Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Seven Modes of Uncertainty

Seven Modes of Uncertainty

C. Namwali Serpell
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Seven Modes of Uncertainty
    Book Description:

    Literature is uncertain. Literature is good for us. These two ideas are often taken for granted. But what is the relationship between literature's capacity to perplex and its ethical value? Seven Modes of Uncertainty contends that literary uncertainty is crucial to ethics because it pushes us beyond the limits of our experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-41967-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-40)

    Let’s begin with a beginning. Humbert Humbert’s first words inLolitaare famously, even infamously, incantatory: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”¹ Because they come at the beginning of the novel, we cannot escape these lines, whether we find them gorgeous, allusive—Poe has already reared his head in the merest syllable cribbed from “AnnabelLee”—or merely purple.² As we read on, Humbert’s poeticizing poses another problem:...


    • [I Introduction]
      (pp. 41-44)

      Mutual exclusionis the narrative presentation of mutually exclusive sets of events or of mutually exclusive explanations for the same set of events. In logic, the termmutually exclusivedescribes when two events are equally possible but could not have both occurred, or when two propositions cannot logically be true at the same time. As with tossing a coin, only one outcome (heads) can be true; if it is, the other outcome (tails) cannot be true. In that example, the mutual exclusion is collectively exhaustive, meaning that either one or the other must happen. There are other forms—the rolling...

    • 1 OSCILLATION Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
      (pp. 45-78)

      What does an author owe his work? Wayne Booth, in his comprehensive articulation of the various dimensions of literary ethics inThe Company We Keep,asks and answers:

      What Are the Author’s Responsibilities to the Work of Art?

      The usual modern answer, good enough up to a point, is “to make it as good as can be.” . . . The “duty” here is indistinguishable from the pursuit of artistic success: skill, craft, technique, formal excellence, emotional power, self-expression. An ethical critic can simply reverse these terms . . . and think of the pursuit of excellence as itself a...

    • 2 ENFOLDING Rereading Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001)
      (pp. 79-114)

      “Don’t spoil!” we say indignantly, hands clamped to our ears, our tongues la-la-la-ing. Some cavalier traitor has launched into a description of a book or film we’ve heard of but haven’t yet experienced. While it seems ubiquitous now, this use of the wordspoilis relatively recent, emerging from a pejoration—a linguistic spoiling—that took place in the seventeenth century. Before that, spoil was a verb of triumph: to strip an enemy of clothing or armor, as plunder. The word derives from the skinning of animals (spoliummeans skin or hide and the possible rootspel-can mean to...


    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 115-118)

      Multiplicityis a narrative structure characterized by the presentation of conflicting views within a given community about an event, an object, or a person. Corresponding to a “both/and” rhetoric that precludes an objective truth, multiplicity presents several acts of interpretation, but no one view is privileged as correct. Literary multiplicity is widespread and, according to the Russian narrative theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, it derives from the multiplicity endemic to all language, which describes a world that is “overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist—or, on the contrary, by the ‘light’ of alien...

    • 3 ADJACENCY Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
      (pp. 119-152)

      The dominance of the authorial persona in ethics-minded criticism is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the case of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Although her writing is well known for its difficulty, Morrison has given enough explanatory interviews to fill two volumes, both extensively cited despite the humble, homey “conversations” intimated by their titles.¹ Morrison’s “conversational” appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show also dramatize an anxious negotiation of readers’ desire to know and the author’s will to tell.² With stunning audacity, Morrison even interpreted her own novels in her Tanner lecture at the University of Michigan in 1988. Yung-Hsing Wu...

    • 4 ACCOUNTING Interreading William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Shirley Jackson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity” (1943), and Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003)
      (pp. 153-190)

      I. A. Richards, William Empson’s undergraduate supervisor at Cambridge, once genially described the origin of his pupil’s first and most famous work,Seven Types of Ambiguity:

      [Empson] seemed to have read more English Literature than I had, and to have read it more recently and better, so our roles were soon in some danger of becoming reversed. At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing with the unpunctuated form of “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Taking the sonnet as a conjuror takes his...


    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 191-194)

      Repetitionis a necessary feature of narrative. A repeated name, for example, permits us to track a single character across a novel. Repetition’s operation ofsimilitudeurges consistency over time, emphasizing the reality of things and of persons, as when we speak of habits, customs, conventions. While some repetition is necessary for narrative stability, it can also afford uncertainty because every iteration can seem to bear more—or different—meaning in its new context. William Empson describes the effect of Sidney’sArcadia:“in tracing their lovelorn pastoral tedium through thirteen repetitions, with something of the aimless multitudinousness of the sea...

    • 5 VACUITY Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (1991)
      (pp. 195-229)

      In his 1976 essay, “Interpreting theVariorum,” Stanley Fish observes that when “a host of commentators . . . are lined up on either side of an interpretive crux,” we might ask: “what if that controversy is itself regarded as evidence, not of an ambiguity that must be removed, but of an ambiguity that readers have always experienced?”¹ In this chapter, I considerAmerican Psycho’s uncertainty through the scandalized and polarized views on the novel expressed by critics, reviewers, and lay readers. This is not a new tack: it is almost a prerequisite to preface any critical argument aboutAmerican...

    • 6 SYNCHRONICITY Metareading Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005)
      (pp. 230-268)

      Tom McCarthy’s novelRemainderbegins with a moment of extreme uncertainty:

      About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.

      It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that—well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been—or, more precisely, beingaboutto be—hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind...

    • 7 CONCLUSION: FLIPPANCY Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005)
      (pp. 269-292)

      The present moment is an ideal vantage point from which to examine the belatedness of literary uncertainty. As techniques for uncertainty have become widely available to writers and rapidly recognizable to readers, we have to wonder: has the pathos of literary uncertainty come to eclipse the ethos afforded by it? I pursue this question through Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,a novel that manipulates techniques for uncertainty with which readers are deeply familiar.¹ Rather than unsettling our values, this novel’s flashy moves conduce to a set of clichéd ideas about uncertainty while stirring a generic, sentimental...

    (pp. 293-302)
    (pp. 303-304)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 305-378)
    (pp. 379-380)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 381-393)