Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics
Montreal
Archive
 

***

AT THE LIMITS OF THE SYSTEM:

HOW NOVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS ENACT A WORLD-SYSTEM AND REVEAL ITS BORDERS

***

By Jenny Morse

***

The Montréal Review, August 2012

***

The contemporary novel has many tools available to it in order to construct its work. Novels are meant to create their own plausible and realistic worlds wherein events take place and characters develop. These stories are told from many perspectives, the third-person narrator perhaps still the most popular. However, the most intimate means of engagement in the novel might be the novel of consciousness, which narrates from within the protagonist's mind. The perspective of the narrator, then, is pre-writing, pre-observation and the document itself becomes a record of the thoughts passing between the narrator's ears. Novels like these that take place completely within the character's consciousness, without regard to character, time, place, or anything stationary except for the character's own memory, seemingly can only end when the character ends. Perhaps the endings of these novels of consciousness enact disruptions to a global system, the system of the novel, which suggest a final disruption that cannot be contained or integrated into the novel and draw attention to the fact that what is outside the system cannot be imagined or explained, but also cannot be confined and reclaimed by the system itself.

In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said writes that culture and empire are mutually constitutive. His second chapter focuses on the nineteenth century novel as evidence of the presence of the empire and its impact on narrative. In this context, then, he asserts that, "Novels therefore end either with the death of a hero or heroine (Julien Sorel, Emma Bovary, Bazarov, Jude the Obscure) who by virtue of overflowing energy does not fit into the orderly scheme of things, or with the protagonists' accession to stability (usually in the form of marriage or confirmed identity, as is the case with novels of Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot)". Essentially, he claims that nineteenth century and early twentieth century novels have only two possible endings: to conform and become part of the established society through marriage or to escape social constraint and die. His suggestion is that these endings are the only possible ones because of the relationship of the novel to the empire, imperialism and colonialism. For the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the empire was the system: people were rulers or ruled, and these categories contributed to the social fabric.

However, both the novel and the empire have evolved since the nineteenth century. The empire, irrevocably altered by the spread of capitalism, has been replaced by the global system, imperialism and colonialism by globalization. Masao Miyoshi and others argue that globalization and transnationalism are new forms of imperialism and colonialism, that ruling governments have now transformed into capitalists who still exploit others in order to absorb resources. Furthermore, globalization has altered the framework in which society develops. Rather than ownership of territory, the system concerns itself with the endless accumulation of capital, according to Immanuel Wallerstein, and capital is no longer bound to geographical spaces. In some ways, neither is the novel.

The early novel emerged from travel writing, serials, and epistolary works, all popular modes of the eighteenth century. With the development of an omniscient third person narrator, the novel could emerge from these other works. This omniscient narrator had the versatility to present a story from any perspective, containing all knowledge of all characters at all times, and only revealing what was necessary. In the case of Clarissa, one of these earliest novels, Samuel Richardson used letters and the frame of an editor discovering those letters in order to shroud his authorship and enable some distance between author and narrator. It seems to be this objective narrator who, for the most part, enables the nineteenth century novel to develop the trait of marrying or killing the protagonists. In some ways, the narrator acts as the ruler of the text, imposing particular outcomes on the colonized plot. The narrator either brings the characters into line and rewards them with their incorporation into ruling society through marriage, or eliminates them in their death so that they do not threaten the system of the novel.

The late twentieth century and early twenty-first century novel can be read to operate under somewhat similar but different prospects. The empire has been absorbed by the capitalist system which has overrun the world. The text has been globalized and the narrator subsumed into it. Less frequently does a narrator appear to impose a will on a text; the narrator has become the text. Following from Said's description of the nineteenth and early twentieth century novel, the late twentieth and early twenty-first century novels, particularly novels narrated through a character's consciousness, appear to have the same two possible outcomes: conformity or death. The difference here is that conformity indicates absorption into the system or alliance with the system, whereas death is a disruption to it, an indication of the imposition the outside or environment can make, using Luhmann's language.

Luhmann identifies the change that has occurred in the global system as, "The predominant relation is no longer a hierarchical one, but one of inclusion and exclusion" (3). Globalization, unlike imperialism, does not rely on rulers; instead, it determines what can be absorbed into it. The same transition can be applied to the contemporary novel: rather than being ruled, the contemporary novel is a system of structured text, integrating material into it or abruptly ending. Moreover, Luhmann's discussion of globalization has a lot to say about the importance of consciousness. Luhmann gives consciousness a peculiar function in that it can have effects on the system without destroying the system: "For only the consciousness of individuals is structurally coupled with the autopoiesis of the societal system (Luhmann 1988). Only consciousness can irritate communication in a way that is compatible with the autopoiesis and the operational closure of the social system. All other environmental changes (physical, chemical, biological, e.g. death) can only have destructive effects" (6). So the consciousness apparent in these novels mirrors the social system and provides some means of reflecting on that system.

Luhmann's insistence that external effects are only destructive, however, seems counter to his assertion that individuals are external because of their relationship to the environment: "The extraordinary importance of individuals with respect to the ongoing reproduction of the societal operation is due to their external (environmental), not to their internal (social) status; it is due to their own self-reproduction, to their own 'autopoietic' closure as minds and as living bodies" (6). Social interaction is part of the system, but the natural processes of the body and the mind are not. Perhaps, then, the freedom of the individual relies on the possibilities of border-straddling; some aspects of being human must be environmental and therefore outside, but other aspects must be social and therefore inside.

The novel of consciousness works, then, to provide a sense of the outside and to force the reader to confront the limits of what is the system (resources) and what is not (nature). Death in the novel of consciousness has a clear and inevitable meaning because it is a mode of exit. It indicates that there is some outside of the system where things are completely free. Even if death only indicates the possibility of an outside, death promises an end to the endless accumulation and generation of the system.

A novel of consciousness describes a novel that is completely subjective and occurs from within the narrator's mind. The novel is internal to one character and tracks that character's thoughts. Working completely internally allows the novel to provide the full contents of a character's brain, presenting anything and everything it desires. It can move forward and backward in time as well as narrating the present, so it is not bound by temporality. It can move throughout space, and so is not bound to geography. The only consistent factor is the boundary of the human mind, that of the author/narrator, through which the text emerges.

Carole Maso's novel, AVA, is representative of these novels of consciousness. The main character, Ava, is the vehicle for the text. Her experiences and memories weave across the pages, constructing an experience for the reader. Although her body persists in the hospital, Ava's mind wanders and explores memories of her life, of language. There are scenes and characters. She moves through time, flitting among conversations and experiences. Her thoughts are somewhat thematic in that she returns to the same lines and ideas frequently. Among these are the phrase "You are a rare bird" (34) and its permutations, as well as titles for love songs, "We were working on an erotic song cycle. It was called The Alignment of the Planets" (95). The work spirals, moving away and then circling back, evolving themes, but never really progressing since nothing is really accomplished in the work in terms of plot.

The work commences with the reader's admission into this consciousness and ends with the presumed termination of the narrator's consciousness. Ava's death is foreshadowed on the first and second pages by lines like, "A throbbing. / Come quickly" (3) read in conjunction with the segments "Not yet. / Tell me everything that you want. / Wake up, Ava Klein. Turn over on your side. Your right arm, please" (4). The nurse or visitor is willing to listen to Ava's ramblings, as the reader is invited to, while Ava experiences her last day in the hospital bed. The middle does not follow plot constructions or climaxes; it just is. It is Ava as she is within herself and recorded on the pages.

The value of this material seems to be in its construction. It posits itself as an integrated whole, a system of the mind. The novel is constructed as the system of Ava, which accesses any and all memories that occur. Thought is the product of this system, and it is produced excessively. Wallerstein admonishes that the world capitalist system is based on the assumption that capital can grow, that capital is unceasingly accumulating: "the system gives priority to the endless accumulation of capital...[which] means that people and firms are accumulating capital in order to accumulate still more capital, a process that is continual and endless" (24). The text of AVA acts in this manner, aggressively accumulating. The text is capital, resource, produced as long as it can be sustained. Memories surface and then reintegrate, constantly emerging and then submerging, aggregating into the identity of this individual Ava:

Ana Julia says amen. / The circular room began to take shape in us. / An arch in Venice.

From the sea, lavender and rose hips. / Have you brought your gazelle? the Moroccan asked Anatole. / I was your gazelle, then.

A Biot jar found in Syria. A song from the beginning of time. / It's very grave, as the French like to say, and I'm afraid. (119)

The system of the text is not sustainable, however. Eventually, the resources are used up, the body cannot produce anymore, and the consciousness ceases to exist.

In a novel of consciousness, the only possible escape would appear to be death, otherwise the consciousness would produce without end and the text would have to be a similarly infinite record. When the consciousness dies, the record terminates and the system within the individual collapses. In this way, death represents the unknown outside of the system, that part that cannot exist within consciousness because it destroys consciousness. Luhmann asserts that there is no outside to the system because we cannot be aware of or control the outside (6). The outside is the environment, nature. Therefore, the outside is death, the possibility of destruction, the inevitability of destruction.

What death here makes recognizable is the outside of the system. Through the novel's end, the outside is revealed to the reader to exist and to have an impact. The reader has been admitted into the consciousness from the beginning and has been able to accept the generation of the text as the process of the author/narrator/text altogether. When the text ends, the system similarly collapses and the reader is made aware in that moment of the outside of the system. Furthermore, it is the experience of the reader that these consciousnesses are deceased. Unlike other novels where the characters seem always living, every time the book opens, the characters live again, these characters can only be past tense after the novel is finished. The reader experiences the death of the character through the termination of the text itself, thus the system of the novel which has been developed has a termination point. The text is irrevocably disrupted by the death of its only producer, and the reader must accept that death in order to accept the closure of the novel as a system.

The final disruption of the text of AVA is foreshadowed by regular minor disruptions visually presented through the space of the page. The space provides a visual model of the inside and outside of the system. The inside exists in the actual thoughts, but the outside appears in the way each thought is made distinct from the next, separated by a double space, as in the example above. The space allows the reader to separate each segment, to read each as an individual piece, but also to let it read in connection to the pieces above and below it. In the above example, then, Ana Julia may or may not be in the circular room which may or may not be in Venice. Or the circular room reminds Ava of the arch in Venice. Then the sea appears, relating to Venice, relating to Morocco, perhaps some other sea, a sea near the hospital where Ava's body is. Sometimes pieces are connected directly through repetition of words or phrases, but the space does not vary, so there is no way to know which segments are "meant" to go together, if any.

Since the novel of consciousness produces thoughts, sometimes those thoughts are repetitive and other times one thought leads to a completely different one without providing an obvious connection. A reader of the work is thereby allowed to connect whichever segments seem to work together for her. The narrative is a construct on the part of the reader because the segments are not made to fit in a particular way by the author. The reader must play an active role in the interpretation of the narrative in a way that works differently from the plot-driven novel. Because of the reader's participation, the entrance of the reader into the production of the text, the system integrates the reader him/herself, until the violent separation at the end of the novel.

In this way, the actual narrative or plot of Ava's life diminishes, while her death takes on growing importance. Her memories have to be translated by the reader into a narrative. And the reader is free to choose how to connect the narrative elements because the consistent space between segments allows for interpretation. Every segment of text has equal weight. Only the segment between the space equals a complete unit of thought.

Because of this space, the edges of the system regularly appear on the page. The blank space cannot be integrated. It contains no language, no consciousness. It is a break between the system, a regular vision of emptiness that precedes the final space when the narrator will no longer produce. Certainly, the space permits the reader various readings of the narrative text, but it also signals the reader to what is not happening, connections that are not being made, transitions that are left out, explanations that will never appear. The space could be the time between firing neurons in the brain, but it is space nonetheless and reminds the reader that thought is disruptive and disrupted, that the system of language can be broken by the distance between words, and that the system of the novel itself will eventually collapse. At that point, when the system ruptures, the reader exits the novel the way the character herself departs; however, the reader finds herself still within a system, whereas the system of AVA will only recur with a new reader. Through the final disruption of the text, the lengthy space at the end of the final segment, the reader is directed toward the outside of the system, the borders are reached and the beyond is indicated, if only indirectly.

David Markson's The Last Novel operates with similar techniques and forms to Maso's Ava. The content of the work is different since Markson's narrator, Novelist, mostly tells anecdotes about famous artists rather than reflecting on his own life. But the anecdotes are the collections of the narrator's life and are presented through his consciousness:

Quentin de La Tour, harmlessly deranged in his later / years-and frequently seen talking to trees.

Another of Novelist's economic-status epiphanies: / Walking four or five blocks out of his way, and back, to save / little more than nickels on some common household item. / While needing to stop to rest at least two or three times en /route.

Writers are the beggars of Western society. / Said Octavio Paz.

There is no way of being a creative writer in America without / being a loser. / Said Nelson Algren. (74)

The anecdotes occur on the page as Novelist thinks of them or reads his notes, perhaps. Again, the novel relies on the internalized consciousness, in this case written in a close third person point of view. This consciousness moves through history, as Ava moves through her own memory. Time is not stable, neither is geography. Here Novelist remains within his apartment building rather than in the hospital, but he is also near death. It is unclear if his impending death is in any way related to physical illness, but it is emerging from a frustration and a depression about his position as an artist.

By the end of the novel, Novelist has committed suicide by jumping off the roof of his building, indicated by the segment "Access to Roof for Emergency Only./Alarm Will Sound if Door Opened " on the last page, suggesting his venture to the roof. Like AVA, the death is foreshadowed from the beginning where he discusses the height of his apartment building, "There are six floors in Novelist's apartment building. Then again, the paved inner airshaft courtyard is at basement level, making seven. And then the roof" (1). Novelist then creates the text by recording notes about other artists and authors, both positive and negative. The reader's experience is of Novelist's internalized discussion through these anecdotes about what art is and what being an artist is. Ultimately, he despairs of ever accomplishing anything or of accomplishing anything more.

The Last Novel is another system, another view of consciousness and integration from inside another individual. This system relies on anecdotes; so its collection is different, but the method and meaning are the same. Even the space between segments remains, reminding the reader of synaptic lag, transitional lack, the possibility of external disruption. The space commits the final disruption by terminating the novel. The narrator in this case chooses to end the system, but that choice was not long from being made for him. He, too, cannot stop producing, generating language, endlessly accumulating anecdotes until his brain stops, which only occurs with death. Death is a release from the constant integration of anecdotes into his history. And again, the reader experiences a similar release with the cessation of the production of text and the return to the present of the reader. The system ends and the reader is directed toward the boundary of that system, where its desire for ongoing production eventually consumes its producer.

As a third demonstration of the novel of consciousness and its workings, William Gaddis' Agape Agape fits the profile. In this work, Gaddis' narrator, also a thinly veiled characterization of himself, provides a running consciousness on the page. Again, the narrator is dying. Again, his thoughts are the content of the work. It begins when the reader enters into his consciousness, "No but you see I've got to explain all this because I don't, we don't know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine..." (1) and ends when the narrator's consciousness ends.

There is a formal difference, however, between Gaddis and the others. Gaddis does not separate thoughts into segments: they are continuous. Instead the breaks occur in the language, in the type of thinking that goes on. The narrator's thoughts occur in two types, thoughts that relate to his project about art and thoughts that connect to his physical present:

Flutes and kettle drums in the Corybantic and Dionysiac cures for phobias and anxiety breaking down and weeping, hearts beating like like, like the kettledrums dancing out of their minds in their morbid mental no, no it's getting too close can't dance can't even stand up that's the other can't, can't breathe just, just try to..." (30).

The thoughts about art typically flow fluidly, freely, correctly, while the thoughts about physicality are broken into smaller phrases and stuttered. Maso and Markson also move between productive thought which engages with something (memories, anecdotes) and reactive thoughts about their physical present (the cat, the nurse) as well. However, the thoughts of the physical present in Maso and Markson are equalized by the space between the segments on the page, allowing these thoughts equal footing with other thoughts. Neither the reader nor the narrator is distracted by reminders of the physical present; the thoughts are equated with Ava's memories and Narrator's anecdotes. However, in Gaddis, these thoughts seem to be obstructions, distractions, interruptions that take his narrator away from his more critical thoughts.

Because the text moves in a continuous line, the semantical changes that occur between critical thought and physical present thought seems more noticeable, like the stuttering and repetition. Gaddis' narrator seems put out whenever he has to think about his body in order to pick up the towel from the floor or because his leg hurts. The lack of space demonstrates that Gaddis' narrator is more completely integrated into the system. The body and the mind are part of the work, part of the experience, part of the life, but ultimately this consciousness ends as well and the system of the novel derails.

These novels, then, show how the intimate consciousness provides endless material for production that aggregates ad infinitum in a mirror of Wallerstein's world-system. However, at some point death interrupts that production and the natural end of the body provides the consciousness with a means of termination, a way out. Death still points to nonconformity, as Said recognized about the nineteenth century novel, but it is no longer nonconformity with imperial/colonial power or society. It has become a nonconformity that signals exception to integration in the capitalist world-system. It's not that death is a choice for nonconformity, rather it is a natural disruption to the micro-system of the human. It is a symbol of the threat of terminal resources. Endless accumulation is not possible because resources are finite, as life is finite.

In another version of these novels, Martin Amis' Time's Arrow follows this trend from a slightly different perspective. The gimmick of this novel is that it runs backwards, as in it begins with the character's death and ends with his birth. People in the novel walk facing the way they've come; when they eat, they remove food from their mouths and put it on their plates. To further add to the strangeness, the narrator of the text is a sort of parasitic consciousness that observes the main character from inside his head. But the narrator is still a consciousness of sorts, even if it is narrating the backwards life of another (sort of) character. What is important, though, is that the novel still leads to the end of the narrator when he returns to his mother's womb. The narrator still vanishes, ceases to exist, and that is how the narration comes to an end. It is as if this system produces backwards as the text narrates backwards, so that its collapse is into its beginning instead of into its end.

Of course, not all novels of consciousness end with the narrator's death (or birth), however inevitable it might seem. One example might be Nathalie Sarraute's Here: A Novel. This novel explores the relationship between consciousness and memory. It traces particularly the challenge on the part of its narrator to remember a word: "It will come back, it can't have disappeared forever, that's impossible, it's been here for so long...it was that frail...slightly tooping...evanescent...silhouette that brought it for the first time..." (17). The word, actually a name, escapes the narrator's consciousness, and the work follows the thought process as the word is sought out, imagined in context, connected to experiences and anecdotes, and ultimately remembered. The conflict here is that the narrator does not die at the end, but the word is remembered. A system is created again through the first person narration that allows the reader access to the narrator's consciousness, but that system is not destroyed within the context of the novel. Instead the system is minorly disrupted and then the word is integrated. Here problematizes consciousness with an actual problem. The problem enacts the disruption, but the solution to that problem allows the consciousness to continue in other topics, in other novels even, where the system has not collapsed but readjusted to incorporate the new development.

Perhaps Here, then, presents a sort of equivalent to nineteenth century novels that end with marriage. In the recovery of the word, the system is stabilized and the word can be integrated into the individual's experience. Were the word not to return, the system would be unbalanced. Like Eric Packer's asymmetrical prostate in DeLillo's Underworld, that unbalance would be reset by outside forces that would eliminate the asymmetry from the system in order to restore its function. So, when the narrator does not die, it is because the problem has been solved, recovered, brought into the control of the system. The text has conformed as much as the nineteenth century characters who got married at the end of the novel. Order is restored.

Consciousness in all of these works does occupy a particularly liminal space between body and mind. The body of the narrator is always present, in AVA it is in the hospital, in The Last Novel it is in the apartment building, in Agape Agape it is in the narrator's home as well, but the mind wanders between the physical present and the imaginary mental world. Consciousness passes through the borders of the system, perhaps describing the boundaries of enclosure. It is the consciousness itself that imitates the global system in endlessly accumulating memory or anecdote or language. But in the end, these consciousnesses are finite and the resource of the body terminates. Certainly, death is destructive in some way, destructive of the system of the novel because it ends, but for the reader the experience of the novel allows for an experience of a metaphoric system. There is the accumulation, the using up, the destabilization of narrative that occurs as the thoughts detach from plot, history, geography. Then, there is the death of the narrator which draws the text and the system to a close. This closure provides the reader with a sense of the terminal points of the system and there seems to be some freedom in that glimpse of the outside.

***

Jenny Morse is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her work has been published in Menacing Hedge, flashquake, Seismopolite and The Notre Dame Review.

***

Works Cited

DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Gaddis, William. Agape Agape. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Luhmann, Niklas. "Globalization or world society: how to conceive of modern society." International Review of Sociology 7.1 Mar 1997.

Markson, David. The Last Novel. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2007.

Maso, Carole. AVA. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.Miyoshi, Masao. "A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation State." Critical Inquiry. 19 Summer 1993.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1993.

Sarraute, Nathalie. Here. Trans. Barbara Wright. New York: George Braziller, 1997.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.

***
 
 

Subscribe
Submissions Guide
Letters to the Editor
pdf
RSS

 
 
 
 
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry | newsletter
Copyright © 2018 T.S. Tsonchev Publishing & Design, Canada. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about | contact us | copyright | user agreement | privacy policy