Heretical reading: freedom as question and process in postmodern American novel and technological pedagogy

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Howard, Jeffrey Lamar

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My dissertation describes a method of reading with literary, disciplinary, and pedagogical implications. In literary terms, heretical reading refers to the way that the postmodern novelists Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and Philip K. Dick read and appropriate Gnosticism in order to construct narratives about the struggle to regain freedom in novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Invitation to a Beheading, and VALIS. On a disciplinary level, heretical reading is an interpretative method I exert to foreground possibilities of freedom within postmodern fiction that intrude into the background of the poststructuralist definition of the world but ultimately transcend it. These four forms of freedom are freedom as presence and transcendence, as liberating knowledge, as a spirituality constituting self-awareness, and as choice conceived navigationally rather than hierarchically. Postmodern authors imply these possibilities consciously and
metafictionally, but heretical reading is also my way of foregrounding and intensifying them. I put this theoretical program into practice through the pedagogical use of hypertext and interactive fiction. Students compose interpretative essays that make a “heretical” interpretative choice by choosing a path through the text that has been closed off by a previous group of interpreters. This path consists of the linkages between “sparks”—passages that stand out with particular imaginative and intuitive significance against a background of indeterminacy. Students know these sparks as non-totalizing intimations of presence that their own non-totalizing selves respond to in order to offer a sense of “interior direction” required to navigate through the composition of an essay. I then describe a final pedagogical extension of heretical reading focused around a type of computer game called interactive fiction. Heretical reading seeks to transform printed novels into interactive fictions in order to encourage freedom in the form of interaction, allowing classroom discussion to change the ways the text is imagined and experienced. The convictions underlying heretical reading function within the classroom as a set of rules, but these rules are designed to open up, not to constrain; to energetically orient, not to govern; to yield satisfactions at the expressive level, not to conclude.