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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Empire and its Discontent: Third Space, Anxiety and Paranoia in Mason & Dixon
Sergei Macura

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Friday 9 June, from 10:00 to 10:30

According to historian Niall Ferguson, the expansion of the West over “the Rest” rested on six “killer apps” of power: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society and work ethic, which made incomparable improvements in the conquering and conquered countries alike, e.g. increased life expectancy, extensive exchange of goods, higher output per labourer, greater sanctity of individual freedom, etc. However, transplanting the entire structure of the mother societies to the overseas territories ruled by distant kings could never succeed in practice, so by necessity Bhabha’s “third space” came into being, i.e. an ambivalent space of enunciation of cultural statements and systems therein represented, never homogenous with the original Western narration and never identical to the colonised culture either. An impediment to a tolerant dialogue with the indigenous population lay in the European sense of superiority ingrained even in the works of the most prominent thinkers from the Age of Reason – most notably in Kant’s foreclosure of the native informant as allegedly having limited access to being human, incisively rebutted by Gayatri Spivak.

It is into this paradoxical anthropological hybridity that Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon venture to accomplish their two missions: the measurement of the transit of Venus from the Cape of Good Hope in 1761, and the drawing of a demarcation line between Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the 1763–1767 period. As they delve deeper into the societies formed by colonial rule, they gain more firsthand experience of the discrepancy between the progress engineered in the imperial metropolis and the real-life discontents in the field, some of whose features they find shockingly surprising, like the sexual mores of the Dutch colonists in Cape Town, while they find others deeply disconcerting, like the omnipresent slave trade and the constantly implied threat of war.

The paper will chiefly focus on Mason and Dixon’s years-long task on the establishment of a multiple boundary – political, geographical and societal (the future dividing line between the slave-owning and slave-free territories), and attempt to shed light on the socio-historical setting into which the novel’s two main characters are immersed as a backdrop to a locus very common in Pynchon’s works: a sort of third space, the so-called Zone, where a new code of conduct and set of rules are required for an authentic understanding of the social order outside the octroyed control from the centre, and also outside its original state of purity, never experienced directly by the European settlers. As the expedition breaks new ground into the uncharted geographic and social territories, they will be increasingly aware of the inflammable composition of highly volatile space, with its open and underlying conflicts suffusing the world-view of the local inhabitants. Attention will also be drawn to the expansive strategies of the settlers, who saw the natives as inimical from their early days on the new continent, thus giving rise to another capillary phenomenon frequent in Pynchon: paranoia as a major driving force since the very inception of European America as a project.