Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Unreadable Stares: Imperial Narratives and the Colonial Gaze in Gravity's Rainbow

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

Unreadable Stares: Imperial Narratives and the Colonial Gaze in Gravity's Rainbow

Article excerpt

The colonial situation--that is, the relation, especially the power dynamics, between the colonizer and the colonized--plays an important part in much of Pynchon's writing. In the early short story "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna," an Ojibwa Indian, brought like a prize of conquest to Washington, DC, erupts into a traditional homicidal psychosis of his tribe, exposing as empty and powerless the capital-crowd cocktail-party conversation which seeks to define and control him. In V., Foppl's siege party seeks to conjure up the ecstasy of power associated with von Trotha's 1904 genocidal campaign against the Hereros; and British explorer Hugh Godolphin, like Conrad's Marlow, recognizes the connection between the process of mapping and naming unknown spaces and the imperial desire to know and thus control the world. "A Journey into the Mind of Watts" and Vineland both suggest that potentially dissident sections of the United States are metaphorical third-world countries and are brought under control through imperial processes. And, of course, Mason & Dixon focuses on the ways institutionalized ideologies, epistemologies and discourses seek to possess a continent and control its people.

The two most significant colonial situations in Gravity's Rainbow are those in Kirghizstan, where the Soviet Union asserted control by encouraging Russian immigration, disrupting nomadic herding routes and imposing the New Turkic Alphabet, a written language for a previously preliterate people, and in South-West Africa, where German settlers appropriated land from the indigenous Hereros, stole or destroyed their sacred cattle and killed or made prisoner thousands of people in a blatant extermination campaign. Javaid Qazi, Steven Weisenburger and others have identified a variety of sources of information Pynchon used in composing the Kirghizstan and South-West Africa sections of the novel, but Pynchon's narrator goes beyond the informational to absorb, critique and use the discourses of these sources. In fact, the novel's focus on the sources' discourse is a vital part of its treatment of the colonial situation. In both the Kirghizstan section and the sections dealing with South-West Africa, the narrator uses and parodies the colonial discourse, and reverses the discourse to allow the colonized to gaze upon and articulate the colonizer, demonstrating in the process, however, that the imperial enterprise has so thoroughly coopted the colonized that they see themselves through the epistemological frame of the colonial discourse.

I will examine three of Pynchon's sources: Stephen Graham's Through Russian Central Asia, a 1916 travel narrative; W. P. Steenkamp's Is the South-West African Hereto Committing Race Suicide?, a 1944 anthropological examination of the Herero tribe; and Mircea Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return, a 1949 philosophical-theological study of the ontology and epistemology of "archaic" peoples. And I will use two texts that theorize the rhetoric of colonial discourse, especially travel writing--David Spurr's Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration and Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation--to analyze how Pynchon's narrator uses and self-referentially enters into dialogue with colonial discourse. Colonial discourse serves the needs of and, in fact, makes possible the imperial narrative--the story of the colonizer's encounter with the colonized. More specifically, imperial narratives represent the story of the colonizer (presumably superior by virtue of nature, knowledge, technology or power) gazing on the colonized. As Spurr and Pratt argue, colonial discourse is founded on the right to gaze: in the act of observing is implied the process of ordering, naming, understanding and controlling.

Spurr identifies twelve tropes or rhetorical strategies at work in colonial discourse which seek to confirm and reinforce the power dynamics of the colonial situation. …

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