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Abstract

This dissertation argues for and practices a new theory of style that in turn produces a taxonomy of contemporary novels in America. At least since Nelson Goodman, stylistics has moved beyond the untenable distinction between content as what is said and style as how it is said by seeing style instead as a harmonization of form and content. In prose fiction, style coordinates different forms of words, sentences, and chapters with different themes and subjects. But if style always coordinates, I claim we should identify styles according to the action of coordination itself. I thus shift the terrain: content is what is said and style is what is done. In particular, drawing on both affect theory and analytic action philosophy, I argue what styles do is process transforming conditions of their contemporary world. Different styles—different coordinations of form and content—assemble groups of people who adapt to structural transformations in similar ways. I develop this theory of style as action in my introductory Chapter One, engaging style theorists including Arthur Danto, D. A. Miller, and Mark McGurl; action theorists in the tradition of G. E. M. Anscombe; and affect theorists of the historical present such as Lauren Berlant. I then demonstrate how a number of consequences follow from this theory, two of which are immediately important. First, style becomes available for a cultural criticism without content, because it shows what people are doing regardless of what they may say they are feeling or thinking. To read style is to read how people adapt to their changing worlds, even when they may not be able to slow down the world long enough to represent it. Such a theory is particularly important when the period under study is the historical present; whereas narrative representations of what life is like in transitional periods often lag behind the transitions themselves, style is synchronous with the present it acts within. Second, to read style as a mode of adaptation means liberating it from the particularly individualizing terms (e.g., Dickens style, Warhol style) or universally periodizing terms (e.g., Victorian style, Postmodern style) in which it is usually discussed. Rather, styles refer to new social groups that emerge in a contemporary situation through sharing actions. Because they come into being only through action, these style groups do not have to be primarily organized by demographic categories like class or institutions like the family; in fact, I argue the circulation of styles today shows us the loosening impact of these forms of organization. To enumerate the multiple styles at play in our world is to list what kinds of relations are budding when previous norms tying action to identities or institutions weaken. In the remainder of the dissertation, I identify four contemporary styles by surveying American fiction from the past 30 years and observing repeated patterns of form/content coordination. Following the approach of my theory, I name each style as an action and then unfold the forms of social emergence incarnated in them. The first pair of styles I look at, detoxification and intoxication, use transforming environmental conditions in the age of manmade pollution or climate change as a resource for creating new forms of intimacy and domesticity; the second pair, invasion and evasion, intervene in an altered public sphere in ways that mirror new social and political movements like Occupy and Anonymous, respectively. As I argue in Chapter Two, detoxification style coordinates anxieties about heterosexual domesticity, racial difference, and the natural environment from 1980 to the present. This is a style that I show lives at the level of sentences within a range of authors including Raymond Carver, Tao Lin, and Mary Robison, each of whom use detoxification to produce domestic spaces carved out from a wider natural world. In each of these writers, I argue that environmental detoxification is also twinned with a project of racial purification. Along the way, I also show how detoxification style re-creates the outlines of a familiar canon of minimalism, but by referring minimalism to an action and thus a mode of adaption to a complex of social and environmental variables, detoxification is also able, I argue, to account for both a larger set of authors and a wider range of features within their writing than available theories of minimalism have allowed. In turn, I show that what we have thought of as minimalism is not just a retraction of words, as some scholars have indicated, but also a proliferation of smaller words; and it is best understand primarily in relation not to the institution of the university, as Mark McGurl has argued, but to the institution of the family. Chapter Three turns to intoxication style, which inverts the logic of the previous chapter: here, intoxication is associated not with minimalism, but with maximalism. In particular, I show how intoxication produces the sentences of Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Sergio de la Pava, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace. Intoxication sentences are inhalation machines that bury their subjective anchors under stuff ranging from information to material substances. Whereas detoxification style sought to create spaces of intimacy by subtracting from the environment, intoxication style suggests what happens in a world in which no institution—say, the Sierra Club—can ever adequately mediate between subjects and their natural world. Without institutional mediation, subjects and world become conflated in these works. Thus, intoxication also theorizes a kind of agency particularly germane to the period we have come to know as the Anthropocene, in which human history becomes knotted with ecological history. But whereas most work on the Anthropocene has pointed to a universal human species as an actor on a global scale, looking at intoxication as one style among many particularizes rather than universalizes experience. Therefore, the question for this chapter is not the scientific one of whether human agency is distributed and imbricated with a planet, but rather, culturally: for whom does agency feel that way, or under what social conditions is it desirable for people to intoxicate themselves and distribute their agency across the world at the same time that the world comes into them? My close readings suggest intoxication, or the Anthropocene’s style of action, has affiliations that are particularly masculine and millennial. If detoxification and intoxication are a pair concerned with the environment, then the next two styles I examine—invasion and evasion—are a pair concerned with public space. In particular, I argue that the unit of the chapter in these styles is acted upon to re-distribute public space and create new kinds of political collectives. In Chapter Four, I describe invasion as a style that administers what we have come to recognize as novels of interconnected short stories. Authors of the style including Jennifer Egan, Colum McCann, David Mitchell, and Elizabeth Strout are nostalgic for disciplinary techniques of cutting up a social world into distinct institutions with limited social roles, and breaking up a novel into autonomous stories is one way of re-asserting an ability to section a world and therefore compartmentalize psychology. The action of this style is best understood as invasion, I argue, because the novels try to fill up a discrete space with enough energy to convert it into a new kind of institution, dispensing new political subjectivities that arrest ongoing processes of modulation by re-asserting the boundaries of emerging political communities. As I tease out, invasion is then analogous to social movements like Occupy (turning a park into a political forum) and provides an object to test the logic of invasion (of which occupation is a species) as a public action. In particular, I show how invasion excludes queerness as a background condition. Whereas invasion style incarnates a social action of invasion structurally kin to movements like Occupy, evasion style, as I argue in Chapter Five, produces sociality through a common bypass of surveillance, analogous to hacktivist collectives like Anonymous. Whereas invasion reconstructs novels into many stories, evasion reduces the novel entire to being just one chapter of a larger story: evasion style is manifest in transmedia narrative in which a novel-book participates as one networked node. What becomes interesting in this style is what gets pushed out of the novel, evading its surveillance, and I show how evasions in the novels of Barbara Browning, Mark Danielewski, and Chris Ware are consistently explained by an attempt of the authors to make themselves anonymous. Evasion style in turn imagines a social space—the space of the novel—as clustering around and forming on top of a personal absence. But as in the previous chapter, I do not see evasion novels as mere exemplifications of social experiments; rather, I show how novels feel out in their actions for social forms capacious and complicated in their logic that in turn provide lessons for thinking through what is at stake in collectives like Anonymous. When these novels begin to query the sustainability of the collectives they form through evasion, they also provide warnings and lessons for other anonymous forms of sociality, especially ones queer theory and theories of stranger intimacy have celebrated and taught us about in the past generation.

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