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COHN, Jesse E. "’I Have Set My Affair On Nothing’: Literary Theory, Fiction, and the Politics of Antirepresentation,"
Article published on 4 June 2004
last modification on 13 April 2015
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State University of New York at Binghamton: Summer 1999

This dissertation is an attempt to develop an anarchist literary theory and explore its possibilities through readings of contemporary fiction by Paul Auster, Jane Smiley, and Tim O’Brien. Starting with the question of whether anarchist theory can be regarded as essentially parallel to the poststructuralist "attack on representation," as recent theorists have suggested, I reevaluate the premises of this "antirepresentational" reading of anarchism in the context of its historical development.

I argue that antirepresentationalism leaves anarchism largely bereft of the resources it needs to construct viable alternatives to violent, hierarchical, and coercive discourses and social practices. In place of an antirepresentational version of anarchist literary theory, for which fictions (and ultimately all forms of social construction) can only be empty or deceptive "pretense," I suggest an ethical reading, in which what is to be refused is not fiction or pretense per se, but the fiction which surreptitiously reifies its metaphors into the real, thereby manifesting a form of bad faith or "second-order pretense" (the pretense that one is not pretending).

Extensive chapters on Paul Auster and Jane Smiley trace these thematics through several of their works, including Auster’s City of Glass ,The Invention of Solitude , and The Music of Chance as well as others, and Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Ordinary Love & Good Will, The Greenlanders, and At Paradise Gate, with a brief meditation on certain short stories in Tim O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried.

What emerges from these combined readings of anarchist theory, history, and fiction is a broad perspective on the possibilities of art as part of the discursive matrix in which our collective "affairs" are set.


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