Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature 1945-1975

By Chetwynd, Ali | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature 1945-1975


Chetwynd, Ali, Twentieth Century Literature


Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature 1945-1975

by Michael LeMahieu

Oxford University Press, 2013. 244 pages

Michael LeMahieu's first book both makes the case and develops a method for reading postwar US fictions philosophical logic in terms of its immediate academic milieu, rather than through lenses imposed by later critics and theorists. Tracing literary responses to logical positivisms precedence in mid-century US philosophical culture, LeMahieu demonstrates this positivism's determining but curiously disavowed role in the rhetoric of the era's university-centric fiction, from Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" (1955) to a swan song in Don DeLillo's End Zone (1972). Dense with both archival research and philosophical exegesis, LeMahieu's project is narrowly conceived in all the best and some of the less appealing senses of the term. An unnecessary reticence about its intended range of implication leaves the book open to substantial quibbles, but at its core stand, unquibblably, a revisionary history of philosophical circulation and authorial inspiration, a fresh genealogy of the postmodern, and an exemplification of a method.

Postmodern theory's autobiography--a "narrative of progress" about its triumph over a still unrevised caricature of "positivism as an ahistorical, universal idea that can show up anywhere at any time but will always be rejected easily and uniformly" (16)--has, LeMahieu suggests, given us a distorted and badly taxonomized sense of the postwar literary landscape. Treating logical positivism's absolute separation of facts from values as "the central moral question of the period," he reads his fictions "not [as] a simple rejection of logical positivism but instead a sustained aesthetic response to its doctrines" (96). He thus revises "logical positivism's ahistorical afterlife in literary studies" (17) through historical accounts both of postwar fiction's uneasy, non-uniform engagement with the fact/value distinction, and of the way in which that fiction came to be so consistently read in relation to a "concept of postmodernism ... premised on not knowing, and thus not owning, its debt to logical positivism." Foregrounding postmodernism's and logical positivism's mutually repressed but clearly "shared emphasis on the contingencies of value and the constructions of fact," LeMahieu highlights not just the opposition's tendentious origins, but also its far-reaching effects on literary history.

From these revisions, new taxonomical possibilities arise, among them that we might treat works that pursue the separation of fact and value as philosophically "modern" and thus apply "postmodern" to works that foreground the project of morally and aesthetically reconciling the two terms. LeMahieu frames his four central authors--O'Connor, John Barth, Saul Bellow, and Thomas Pynchon, usually read as partisans in opposed camps of tradition and experiment--as each differently but definitely postmodern, "major writers responding to one of the most pressing philosophical and aesthetic problems of the period" (153).

Fictions of Fact and Value thus unites two channels in current literary scholarship. On one hand it's a peer of books like Lisi Schoenbach's Pragmatic Modernism and Robert Chodat's Worldly Acts and Sentient Things--or in related registers recent work by Amy Hungerford on religion or Steven Meyer on science--which have attempted to make twentieth-century space for the sort of investigation of US literature's interactions with US philosophy that has long been standard in work on the nineteenth century. On the other hand, LeMahieu challenges postmodernism's putative ahistoricity in the manner of less specifically philosophical books by Daniel Grausam (on the looming nuclear threat), Marianne DeKoven (on the popularization of political radicalism), and Steven Belletto (on international relations and the game-theoretical refiguration of chance). …

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