Out of Service: The Work of Character in the Novel of Post-Industrial Society

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“Out of Service: The Work of Character in the Novel of Post-Industrial Society” argues that the formal innovations in the novel since 1945 reflect the form’s revolutionary redevelopment as a technology of social production. Over the last seventy-five years, the novel has registered, both in its form and its substance, a momentous social and economic revolution, in which the manufacturing economies of industrialized Europe and North America have steadily given way to a tertiary service sector devoted to the production of “immaterial” goods like knowledge, care, affect, communication, leisure, and art. This dissertation points to the reciprocal relationship between the work of fiction and the work of service, as two components of a single mode of social production, which is to say the production of human subjectivity and social relations. To produce its social commodities, this ascendant service industry makes use of an entirely new set of tools, which, I argue, include the narrative machinery of the novel. At the same time, the contemporary novel not only draws on the new service class for its subject matter—that is, by taking as its exemplary subject the work of servants, knowledge workers, care providers, artists, and writers—but also incorporates the techniques and methods of service labor at the level of form.

In addition to exploring the socioeconomic trends that have inspired the contemporary novel to engage in the work of satisfying consumers, creating knowledge, and providing care, this dissertation also explores how the rise of service has effected a qualitative shift in how the novel shapes subjectivity. The novel traditionally serves its readers by making abstract economic relations imaginable in the fictional social relations of a literary character. In the realist fiction of the age of industrial capitalism, this character took the form of an autonomous and “problematic” individual, an atomistic figure that obscured the complex network of real social relations required to reproduce it. In this dissertation, I suggest that, as the service economy brings the production of social relations to the forefront of the reader’s consciousness, the novel has a much more difficult time representing subjectivity in the figure of a single individual. The novelists examined in this study—Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rachel Cusk, Teju Cole, and Tom McCarthy—use the methods available to them as social producers in a service economy, including information and communications technology, to explore alternative techniques of reproducing workable social relations in the form of singular and eccentric characters.






McGurk, Michael (2022). Out of Service: The Work of Character in the Novel of Post-Industrial Society. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25795.


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