the substantial form of politics and ethics. Second, I use my revision of Arendt to demonstrate that appositional narratives act politically through the very same metafictional tropes that critics often label as escapist or solipsistic. Rather than copy historical experience, appositional narratives reject illusionary representation and present themselves as actors, inciting their readers to respond with pluralistic, provisional judgment. Taking Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison--three central but rarely-juxtaposed postmodern novelists--as case studies, I show that we cannot properly assess the political implications of postmodern fiction without understanding the specific mechanisms of narrative apposition. Appositional works stand temporarily and self-consciously in the place of the world, displacing it in the experience of their readers. This narrative strategy provides a political alternative for novelists facing the ethical crises of postmodernity. Appositional narratives displace their readers' settled beliefs and press them to exercise their human capacity for judgment. They embrace their responsibility for the world by refusing to represent it.