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Beyond fragmentation : Donald Barthelme and writing as political act Chaskes, Daniel


“Beyond Fragmentation: Donald Barthelme and Writing as Political Act” extracts Barthelme from recursive debates over postmodernism and considers him, instead, within the intellectual contexts he himself recognized: the avant-garde, the phenomenological, and the transnational. It is these interests which were summoned by Barthelme in order to develop an aesthetic method characterized by collage, pastiche, and irony, and which together yielded a spirited response to political phenomena of the late twentieth century. I argue that Barthelme was an author who believed language had been corrupted by official discourse and who believed, more importantly, that it could be recovered through acts of combination and re-use. Criticism influenced by the cultural theory of Fredric Jameson has frequently labeled Barthelme’s work a mimesis of an age in which meaning had become devalued by rampant production and consumption. I revise this assumption by arguing that Barthelme’s work reacts to what was in fact a stubbornly efficient use of discourse for purposes of propaganda, bureaucracy, and public relations. Drawing on the biographical material available, and integrating that material with original archival work, I uncover the specific sources of Barthelme’s political discontent: Watergate, the war in Vietnam, a growing militarization in the United States, and the ideological rigidity of the 1960s counterculture. In three biographical chapters I connect these concerns to Barthelme’s novels and short stories, which represent attempts to create avant-garde objects that might challenge the specific rationalities (the commonality of violence, for example) political action is premised upon. I show Barthelme inserting political subject matter into texts alongside a formal apparatus that suggests the way such matter had been misconceived and misrepresented, often with horrific consequences. In two chapters of close reading, I first read the short story “Paraguay,” from City Life (1970), as a critique of American neo-imperialism in Latin America. In that piece, Barthelme explores the dual ways--official and cultural--a homogenizing American influence is felt abroad. Next, I compare Barthelme to author and activist Grace Paley, whose story collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) provides revealing context for Barthelme’s own political interventions.

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