Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Technology of Quotation: William Gaddis's J R and Contemporary Media

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Technology of Quotation: William Gaddis's J R and Contemporary Media

Article excerpt

Visionaries though they were, few of the pioneers of computing could have anticipated that their work would create so much stir in the field of postmodern literary theory. Yet parallels are quickly being established between hypertext and critical theory, postmodern textuality and virtual reality, even hyperfiction and the technological sublime. The discourse surrounding hypertext computer networks has been said to embody the ideas of poststructuralist critical theory with an embarrassing literalness (Landow, Hypertext 34) and the creation of electronic pathways through an everincreasing knowledge base has been described (by Moulthrop among others) as the embodiment, variously, of gorge's labyrinthine fiction, the infinite regress in John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse and the multiple simultaneous plot lines in Robert Coover's "The Babysitter." In a New York Times Book Review essay that has done more than any other single piece to put hypertext on the academic agenda (and in the upscale literary marketplace), Coover himself applauds the medium as "a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author" (23).

It is therefore unfortunate but not surprising that the work of William Gaddis has been left out of these debates. Although he has been hailed by such different critics as Dominick LaCapra, Frederick Karl and Tony Tanner as the precursor of American postmodern fiction, it is only recently--with the apparent convergence of critical theory and technology--that critics have a language adequate to address the complex presence of non-literary media in Gaddis's novels. Just as we can now see that his first novel, The Recognitions (1955), anticipated the debates of poststructuralist theory, Gaddis's second novel, J R (1975) can be seen to have anticipated developments in hypertext and other means of linking literary texts together and with electronic and digital media.

Gaddis is postmodern in the sense that, in his work, modernity is irrevocable; its large organizational structures have left neither the author nor the reader any independent literary standpoint. In The Recognitions, Gaddis offered a mostly satirical catalogue of Fordist and Taylorist modes of production as they extend themselves into private experience and the social domain. While anticipating postmodern concerns with a culture given over to simulations (Johnston), this first novel retained a good deal of modernist inferiority and a distinctive high style; it was also traditional enough to conclude, via Thoreau, with an injunction to live simply and deliberately in a world without absolute truths. The satire of the first novel can thus (for a good many interpreters) actually sustain a belief in the existence of an authentic reality prior to and independent of its simulations. Yet this belief--as Gregory Comnes has argued--is all but absent in the later work. In J R, as well as Carpenter's Gothic (1985) and the recently published Frolic of his Own (1994), Gaddis suppresses his own literary voice, eliminates satirical distance and any trace of a personal style, and constructs narrative itself as a kind of machine or--better still--a hypertext network whose various institutional discourses (junk mail, office memos, contracts, legal decisions, and the like) threaten to overwhelm any independent social or "literary" discourse.

In Gaddis's work, the increasing textualization of reality reduces multiple dissonant voices to an indistinguishable hum and demands that the reader participate as a collaborator or co-author in the construction of meaning (Comnes 36). In J R, which is written almost entirely in dialogue, we have the replacement of the author's function altogether by a recorder, "collector and transmitter" (LeClair 103); of personal agency by corporate and bureaucratic agencies (Siemion); of printed text by those non-literary media and disordered human experiences that the printed word strains against. …

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