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Negative liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the problem of liberal ideology

She begins her Nobel Prize acceptance speech by declaring that narrative has never been merely entertainment for me. It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge , For Morrison, writing a novel is essentially an act of cultural criticism. The kind of work I have always wanted to do, she writes in the preface to her critical study Playing in the Dark , requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains xi. Speaking of the U.

The writers whom she prizes most highly are those who take responsibility for all of the values they bring to their art xiii , whether those values serve or challenge the dominant cultures ocial stories. This perspective seems, in retrospect, to have been a part of Morrisons writing all along. The best art, she writes elsewhere, is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time , This conception of the cultural functions of narrative also aligns Morrison with a cadre of late twentieth-century philosophers who have sought to explore the common ground between literature and philosophy.

Sandel, Steven Shirin, and Judith Shklar are among those who have suggested that professional philosophy has much to learn from literatures ability to dramatize the complexities and idiosyncrasies of human life. Describing humans as storytelling beings, Sandel contends that political community depends on the narratives by which people make sense of their condition and interpret the common life they share , Beiner has faulted twentieth-century analytic philosophy for being self-restricting and self-eacing in cutting itself o from the kind of imaginative speculation about human life regularly found in literary works 1.

These philosophers seek to remind their colleagues that philosophy has always relied on the literary: the precedent for Cavells use of Shakespeare, for example, is Aristotles use of Homer and Euripides. Shklar defends the explicit use of stories and storytelling as something political philosophers used to do quite normally , Beiner goes further, arguing that all philosophical writing is implicitly a form of storytelling: In theorizing,. Philosophys reliance, however, on abstract theoretical models, which necessarily simplify the complexities of human experience, can lead it to tell stories that fall short of the truth.


Commenting on Charles Dickenss Hard Times, a novel that satirizes utilitarianism by imagining what it would be like if the utilitarian norm were understood not just as a way of writing up reports, but as a way of dealing with people in daily encounters 17 , Nussbaum claims that philosophical reason would become more powerful if it were supplemented by the literary imagination.

She follows Shklars suggestion that storytelling should be conceived as an addition to more abstract modes of analysis rather than a substitute for them 6. Instead, Nussbaum contends, the novel indicates that political and economic treatises of an abstract and mathematical sort would be perfectly consistent with its purposeso long as the view of the human being underlying the treatises was the richer view available in the novel; so long as they do not lose sight of what they are, for eciency, omitting For Shklar, this richer view entails the recognition of conict and irrationality: The great intellectual advantage of telling stories is that it does not rationalize the irrationality of actual experience and history.

Indecision, incoherence and inconsistency are not ironed out or put between brackets. All our conicts are preserved in all their inconclusiveness. Stories expose rather than create order, and in so doing they can render explicit much that is inarticulate , Deprived of the richer view that storytelling oers, philosophy becomes more susceptible to appropriation by the forces that create ocial stories, a process dramatized in Hard Times, where utilitarian calculus becomes the basis for both Bad History and bad government.

Nussbaum admits that government cannot investigate the life story of every citizen in the way a novel does with its characters, but it can learn a valuable lesson from the novel: It can.

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What happens when those in power fail to learn this lesson is dramatized in Pynchons Gravitys Rainbow , with its nefarious experiments on human subjects, and in Morrisons Beloved, where the cruel slave master known as Schoolteacher carefully takes his slaves measurements, numbers their teeth, and catalogs their attributeshuman characteristics on the left.

Both novels can be read as cautionary tales that depict the fundamental inhumanity of abstract scientic rationalism when it is divorced from the richer view that Nussbaum nds in novels. What I want to do in Negative Liberties is to take seriously the idea that narrative constitutes one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge. I will focus on the ocial story that Morrison believes to be at the heart of U. This national narrative attempts to per7. Indeed, it proposes that satisfying the claims of the individual is the best way of satisfying the claims of any particular group to which the individual belongs.

It suggests, for example, that the claims that Morrison makes on behalf of race canand willbe satised by the liberal system of the United States. It asks us to regard the presence of devastating racial oppression as immaterial and temporary, a mere side plot soon to be edited away. According to Michael Sandel, one of the most prominent communitarian critics of U.

Describing liberalism as a tradition of thought that emphasizes toleration and respect for individual rights and that runs from John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill to John Rawls, Sandel argues that the public philosophy of contemporary American politics is a version of this liberal tradition of thought, and most of our debates proceed within its terms Sandels writings describe an ocial narrative that grows out of the Enlightenments quest for the self-dening subject b, 87 and that has saturated not only U.

The inuential study Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life provides documentary evidence of the extent to which this ocial narrative continues to inuence the ways in which social, political, and moral issues are discussed in the United States. In particular, it demonstrates that this narrative delimits the ways in which Americans think and speak about their communally oriented goals. The books authors, Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, state that they seek to deepen our understanding of the resources our tradition providesand fails to providefor enabling us to think about the kinds of moral problems we are currently facing as Americans Habits begins by introducing the reader to four dierent individuals who are oered as representative character types: a corporate manager, a concerned citizen, a therapist, and an activist.

Claiming that these individuals each represent American voices familiar to us all, Bellah et al. Yet, among these four 8. Clarifying this terminology, Bellah et al. We use rst language to refer to the individualistic mode that is the dominant American form of discourse about moral, social, and political matters.

We use the term second languages to refer to other forms, primarily biblical and republican, that provide at least part of the moral discourse of most Americans These second languages are vestigial, fragmentary, and relatively unarticulated. Bellah et al. According to Fredric Jameson, this inability to articulate communal feelings results from the fact that the rst language or discourse of individualism.

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  6. Jameson views Habits of the Heart as a kind of language experiment in which, minimally, [the authors] seek to make us aware of the asphyxiating connes and limits of the language into which we are locked; at their most ambitious, they seem themselves to strain to produce a new language capable of bursting the seams of the older one and making new realities and new possibilities appear What Habits of the Heart ultimately demonstrates, however, is the strength of those seams.

    Not only are its authors unwilling to break completely with the ideology of individualism much to Jamesons chagrin , but they also leave us with profound doubts about the possibility of renovating that ideology.

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    Although Bellah et al. Because both Bellah et al. What Bellah et al. The ocial narrative that has emerged around individualism appropriates the opposition between individual and community that preoccupies both Habits of the Heart and Jamesons critique and recongures it as a progression.

    Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology

    If the subjects interviewed for Habits of the Heart nd themselves unable to articulate certain types of communal longing, it is not simply because they have lost their ability to use the language of community but also because that language has been appropriated and subordinated by this ocial narrative. Part of the problem with this narrative is that it has promoted a particularly bloodless and abstract version of community, one that turns out to have little to do with actual communities such as those based on class, race, ethnicity, or sexuality.

    The vocabulary of community that this narrative employs and makes available is limited: it fails to recognize as legitimate most of the communities that Americans are likely to experience. Negative Liberties shows how Morrisons and Pynchons novels engage this national narrative and expose it as a manifestation of Bad History. In so doing, they dramatize both the power and the shortcomings of Emersonian liberalism, a tradition of U.

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    These three idealist philosophers oer compelling descriptions and defenses of U. Morrison is surely right to suggest that living in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer. I will argue that both Morrison and Pynchon inhabit this singular landscape and that the formal and thematic dierences between their oeuvres are dierences of emphasis and degree rather than of kind.

    In their dierent ways, Morrison and Pynchon dramatize the fact that the story of individualism that has Varieties of Liberal Individualism In , Alexis de Tocqueville identied individualism as one of the distinctive characteristics of American democracy.

    Nearly fty years later, in the second volume of his study The American Commonwealth , the British historian James Bryce argued that individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride in personal freedom, have been deemed by Americans not only their choicest, but their peculiar and exclusive possessions More than a century after Bryce wrote these words, individualism remains at the heart of American ideology.

    In a grudging tribute to the continuing power of individualism in late twentieth-century U. Habits of the Heart was perhaps the most widely disseminated of the communitarian critiques of U. The persistence of individualism in the United States continues to discomt not only communitarian thinkers but also intellectuals in a variety of elds who are invested in the poststructuralist critique of subjectivity. In the introduction to a collection of essays Individualism, originally published in France under the title Sur lindividualisme: Thories et mthodes , Pierre Birnbaum and Jean Leca adopt the dire language of an inuential nineteenth-century manifesto and proclaim, A spectre is haunting the Wests intellectualsthe spectre of individualism 1.

    The editors of the multidisciplinary collection Reconstructing Individualism nd themselves compelled to admit that in America, the post-structuralist critique of individuality has had only a feeble impact on the persistently individualist imagery of our institutions and popular culture. In the political, economic, and artistic spheres of public life, these images have remained unshaken by the theoretical trauma that has led to the subtleties of post-structuralist theory Heller and Wellbery, Discredited in Europe, individualism continues to provide the ideological eld upon which social conicts and political battles take place in the United States.

    So ingrained is individualism in late twentieth-century U. In short, U. Underwriting each of these variants is what social scientists refer to as ontological individualism, the belief that the individual has an a priori and primary reality and that society is a derived, second-order construct. Steven Lukes writes that according to this conception, individuals are pictured abstractly as given, with given interests, wants, purposes, needs, etc.

    What is important to notice about this description is the importance of abstraction: ontological individualism presents what Lukes describes as an abstract conception of the individual who is seen as merely the bearer of xed and invariant human psychological features, which determine his behaviour, and specify his interests, needs and rights This conception of the nature of the individual generates a mode of thinking that social scientists call methodological individualism.