Islamic Azad University
Central Tehran Branch
Faculty of Foreign Languages
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements of the Degree of M.A. in English Literature
A Study of Selected Short Stories of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Under the Light of Jean-François Lyotard’s Theory
Dr. Reza Yavarian
Dr. Negar Sharif
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This research investigates the constitution and formation of social subject in the selection of short stories written by Kurt Vonnegut. In this regard, the researcher determines to benefit from Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodern theory to scrutinize the authoritative system in the postmodern society. In fact, Lyotard and other prominent postmodernist philosophers are of the opinion that the individual is severely influenced and manipulated by the capitalist system. In the postmodern social theory, the individual is defined as a dependant, fluid, receptive and inert being; he is a minor constituent of the global capitalism which exploits him to serve its interests. The researcher applied the theory of Lyotard on “Thanasphere”, “The Package”, “Poor Little Rich Town”, “Souvenir”, “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger”, “Custom-Made Bride”, and “2BR02B” from the collection of Bagombo Snuff Box; since, all the selected short stories narrate the social atmosphere after the Second World War while the capitalist economic system flourished to global capitalism. The researcher concludes that in the selected short stories the system of post-industrial capitalism produces its legitimated social institutions and apparatuses such as knowledge and truth by which it implements the normative behavior, standards and prevalent values in the social body. Capitalism regulates the social activities by the processes of homogenization and universalization; therefore, it produces the grand narratives and language games to direct the social interactions. In addition, the social subject is the product of power system. The postmodern social subject is a relational self as he is inevitably influenced by the legitimated social activities and participates in them. He has to learn the rules of the legitimated genres of discourse and to perform efficiently. Accordingly, during these social participations, he is gradually manipulated to conform to the advantage of power.
Key Terms: capitalism, power, language game, grand narrative, social subject, performativity.
این پژوهش ساختار و شکل گیری فردیت اجتماعی را درگلچینی از داستان های کوتاه کرت وانگات بررسی میکند.در این رابطه٬ پژوهش گر بر آن شد تا از تئوری پست مدرن ژان فرانسوا لیوتارد برای بررسی نظام قدرتمند اقتصادی عصر پست مدرن سود جوید. در واقع٬ لیوتارد و دیگر فیلسوفان برجسته مکتب پست مدرن بر این باورند که انسان به شدت تحت تاثیر سلطه نظام سرمایه داری است. در تئوری پست مدرن انسان به عنوان موجودی وابسته٬ متغیر٬ پذیرنده و منفعل تعریف شده است. او یک جزء کوچک در نظام جهانی سرمایه داری است که منافع آن از طریق بهره کشی از انسان ها تامین میشود. پژوهش گر تئوری لیوتارد را بر داستانهای کوتاه تاناسفر٬ مجموعه٬ شهر غنی کوچک فقیر٬ سوقاتی٬ سفر جالی راجرز٬ عروس سفارشی و 2ب ر20ب از مجموعه داستان انفیه دان باگومبو پیاده کرد. همه داستان های کوتاه فضای اجتماعی پس از جنگ جهانی دوم که با شکوفایی اقتصاد سرمایه داری جهانی همراه بود را روایت میکنند. پژوهش گر به این نتیجه دست یافت که در داستان های کوتاه انتخاب شده سرمایه داری فراصنعتی نهادها و ابزارهای اجتماعی مشروعی چون دانش و واقعیت را تولید میکند و با استفاده از آن ها رفتار هنجاری٬ معیارها و ارزش های رایج را در متن جامعه به اجرا میگذارد. سرمایه داری فعالیت های اجتماعی را با فرآیندهای هم جنس سازی و همگانی سازی اداره میکند؛ بنابراین٬ برای مسیردهی به برهم کنش های اجتماعی بازی های زبانی و کلان روایت ها را تولید میکند. علاوه بر آن٬ فردیت اجتماعی محصول نظام قدرت است. خود اجنماعی پست مدرن در ارتباطات شکل میگیرد. او به طرز اجتناب ناپذیری متاثر از شرکت در فعالیت های اجتماعی مشروع است. او ناگزیر از فراگیری گونه های مشروع گفتمان برای ایفای نقش کارآمد است. از این رو در خلال فعالیت های اجتماعی او به طور تدریجی به سمتی که در جهت منافع قدرت است هدایت میشود.
واژگان کلیدی: سرمایه داری٬ قدرت٬ بازی زبانی٬ کلان روایت٬ فردیت اجتماعی٬ قابلیت اجرایی
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1. General Background
1.2. The Argument
1.2.1. Research Questions
1.3. Literature Review
1.4. Thesis Outline
1.5. Methodology and Approach
1.6. Motivation and Delimitation
1.7. Definition of Key Terms
Chapter 2: The Postmodern Theory of Jean-François Lyotard
2.1. Jean-François Lyotard
2.2. The Postmodernist Movement
2.3. Early Marxist Activities
2.4. The Pragmatics of Knowledge
2.5. Modern Criteria of Legitimation
2.6. Postmodern Criteria of Legitimation
2.7. The development of Capitalist System
2.8. The Semiotics and the Linguistic Based Culture
2.9. The Postmodern Self (Social Subject)
2.10. The Complementary Approaches of Baudrillard and Foucault
Chapter 3: Language Games
3.1. Studying Capitalism, Power, Language Game and Reality in “Thanasphere”
3.2. Studying Capitalism, Reality, Language Game and Power in “Souvenir”
3.3. Studying Language Game, Power, Capitalism and Alienation in “The Cruise
of the Jolly Roger”
3.4. Studying Capitalism, Disciplinary Power, Language Game and Reality in
Chapter 4: Grand Narratives
4.1. Studying Grand Narrative, Capitalism and Social Class in “The Package”
4.2. Studying Grand Narrative, Capitalism and Performativity in “Poor Little Rich
4.3. Studying Grand Narrative, Capitalism and Commodity in “Custom-Made
Chapter 5: Conclusion
5.3. Suggestions for Further Research
1.1. General Background
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007) is renowned as a prominent American novelist and essayist. Vonnegut was one of the celebrated writers of post-World War ΙΙ in American literature. He defined himself as an atheist, agnostic and freethinker. The significant characteristic of his writing career is that for the most part in his works he combined satiric social observation and black comedy; also, he utilized surrealist and imaginary elements.
Several of his novels included science fiction themes. Actually, Vonnegut made use of the elements of science fiction and metafiction to direct the reader’s attention to the more serious issues associated with ethics and politics. His simple writing style is deceptive since it misleads the reader from perceiving the tense and unspeakable agony of the individual’s life in the twentieth century.
As a postmodern writer, in his writing Vonnegut employs some specific features; that is, the disorder in the narrative events and disruption of time or mixing past, present and future, blending of different genres, drawing the pictures, symbols or designs in the text, vicious circles and paranoia. In his works the limerick, humorous and jokes are entangled to narrate the serious facts that are really happened in Vonnegut’s lifetime.
The crucial event in Vonnegut’s life which had a profound influence on him and consequently on his writing career could be the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied armies in 1945, a horrifying happening he witnessed personally as a young captive of war. His understanding in Dresden laid the grounds for his greatest novel Slaughterhouse-Five published in 1969 as an obvious attack on the terrors of war in Vietnam, racial turmoil and cultural and social cataclysm.
Accordingly, there is linkage between Vonnegut’s life and works. War, genocide, environmental determinism, atomic bomb and technological advancement were all engendered in the postmodern epoch. He disapproved the technological science and the political economy. Common themes in Vonnegut’s works consist of the dehumanization resulted by the improvement of technology, Sexuality, fierceness, hopelessness, bewilderment, alienation, insecurity and depression.
Vonnegut was a humanist. He maintained that in the postmodern era the human being is a hapless, lonely, bewildered and desperate victim; he is robbed of his identity and integrity to transform to a totally dependent social subject. In an alien world organized by machines, the individual tries to cope with the forces beyond his control. In his novels Vonnegut compassionately praised the characters who refuse to surrender to despair and defeat.
Vonnegut’s remarkable works are Player Piano (1952), Sirens of Titan (1959), Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Galápagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), Hocus Pocus (1990) and Timequake (1997). On the Whole, Vonnegut is the author of 14 novels and nearly 50 short stories, in addition to plentiful essays, autobiographical pieces, and plays. A number of his works have been transformed into television or film-as an adaptations- and he caused distinction to some of these with cameo role appearances.
This research is going to concentrate on seven short stories written by Vonnegut in the collection, Bagombo Snuff Box. The researcher chose to work on “Thanasphere”, “The Package”, “Poor Little Rich Town”, “Souvenir”, “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger”, “Custom-Made Bride”, and “2BR02B”. In these short stories the postmodern world after the Second World War- is depicted. The concepts which impact on the constitution and formation of the social subject in the postmodern philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard (1925-98) will be discussed by the researcher.
From the above-mentioned fictions, “Thanasphere” and “2BR02B” narrate the circumstances in advanced societies regulated by the technological knowledge. “Souvenir” and “The Cruise of Jolly Roger” deal with the events of World War ΙΙ straightforwardly. “The Package”, “Poor Little Rich Town” and “Custom-Made Bride” depict the social milieu in the American capitalist system. What inspired the researcher to undertake this study is that the entire short stories illustrate the helpless individuals entangled in the coercive environment caused by global capitalism.
In “Thanasphere”, Vonnegut shatters the borderline between the living and dead. He questions the legitimacy of the scientific knowledge since in the capitalist system this form of knowledge is deemed as ubiquitous and infallible; however, in the story some unexpected events take place that cannot be subsumed within the scientific knowledge. It happens that an astronaut as a player deviates the rules of the dominant language game as he communicates with the ghosts of the dead.
The researcher focuses on the reaction of the characters toward this so called illegitimate move of the astronaut; that the people in authority easily condemn him to be inefficient; therefore, they call him idiot and ignore him. Also, the nature of reality or truth in the postmodern world is going to be analyzed by the researcher since in this story the heads of power hide the new discovery and publicize a make-believe reality in order to maintain their legitimacy.
“2BR02B” narrates the far future where there is a boom in the science of medicine. The population of earth has increased enormously because the technology of health care has improved considerably; so that the dangers threatening physical health and soundness have been eradicated entirely. Government exerts strict control on the population. It even encourages people to die voluntarily and make room for others. Likewise, the nature of power in the postmodern period will be analyzed. The individuals in the story challenge a disciplinary kind of power system which invades the very personal territories of the citizens. It advocates suicide and self-sacrificing as a value practiced by the efficient social subject.
“Souvenir” narrates the bewilderment of language games in the wartime and how by the shift of power the dominant language game of German Nazi loses its legitimacy; hence, the individual experiences the contradicting situation in which the proficiency as a value fluctuates constantly. Duo to the improvement of technology, the production of the military machines brings about mass destruction and annihilation of the human being. The soldiers are the defenseless victims of the absurd war. Vonnegut pinpoints to the irrationality of the war when in the story on the day that the war ended still the soldiers were killed by the military vehicles.
“The Cruise of the Jolly Roger” also deals with the post-war circumstances. In this fiction the researcher foregrounds the disparity between the two dissimilar language games practiced in the army and in the public. It portrays the life of a retired army officer who leaves the army where he reckoned as his home; accordingly, the veteran faces the unknown civilian world where he was far from for many years. Encountering the new civil society, he experiences a deep feeling of estrangement and detachment.
The protagonist desperately identifies himself as an inefficient civilian among others whose language game he is strange to. In many places of this short story, Vonnegut implies the sense of alienation experienced by many veterans of the Second World War. Once being a veteran of the same war, he became familiar with the suffering; consequently, he could vividly narrate the situation of the soldiers who survived the war and came back home as an outsider who had difficulty conforming to the new setting.
The story in “The Package” revolves around the wealthy and extravagant life style of the Americans. After the Second World War America succeeded in achieving the global economic dominance thanks to the technological advancement; therefore, the American society experienced the higher standards of living. It transformed to a rich and consumer society. The amalgamation of the social strata and the mixture of high culture and low culture advocated by the postmodernists facilitated the process.
“The Package” portrays one day in life of a nouveau-rich couple whom tries to fix themselves to their social class. They try to emulate the language game of the affluent class but they cannot perform efficiently; for that reason, they get upset. Vonnegut in this short story indicates the absurd economic-based life in the capitalist society according to which the value of the individual is estimated by the objects and materials that he possesses.
“The Poor Little Rich Town” narrates the traditional life style in a village which is disturbed when the perverted technological progress comes in. Apparently, in this story Vonnegut indirectly alludes to the post-industrial capitalism that swept the world after the Second World War. The global economy subjected the other countries in the world to its homogenizing policy. Likewise, the story contrasts the pre-modern (primitive) and modern culture.
Lyotard and other postmodernist philosophers condemned modernity and lauded the premodern or primitive communities. The researcher studies how in “The Poor Little Rich Town” the arrival of progress degrades the former social bond and the individuals nearly lose their custom and background owning to the fact that they are regarded as no longer legitimated. The new system harms the social relations, warmth and friendship as well; instead, it engenders animosity and distance.
“Custom-Made Bride” deals with the objectification of the human being in the economic-based system of capitalism. The researcher studies one of the grand narratives legitimated by the capitalist system; that is fashion. In the system of production the social subject is personalized to follow the fashion. In such society the individual must be up-to-date; as a consequence, he consumes more and more product.
The story narrates the life of a genius and artist who represents postmodern aesthetic taste. He designs his wife according to the latest fashion but he pays no attention to her feelings and opinions. The woman at last protests to her subjection in view of the fact that her identity is lost; she is degraded to function as a pleasure commodity. The events in the story stand for the condition of the social subject in the capitalist system that is personalized to serve the interests of the market-driven economy.
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