Narratives of Recognition in Contemporary American Fiction
Edward P. Jones’s ‘The Known World’ and Richard Powers’s ‘The Echo Maker‘
Pages 643 - 661
This essay is a contribution towards a more systematic consideration of the relation between recognition and autonomy in literary and cultural studies. The readings presented here rest on two premises: First, I assume that literary texts negotiate recognition in ways different from and not completely accessible to philosophy and the social sciences; and second, that the individualistic language of liberalism, which is preoccupied with autonomy and dependence, changes depending on how recognition is negotiated. Both Edward P. Jones’s neo-slave narrative The Known World and Richard Powers’s novel of ideas The Echo Maker stage historically and socially specific convergences of autonomy and dependence in their depictions of precarious subjectivity. The Known World, situated in the mid-nineteenth-century slave South, shows how the liberal ideal of self-mastery is implicitly linked to the mastery of others as chattel slaves. The Echo Maker, set in the early twenty-first-century Midwest, stages another form of precariousness that in some ways answers the questions of submission and self-mastery raised in the other novel. It suggests an at once more democratic and more literary model of individuality that does not depend on ownership so much as on the logic of storytelling. The novels project distinct diegetic worlds and rely on divergent generic patterns; in exploring the logics of possessive individualism and a more democratic model of storytelling respectively, they offer contingent concepts of agency that are dependent for their private and public stabilizations on very different forms of recognition of the other.