UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Spaces of value in William Gaddis's The Recognitions Williams, Jack


This thesis provides a thorough analysis of Williams Gaddis’s depiction of capitalism and American imperialism in his magnum opus, The Recognitions (1955). Often read as a late Modernist, early Postmodernist text primarily concerned with aesthetic and spiritual questions, this thesis argues that The Recognitions also exhibits a profound concern with the changing material realities of lived space under intra- and post-World War II American capitalism. The first chapter analyzes the scenes set in New York through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “abstract space” to relate Gaddis’s depictions of urban infrastructure to his critique of the decline of civic culture through alienation and overreliance on mass media. The second chapter argues that The Recognitions prefigures the critique of American imperialism that becomes central to Gaddis’s mid-career works, J R (1975) and Carpenter’s Gothic (1985). Through a critical examination of the text’s depiction of non-American spaces (Paris, Central America, and Spain), it demonstrates how American industries commodify cultural practices and overwrite Indigenous spatial arrangements to subordinate all other ways of life to the demands of capital. The second chapter concludes by examining the scenes set in the Spanish countryside, linking the novel’s spatial themes with its aesthetic and spiritual ones through a discussion of Gaddis’s descriptions of monumental built structures. Drawing on philosopher G.A. Cohen’s distinction between preserving particular valuable things and preserving value as such, it argues that the depictions of enduring monuments present a spatial metaphor for an attitude toward value more broadly, one that resists the reductive, utilitarian attitude that shapes the novel’s other spatial arrangements. In asserting the centrality of space as an important category for understanding The Recognitions’ depiction of capitalism and identifying the presence of Gaddis’s later critiques of imperialism in his earliest work, this thesis enriches our understanding of Gaddis’s engagement with the socio-economic realities of his time and identifies an avenue for further inquiry into the global aspects of his fiction.

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