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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Thomas Pynchon Passing
Erica Tasch

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Friday 9 June, from 11:15 to 11:45

Pynchon's thematic insistence on coded performances navigating systematic evil invites a consideration of his fictions as "passing." "Passing" is frequently set within a scale of deception, but acts of passing may be the clearest expression possible of democratic ambiguity. In the Plutonic tradition, the practice of rhetoric, and the supposedly stylized devices it invites, represents a similarly (supposedly) deceptive means of communication. My presentation will chart Pynchon's rhetorical passing; specifically, I examine his economic metaphors. They are foundational, not mere stylistic embellishment, to his developing viewpoint of whiteness and capitalism.  Beginning in “The Secret Integration” (1964), he employs metaphors of payment to articulate a white male entry into an imaginary and rebellious state of being. The white kids of that story envision a black playmate set against passively and actively white supremacist parents. They pass, within collaborative but separate consciousnesses, for integrated, and in their interactions with grown-ups they often pass for adults. I contend that Pynchon invests in a self-reflective maneuver. He suggests to his presumably matured readers the writer and reader's bi-play of passing and imagination: two sets of adults metaphysically passing as kids through the collaborative imagination of reader/writer, an inversion of the story's child-to-adult passing acts. He urgently questions if our relationship is productive in a material, historical dimension. Repressed materiality defines the story’s depiction of a Sundown Town. Considering how widespread the phenomena is, Sundown Towns are an unusual rarity in white American fiction. Historian James W. Loewen laments “all the deception and omissions, especially in the written record, make sundown towns hard to research.” (221). History and the alternative histories of fiction align in eclipsing Sundown Towns. Pynchon, however, documents one, and he does so with rhetoric that operates against the Plutonic ideal of communicating a transcendental, absolute, and necessarily exclusionary truth. He displaces the accusation of deception away from rhetorical fantasists and passers and onto those who promote impressions of objectivity. Among such objectivists are those who posit whiteness is a natural state of humanity as they relegate genocidal racism to systematic invisibility. To capture this sinister systematicity, Pynchon bi-locates his economic metaphor to apply to capitalism. In his autumn novels Against the Day (2006) and Bleeding Edge (2013), the payment metaphors of "The Secret Integration" have accrued interest: no longer do white adolescents figuratively pay for admittance to imaginary states of being. In these works the economic metaphors pivot from payment to debt and children passing as adults pivot to adults passing as children. His rhetoric, like Capitalism, instigates auto-immunity destruction. The economic metaphors may be a symptom of this self-destruction, the harsh profit-driven modality of capitalism infecting metaphor’s imaginative capacities. Increasingly, his fictions critique fabrications as capable of infantilization and exploitation. Appealing to the anxiety of truth that the topic of passing demands, I attempt mapping the way in which Pynchon is passing, finding his directionality indeterminate. He righteously retreats from and hesitantly advances toward a self-loathing, collusive identification with capitalism and white supremacy.