Chapter 4: Network

Everything is connected, but some things are more connected than others.
–Howard Pattee

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Fergus Mixolydian in Pynchon’s V. and David Bell in DeLillo’s Americana, in their peculiar relationships to the television set, reveal the anxieties about mechanicity and visuality explored in the novel of obsolescence; each allows the novelist room to explore the putative threat that television presents to the novel’s future, while simultaneously valorizing the novel for its resistance to these dehumanizing and derealizing trends. Each allows the novelist to create for himself a protected space, and for the novel an elite status, that both belies the obsolescence he ostensibly fears and reveals a longing for a return of the form and its producer to both cultural and social centrality. But these two representations–Fergus with his sleep switch, and David with his stormy motes–each reveal a third area of concern in addition to those of the machine and the spectacle. Each is fundamentally concerned with interconnection–Fergus’s literal, a physical wiring-in, and David’s more figurative, an electronic mating of molecules. And in each of these moments comes an experience of unconsciousness, as Fergus operates the set by “drop[ping] below a certain level of awareness” (V. 56), and David’s glance at the screen causes him to “find” himself in a chair in front of the set. The danger presented by this abandonment of the conscious self reveals writerly anxieties about such interconnection. What is on the other end of the television that Fergus and David connect themselves to? In which direction does television’s networked control operate? And, having hooked into the network, are Fergus and David still themselves, or are they dissolving into something else, some identityless collective unconscious?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Such anxious questions throughout the writing of both Pynchon and DeLillo about television’s literal and figurative interconnections–between programmers and sets, among sets, and among individuals watching those sets–or what I am loosely calling the “network,” shift the focus of this exploration from mechanicity and visuality to information, from the machines themselves and the images they convey to the wiring that connects them, and the impulses, both electronic and cultural, that those wires carry. This set of interconnections among individuals and across spaces by which electronic communication takes place–telegraph, telephone, radio, television networks, and the contemporary network of all networks, the Internet–has itself produced anxieties in the postmodern writing subject, visible, like the fears of the destruction of humanity by the machine and the destruction of language by the image, in the postmodern novel. Among these anxieties I include, and in this chapter explore, fears about the difficulties of communication within the increasing volume of information; fears about the entropic devolution of organization into chaos and the parallel emergence of a new, dangerous order from that chaos; and fears about the disappearance of the individual as he or she is wired into a potentially fascistic mass. In exploring these related fears, I draw upon recent work in the appropriately interconnected fields of information theory, systems theory, cybernetics, and theories of chaos and emergence; the efflorescence of such interest in the possibilities and the consequences of interconnection reveals that the network, like the machine and the spectacle, forms a peculiar point of pressure within contemporary academic, popular, and literary discourses, discourses that seem to point to the obsolescence of the novel. Kevin Kelly suggests, echoing Alan Kay, that

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 the personally owned book was one of the chief shapers of the Renaissance notion of the individual, and that pervasively networked computers will be the main shaper of humans in the future. It’s not just individual books we are leaving behind, either. Global opinion polling in realtime 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ubiquitous telephones, asynchronous e-mail, 500 TV channels, video on demand: all these add up to the matrix for a glorious network culture, a remarkable hivelike being. (28)

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The shift from book to computer (via television) in this somewhat ecstatic rendering, as well as in the more anxious descriptions by less technophilic cultural critics, thus bodes more than simply a change of medium. Sven Birkerts, for instance, argues that our current networked culture may be “the first stages of a process of social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual” (130). Left unspoken is for whom isolation, or individualism, is allowed to be an ideal, but it is nonetheless evident that such resistance to network culture is in part a resistance to the shifting of social hierarchies that have long upheld the meritocratic archetype of the post-Renaissance subject. In the wiring together of a “hivelike” electronic being, the novel (and critic) of obsolescence suggests, U.S. culture is abandoning not simply the individual experience of reading, but the very possibility of individuality itself.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 That the network is itself a technology suggests that it could be considered an extension of the mechanizing forces of television explored in Chapter 2. The network’s interconnections, however, and the electrical impulses that it carries, fundamentally transform the stand-alone machine and thus justify its separation and consideration as a distinct category of televisuality. For, as Friedrich Kittler argues: “before the electrification of the media . . . there were modest, merely mechanical apparatuses. These apparatuses could neither amplify nor transmit” (103, emphasis mine). Nor could they store information. But the electrical development of storage, amplification, and–most important for our purposes–transmission fundamentally changed the nature of communication, with profound implications for earlier mechanical technologies, including print. Where once these technologies maintained a power to surprise, to excite the imagination, “[e]lectricity itself has brought this to an end. If memories and dreams, the dead and the specters have become technically reproducible, then the hallucinatory power of reading and writing has become obsolete” (Kittler 110). Obsolescence–that terrifying concept for the contemporary writer–thus counts among its origins electricity itself, the wiring of the nation. McLuhan, of course, reads this wiring as an “outering” of the central nervous system, sending commands through the body public.[1] While Kittler concentrates in his essay on the development of the storage capabilities of the earlier mechanical apparatuses via their mating with electricity, his gramophone, film, and typewriter also have their “networked,” transmitting equivalents in–and indeed, in McLuhan’s sense, are the “content” of–radio, television, and the Internet.[2]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 These broadcasting networks–in addition to the narrowcasting networks of telephone and telegraph–are the specific development of the integration of electricity and information. The network is not simply a machine but an interconnection of machines, its signals a language whereby transmitters speak to receivers. The interpretation and implementation of that language were explored in its early days by a number of related sciences: information theory, arising from mathematics; communications theory, derived from the social sciences; and, most notably, cybernetics, which brought the two fields together into a new discipline. Under the guidance of theorists such as Norbert Wiener and Gregory Bateson, cybernetics sought to translate the processes of communication into information, thereby creating a transparent mode of “communication and control” of machines.[3] As John Johnston argues, however, this early belief in transparency was rapidly undermined by the difficulty of defining “information” itself, producing “fruitful ambiguities and contradictions that later led theorists beyond these instrumentalist applications toward new visions of complexity, as in the study of self-organizing, or emergent, systems and chaos theory” (2). The shift from cybernetics to systems theory, and on to chaos theory, reveals a recognition of the complexity introduced by the network that makes its precise control impossible. In place of the technics of control, more contemporary researchers focus on interaction, organization, and change within dynamic, multiplicitous systems.[4]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 What I am calling the “network” in this chapter bears something in common with what Tom LeClair refers to as the “system” in his study of systems theory as it pertains to contemporary fiction, and particularly the novels of Don DeLillo. According to LeClair’s history, however, systems theory, and thus the systems it studies, originates in the natural, and particularly the biological, sciences. While systems theory may be used to study the network that is imagined in the novel of obsolescence, the network itself is not a system in this sense; it is rather an unnatural imposition on natural systems. The danger these novels intimate that the network presents is thus not inherent in systems themselves but in the artificially interconnected and controlled designs of “systems planning” (DeLillo, A 252) and cybernetics. The complexities and ambiguities of the network for writers such as Pynchon and DeLillo suggest less that the network is an emergent, potentially living form of organization than that the network may be prone to what LeClair refers to as “runaway,” in which “positive feedback (which can be summed up as ‘The more you have the more you get of the same’) rules with no corrective, with no governor or negative feedback in the control loop. The result is eventual self-destruction of the system” (13). In a sense, then, the anxieties that I consider in this chapter– concerns about how and what the network communicates; concerns about how and what the network organizes; concerns about the network’s mediation of the relationship between the individual and the mass–each has to do with the double-edged nature of “chaos” in contemporary culture, a concept suggesting alternately an entropic devolution of order into the random and meaningless and the spontaneous production of a finer and more pervasive form of order and meaning. Within the network’s chaos, either nothing means or everything does; either one exists in a state of schizophrenia, surrounded, as Jameson would have it, by “a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (26), or one is subsumed by paranoia, finding connections within and among everything.[5]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Anxieties about the network, then, reveal anxieties about the state of reading within a networked culture. In a world in which the relationship between signs and meanings has been disrupted by the irreconcilable, uncontrollable complexities of the network, the network appears not only to transmit messages but also to be a message itself, and in fact to have undermined the possibility of communication through an exponential increase in the number of messages. As a result, what the network communicates disappears within the process of that communication, and the medium truly becomes the message. Given the dominance and the pervasiveness of the network, paranoia becomes less a pathology than a reading strategy, a sense-making worldview, as the individual participant becomes a mere node on a system infinitely larger than himself that may allow for centralized, nefarious control of the individual, or may just as easily be radically decentralized and beyond any control.[6] Thus Lee Harvey Oswald, in DeLillo’s Libra, watches two televised films about presidential assassinations and feels “connected to the events on the screen. It was like secret instructions entering the network of signals and broadcast bands, the whole busy air of transmission. . . . They were running a message through the night into his skin.” Lee, paying attention to the connections rather than to the films themselves, knows with utter certainty that “[t]hey were running this thing just for him,” that the network’s controllers, whoever “they” may be, are capable of communicating directly with him through his connection to the network (370). What, exactly, “they” are trying to tell him is unclear; only the intent to communicate, the power of communication, and his absorption within it are certain.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Similarly, Hector Zuñiga in Pynchon’s Vineland experiences a moment of extreme “Tubefreek” paranoia; while watching a late night television movie,

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 he saw the screen go blank, bright and prickly, and then heard voices hard, flat, echoing.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 “But we don’t actually have the orders yet,” somebody said.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 “It’s only a detail,” the other voice with a familiar weary edge, a service voice, “just like getting a search warrant.” Onto the screen came some Anglo in fatigues, about Hector’s age, sitting at a desk against a pale green wall under fluorescent light. He kept looking over to the side, off-camera.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “My name is–what should I say, just name and rank?”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 “No names,” the other advised.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The man was handed two pieces of paper clipped together, and he read it to the camera. “As commanding officer of state defense forces in this sector, pursuant to the President’s NSDD #52 of 6 April 1984 as amended, I am authorized–what?” He started up, sat back down, went in some agitation for the desk drawer, which stuck, or had been locked. Which is when the movie came back on, and continued with no further military interruptions. (339″“40)

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 This bit of anomalous intrusion into normal network programming may give Hector an accidental glimpse of the network’s authority–or at least the network’s potential for authoritative control–and thus may suggest an unseen order, a meaning in the network of which he was previously unaware. Or it may simply be a meaningless mistake bred out of the network’s chaotic fragmentation, a random crossing of wires and no more. Hector, who is, as a Tubefreek, addicted to the “plug-in drug” and, as a DEA agent, aware of covert state maneuvering, opts for paranoia, associating this moment with “the classic chill” of secret operations, “the extra receptors up and humming, gathering in the signs, channels suddenly shutting down, traffic scrambled and jammed, phone trouble” and so on, all evidence that the network is the tool of state power, used not simply for transmitting information but also for gathering it (see Winn). This nervous sense of the multiple directions in which communication can run over the network gives this televisual moment its ultimate frisson: “As if the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, ‘From now on, I’m watching you'” (Vineland 340).

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In what follows, I investigate the connected ways in which Pynchon and DeLillo explore interconnection–Pynchon in extended fashion in The Crying of Lot 49; DeLillo more fragmentarily, in moments throughout White Noise, Libra, Mao II, and Underworld–thus unraveling the network of associations and representations by which the network is read as a threat to writing. First, the complexities and ambiguities of defining “information” within the network, and of determining how that information is transmitted and received, create a set of anxieties about communication and its potential for failure. If accurate and complete communication is impossible in network culture, might that impossibility have ramifications for print-based communication as well? Second, that these anxieties about communication arise from the inscrutable organization of the network itself, from the extreme multiplicity of its connections, highlights another area of concern: is the network’s chaos a disintegration of order–entropy–or a complexity that masks a minute, even fractal, ubiquity of order that may spontaneously emerge into a new form of being? For that matter, is it possible to read the network sufficiently well to tell the difference? And third, in a fully networked culture in which chaos and emergence hold sway, is the individual threatened with extinction and replacement by an infinitely interconnected “hive mind”? If so, what will become of the “men in small rooms” to whom the novel is finally addressed?[7] Without these lone readers, can the novel as we know it, preeminent art form of the Enlightenment individual, survive?

  • [1] See, among other possible citations, McLuhan 247.
  • [2] “The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 8).
  • [3] On the history of cybernetics, see Hayles; Johnston.
  • [4] See Joseph Slade, “Thomas Pynchon, Postindustrial Humanist,” in which Slade argues that cybernetics has “metamorphosed into systems theory on the assumption that the mechanical, electrical, biological, economic, industrial, ecological–all observable systems–belong to a single class. As technology has phased our period into postindustrialism, the word ‘machine’ has yielded to the term ‘systems.’ Cybernetics/systems theory studies the interactions and relationships between parts of systems. . . . The focus is now on organization” (57).
  • [5] See of course Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Pynchon suggests while there is “something comforting–religious, if you want,” about paranoia, its opposite is the terror of “anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long” (434).
  • [6] See Timothy Melley, who argues that paranoia is an “interpretive disorder” (16) that is inseparable at its root from “normal” processes of interpretation.
  • [7] See Don DeLillo, Libra, 181. In DeLillo’s rendering, these “men in small rooms” are the subjects equally of the novel and of history; the gender-specific nature of the comment is, I believe, entirely to the point.
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