The Macksey Journal


This paper analyzes the relation between different forms of agency (as conceptualized by GWF Hegel) in the capitalist systems presented in postmodern literature. The subject of my paper is William Gaddis’ JR and its usage of postmodern techniques (from telephone conversations to clashing dialogue snippets) to express the chaos of late-stage capitalism. This paper argues that one can use Gaddis’ narrative to extrapolate the significance of Hegel's account of agency for our own contemporary world, because Gaddis depicts individuals in capitalism having different forms of agency within different spheres and through different projects. This multiplicity can be understood through Hegel's division of agency into self-appropriation, self-determination, and self-governance. Hegel admits the possibility of one kind of agency overcrowding the others. Gaddis' picture of capitalism shows this possibility in action by having self-governance crowd out other kinds of agency, in particular through (1) commodified education through television; (2) the decline from established status to individualized contract work; and (3) the focus on materialism for its own sake. The child protagonist JR Vansant further demonstrates this by accumulating capital as his only want and replacing the agency of others with his agency. He diminishes others’ linguistic agency by talking through the phone or intermediaries, and their extra-linguistic agency by assigning them to projects they would normally reject. Ultimately, by extrapolating Hegel's division of agency through Gaddis' postmodern lens, one shows how capitalism heightens tensions between agencies and how art resolves to these tensions.