¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 For this study of the novel of obsolescence, the importance of information theory and the communications networks it conceptualizes begins with the fact that one of the early translations of cybernetics for the lay reader, Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings (previously referenced with respect to the relationship of human and machine), informed Pynchon’s exploration of these networks in The Crying of Lot 49. The slight chill of Wiener’s title–“use”?–echoes his functionalist treatment of communications networks and the individuals who connect to them: “In a certain sense,” he claims, “all communications systems terminate in machines, but the ordinary language systems terminate in the special sort of machine known as a human being” (79). The interchangeable quality of human and machine in such networked situations indicates the significance of Wiener’s importation of the principles of information theory to a broader conception of the network within cybernetics. This new field, as Wiener describes it, takes among its founding principles that the process of communication–between machines, between humans and machines, or between humans alone–is governed by general rules and involves generic messages, both discernable through careful study. Given the adequate control of those messages, and the sufficient understanding and implementation of those rules, the communication system in question could be used to control whatever “sort of machine” terminates the network, whether the mechanical type or the human type. Cybernetics from its earliest inception, then, imagined its sphere expanding beyond the realm of technology to influence social interaction.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The most basic requirement for such a discipline, which seeks to use control of the processes of communication to rationalize social interaction, is that it adequately define the concept of “information” itself. In this seemingly small task, however, the early cybernetic theorists ran into an impasse. Claude Shannon in The Mathematical Theory of Communication, published in 1949 with his collaborator, Warren Weaver, created the field of information theory by suggesting that information is a mathematical quantity–not an index of meaning or signification, but “the probability of an encoded message in a communication channel” (Johnston 32). Information, then, as Katherine HaylesÂ explores in How We Became Posthuman, was in this early moment equated with pattern rather than comprehensibility. Moreover, as John Johnston suggests, this definition of information, like Wiener’s definition (“the content of what is exchanged with the outer world”), is wholly machinic, excluding from its purview the vagaries of human perception (see Johnston 32). In excluding both randomness and consciousness from these definitions, early information theorists and cyberneticists inadvertently drew attention to those categories, creating the ambiguities that would give rise to the next generation of systems and chaos theories: is there at times an invisible order in the apparently random? And can the observation of information ever take place outside the consciousness of the observer?
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Such questions about the nature of what a communication system communicates, moreover, bled into similar questions about how such a system functions. Consider the model of the communications system developed by Shannon and Weaver, shown in Figure 1 (see Shannon and Weaver 34).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In this model, an “information source” communicates with a “destination” via a transmitter and a receiver. The most significant aspect of this model for Shannon and Weaver’s theory of communication is the distinction it draws between signal and message: the signal is the message’s material, encoded form; only such a signal is communicable (see Hayles 18). The task of information theory is to determine, via a calculation of logarithmic probability, whether a message is contained within a received signal. The roadblock to such a determination in this model is noise, here represented by an external source of randomness that disrupts the signal’s pattern. The questions that this model begs echo the questions raised by the mathematical definition of information. First, is noiseÂ genuinely external to the process of communication, separable from transmitter, receiver, and the signal that passes between them? Second, what are the roles of the information source and the destination in translating message into signal and back into message again? How might the roles of these observers alter the perception of the success of the communication system?
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I pick up again the question of pattern, randomness, and noise later in this chapter in considering the network’s organization. For the moment, I want to consider the effects of the human sources and interpreters of information, the consciousnesses left out of both this model of how the network communicates and what is communicated by it. Much of contemporary cultural studies, particularly as developed out of older sociological models of communication studies, focuses on this question of the human aspect of networked communication. Let us explore, for instance, the model of communication presented by Stuart Hall in his influential essay “Encoding/decoding” as reproduced in Figure 2 (see Hall 130).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In this model, the sender, using both the cultural and symbolic knowledges to which he or she has access, “encodes” the message into the “meaning structure” traditional to the medium. The “message” thus encoded is then transmitted via the medium (in Hall’s reference, primarily television, but Hall’s model works generically) as a “programme” or other form of ” ‘meaningful’ discourse.” The receiver then takes the meaning structures gathered from the program and “decodes” them based on his or her own cultural and symbolic knowledges.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Where Shannon and Weaver erase human interaction from their communicative model, Hall erases the medium itself; but for the “technical infrastructure” implicated in the encoding and decoding processes, Hall’s program flies mysteriously through space as an arrow. Despite their differences in emphasis, however, they agree on a fundamental point: both provide less for accurate communication than for distortion. The locus of that distortion in each model reflects its developer’s particular concerns with communication; while Shannon and Weaver attribute this distortion to “noise” emptying from a third black box into the center of the network stream, Hall places the distortion in the origins and destinations of communicated messages, with the humans that encode and decode them. Hall takes great care to insist that the processes of encoding and decoding between the communicators “may not be perfectly symmetrical,” that “[w]hat are called ‘distortions’ or ‘misunderstandings’ arise precisely from the lack of equivalence between the two sides in the communicative exchange” (131). In the context of Hall’s argument about the functioning of the television network, this lack of equivalence is cause for optimism; given the different “frameworks of knowledge” produced by different subject positions, even the most culturally determined televisual texts become open to interpretation, and thus the “audience”–traditionally considered mute, passive, and stupid–can be understood to exert more control over the communicative process than earlier models of communication with the “culture industry” would suggest.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Of course, the goal of cybernetics in studying and facilitating the communicative process is to do away with such ambiguities, to allow for more accurate ferreting-out of messages from signals, and more precise control of the messages’ “destination,” be that destination silicon- or carbon-based. Thus Mark Poster argues that, “[i]n principle, cybernetics is an elitist theory. It is a tool designed for technocrats to better manage what is seen as a chaotic society” (28). But, as John Johnston points out, such totalized control of communication exists just outside the realm of possibility: “while information has led to a new medium of control, it has also generated something that always exceeds control.” For Johnston, this excess of information over control points to information’s “viral power, its tendency to proliferate” (2). This out-of-control replication of information, however, does not wholly erase the potential for paranoia in confronting the network; as I further explore in theÂ following section, the network in these two views presents itself as alternately a system of total control or total subversion, infinite order or infinite chaos. In either case true communication becomes impossible, for either all communication is reduced to the command, or the “lack of equivalence” between two communicating subjects so multiplies the quantity of information in any message that it renders exact comprehension of a sender’s intent impossible.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Poststructuralist critical discourse, unsurprisingly, has tended toward the latter conclusion, suggesting through numerous texts, including Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” Foucault’s “What Is an Author?,” and Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” that there is no necessary correspondence, in what Wiener refers to as the “ordinary language system,” between the message received by a reader and that sent by an author. The existence of the text, for each of these three theorists, becomes not the transmission of the author’s will but rather the obliteration of that will. For each of these theorists, the very possibility of communication requires the sender’s death. In the example of Barthes, of course, it is the death of the author that makes room for the birth of the reader. For Derrida, that death is inscribed in the technology of writing itself: “To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning” (8). Foucault, finally, insists upon death as the necessary condition of writing, and so performs the dead writer’s postmortem:
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Writing is now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself; it is a voluntary obliteration of the self that does not require representation in books because it takes place in the everyday existence of the writer. . . . In addition, we find the link between writing and death manifested in the total effacement of the individual characteristics of the writer; the quibbling and confrontations that a writer generates between himself and his text cancel out the signs of his particular individuality. (“Author” 117)
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 For one strain of poststructuralist discourse, then, the model of communication enacted by written texts bears much in common with that proposed by Hall, in which the ultimate arbitration of meaning rests with the decoder, leaving the encoder finally mute, absent, dead.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 That one of Pynchon’s sources in The Crying of Lot 49 was early cybernetic theory, and particularly Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings, then, highlights the difficulties posed to communication–and most particularly to reading–by the complexities of the networks represented in the novel. The central feature of the patterns of communications uncovered by Oedipa Maas in her California quest is their ultimate unreadability. In part, her difficultiesÂ are the result of the epistemological failures suggested in the previous chapters; in the age of the machine, in the age of the spectacle, but most importantly in the age of the network, the reasoned, linear reading strategies of the print era have become useless. Moreover, those printed documents that do filter through the novel–The Courier’s Tragedy, of course, but most significantly the will of Pierce Inverarity–are themselves beset by unreadability, errata, omissions, inconsistencies. Print is in this rendering no longer imagined to be a reliable medium of communication; instead, it has become more akin to a spiritual medium, the mysterious–and perhaps nefarious–attempt to communicate from beyond the grave. This is a double-edged problem in the novel. On the one hand, Pierce’s death is a literalization of Barthes’s death of the author, a representation of the novelist’s self-effacement in the presence of the reader. On the other hand, given that everything in the text, all of the order Oedipa attempts to read into the world around her, can be traced back to the will of Pierce Inverarity, in whose absence little can be known, the reader (like Oedipa) may begin to suspect that Inverarity, having, as Barthes suggested, gracefully died in order to make way for the reader, is having his revenge on his successor, purposefully creating unsolvable puzzles. The author may have died, and the reader may be nominally in charge, but perhaps Pierce took the possibility of meaning with him. The significance of the text, the author’s will, is in this case vitally important and yet is left adrift in a sea of floating signifiers.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Don DeLillo’s Libra presents similar difficulties for its character-reader, Nicholas Branch. Like Oedipa, Branch is overrun by signals that are indistinguishable from noise; like Oedipa, he faces the impossibility of adequately interpreting messages in the viral proliferation of information; like Oedipa, he finds himself increasingly distracted by links and connections, lost in a doomed attempt to read not the messages but the network itself. Branch, commissioned by the CIA to write the secret history of the Kennedy assassination, is surrounded by bits of evidence emanating from the long-dead–not simply the president, and not simply his assassin, but nearly everyone connected to the events–facing the impossibility of interpretation in the absence of these authors. Moreover, as the only author left standing, Branch feels the futility of his own attempts at communication, knowing that his history will never be read and will thus disappear into the network as well. For both these readers, then, in both these novels, the network generates not increased communication but impossibility: the impossibility of distinguishing information from noise; the impossibility of determining the source of any message, whether meaningful or not; the impossibility of interpretation, both of messages and ofÂ the networks themselves. “The irony for America,” Peter Abernethy points out, “is that our human ability to communicate seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in our technical ability to communicate” (18). This continually expanding multiplicity, the viral force of both information and the systems that carry it, creates a point of anxiety for the novel of obsolescence, which explores through these networks its own failure to communicate.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon seems to attribute this failure to communicate less to the cyberneticists’ noise or Hall’s differences among human subjects than to a generalized lack of agency on the part of those subjects, and an absorption of agency by the media themselves. This “agency panic” begins on the very first page. Immediately Pynchon reveals how much more active are these methods of communication–presumed to be hollow shells without the messages devised and encoded by human subjects–than those who ostensibly use them: “Oedipa stood in the living room,” he tells us, “stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube” (9). Despite the fact that the TV’s eye is “dead,” the television is nonetheless the agent, the starer, while Oedipa is the passive object of its gaze. Oedipa’s fears for her own agency, in fact, are at the center of her crisis in the novel. The nature of the crisis is made clear at the end of the first chapter, as she remembers a trip she and Pierce made to Mexico City, and the Remedios Varos painting they saw there, “Bordando el Manto Terrestre” (Embroidering the earth’s mantle), in which there were
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. (21)
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The sadness that the painting inspires in Oedipa is based upon her identification with those imprisoned girls, who are in part trapped in the tower because there is nowhere else to go except the world created within that tower. “If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic,” she asks herself, “what else?” (CL49 22). It’s a good question–but the wrong question. The message sent her in this painting is not that the tower is all, that Oedipa is, despite what freedom she may feel, a maiden locked in a solipsistic experience of a world she is creating; the message is, conversely, that Oedipa is part of a tapestry woven by someone else. She is not trapped away from the social fabric but is rather part of that fabric, unable to separate herself from the network the communications complex has woven. In her confusion,Â however, Oedipa begins a desperate process of world creation, attempting to project, if not something outside the tower, then at least a tapestry of her own. By the novel’s end, she is forced to acknowledge the paranoid possibility that the world she has imagined herself projecting may have in fact been built for her by the will of Pierce Inverarity, the novel’s ultimate weaver, as well as the schizophrenic possibility that the connections she has discovered may be meaningless. The unresolvable nature of this tension between paranoia and schizophrenia is the logical extreme of the contemporary crisis of agency: either everything connects, or nothing does, and there is no particular way to tell the difference.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Oedipa’s crisis of selfhood manifests as terror in the face of the world’s communications networks. Given the eternal uncertainty, in Pynchon’s paranoid representation, about what the networks are connecting one to, Oedipa’s terror arises in part from the possibility that these networks are centrally controlled, devices of surveillance. Just as in Vineland Hector understands the mysterious military intervention in the television network as an announcement that the television is now doing the watching, The Crying of Lot 49 begins with the suspicion that the “dead eye” of the television set may instead be a recording eye, transmitting information back through the communicative chain. But Oedipa’s terror arises largely from the impossibility of knowing, the impossibility of reading the complexity of the network sufficiently well to understand whether it signifies ultimate order or ultimate randomness. The telephone–the last instrument through which Pierce speaks to Oedipa– inspires a particularly intense terror for precisely these reasons. When Pierce calls her–at 3:00 a.m., no less, a paranoia-inducing hour–Oedipa is aware, right through his repertoire of impersonations, that the long-distance line that carries their signals “could have pointed any direction, been any length” (CL49 12). But this phone call is the last bit of contact she has with Pierce until she is notified–by U.S. Mail, of course–that she has been named executrix of his will. That same night Oedipa receives another 3:00 a.m. call, this one from Dr. Hilarius, her shrink. The ringing of the phone produces, we are told, “clear cardiac terror, so out of nothing did it come, one second inert, the next screaming” (16). The immediate connections of this 3:00 a.m. call to the last, given the day’s events, certainly account for some of its terror; is this Pierce, literally contacting her from beyond the grave? Although it isn’t, and there is an earthly caller on the other end of the line, the “screaming” of the phone “out of nothing”–its lack of apparent connection to anything tangible, which suggests potential connection to the intangible–nonetheless produces not only Oedipa’s terror, but later, Hilarius’s own murderous insanity; it seems onlyÂ natural that Hilarius’s first act after his psychotic break is to “[take] a chair and [smash] the switchboard with it” (133). The network, possibly having developed agency of its own, or possibly serving as the tool of some other, malign agency, or possibly orderless and meaningless, in any case represents a threat to individual agency and thus the individual ability to communicate.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The indeterminate status of the network with regard to meaning–in which the network becomes not simply the mode of meaning’s conveyance but potentially its source as well–troubles many of the novel’s representations. Oedipa is repeatedly struck with the vague certainty that in the various networks of modern life exists not simply the form, but also the content of communication. As she sits in her car on a hilltop, for instance, the sprawl of houses and roads in the valley below makes her think “of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and saw her first printed circuit. . . . Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate” (CL49 24). But the interpretive crisis Oedipa experiences has left her a desperate reader, overcome by a need to understand the patterns that surround her, to find the key to separating tapestry from world. She sees these patterns everywhere, from the layout of houses to the movement of an exploding spray can: “The can knew where it was going, she sensed, or something fast enough, God or a digital machine, might have computed in advance the complex web of its travel” (37). In her desperation to understand the networks by which she is caught, on the one hand, or to create intelligible new networks, on the other, Oedipa must insist that either the can has agency enough to determine the pattern by which it careens around the bathroom, or there is meaning in its pattern, a formula by which it can be known.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Her determination to interpret, if not create, these “complex webs” leads her to the mysterious Tristero, or at least leads her to see the Tristero everywhere, as “revelations . . . now seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more she collected the more would come to her, until everything she saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven into the Tristero” (CL49 81). The Tristero becomes for her a kind of alternate reality, existing both within and outside the tapestry of network culture. In contemplating this alternative, however, Oedipa asks herself one crucial question, to which the answer is destined to remain ambiguous: “Shall I project a world?“ (82). If she is in fact projecting the world of the Tristero, or if it has been projected for her, it exists within this world in the same fashion as the diegetic space literally projected by film. We see the simultaneous reality and unrealityÂ of this filmic space in the Metzger seduction scene: Metzger asks Oedipa if she wants to bet on the movie’s outcome, but she says no, quite sensibly arguing that “the movie’s made” (33). The end of the movie, already determined, exists in physical form in this world, projected onto a screen. Yet Metzger insists that betting would make sense, because Oedipa doesn’t know the movie’s ending; because she hasn’t yet seen it projected, its meaning remains for her unfixed, yet to be discovered. And thus the film exists as a kind of alternate reality, both inside the “real” world and outside it, with a separate but internally coherent set of physical and metaphysical laws. Like the Tristero, the diegetic space of film and television represents both a world apart from Oedipa’s and a world possibly projected from within. The complexity of interconnections between the “real” and its representations, between the world and the tapestry, augments the novel’s sense that the networks of communications, ostensibly carriers of messages, may in fact themselves be the messages.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Such seems also the conclusion that Nicholas Branch in DeLillo’s Libra circles in a somewhat Pynchonesque “approach and avoid” fashion. Branch, having spent fifteen years in a small room surrounded by the proliferating information spun out by the Kennedy assassination, finds himself at moments taken aback by the “data-spew” (15) around him: “The stacks are everywhere. The legal pads and cassette tapes are everywhere. The books fill tall shelves along three walls and cover the desk, a table, and much of the floor. There is a massive file cabinet stuffed with documents so old and densely packed they may be ready to ignite spontaneously” (14). Beyond these textual materials– the previous attempts at narrativizing these events–however, there are the random bits of evidence, which may contain secrets or may be meaningless:
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, post-operative x-rays, photos of knotted string . . . There is Jack Ruby’s mother’s dental chart, dated January 15, 1938. There is a microphotograph of three strands of Lee H. Oswald’s pubic hair. (181)
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 On the surface, much of these data seems useless, and yet Branch cannot winnow it down: “He wants to believe the hair belongs in the record. It is vital to his sense of responsible obsession that everything in his room warrants careful study” (182). As in Oedipa’s experience of the Tristero’s clues, everything seems connected and thus demands interpretation. But this careful study of everything makes impossible the job that Branch, the “receiver” in this communicative chain, was assigned: not only can he not discern signal from noise and thus not interpret signal into meaning, but also he cannot relay the messages he uncovers through this study; he cannot write. Branch has “extensive and overlapping notes,” we are told, but “of actual finished prose, there is precious little. It is impossible to stop assembling data. The stuff keeps coming” (59). This overflow of information, then, threatens the writing process with death by drowning in a sea of interpretation.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 As the data pile up, Branch gradually and reluctantly turns his attention from what the “stuff” says to where it comes from. Despite his own assertion that his history is not intended to be “a study of the ways in which people succumb to paranoia” (L 57), the necessity of distinguishing the meaningful from the random induces precisely that response. This is in part the paranoia of the age; in an era of assassinations, investigations, and possible cover-ups, in an age partly driven by the covert operations of government, as conspirator Win Everett believes, “[s]ecrets build their own networks” (22). The nature of secret information is thus to call attention to its own pathways and interconnections, to induce paranoia by insisting upon an attendance to the evidence’s chain of custody–who had it, whom they got it from, whether they are to be trusted. Oedipa, for her part, despite thinking at first that she is searching for the keys to escape the tower, finally shifts her quest by attempting to trace the tapestry in which she finds herself back to the tower itself, suggesting that one of the dark figures supervising the weaving in Varos’s painting–figures significantly left out of the novel’s description of the image–may be Pierce himself, that he may have left her the clues she has ostensibly discovered. Branch, literally trapped in his own small room, with data about the world being fed in to him but nothing beyond the room that can verify it, becomes increasingly nervous about the source of his information: the Curator. At first mention, the Curator is merely described as “quick to respond” (15) to Branch’s requests for data; gradually, however, he comes to “send” without request information that bears an at times questionable relationship to the task at hand. “The Curator sends recent photos,” we are told, “and Branch understands that he must study them, although they do not pertain to the case” (59). In this subtle change is the beginning of Branch’s shift of attention from the meaning of the information to the meaning of the information network; the message Branch receives is not in the photographs but about them and their relationship to the Curator. By the novel’s end, the messages Branch investigates are almost entirely those of the medium: “The Curator sends information on Bobby Dupard. Branch knows about Dupard only through the Curator. But how does the Curator know?” (441).
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Branch’s anxiety about the network through which he receives communications is heightened by the fact that a vast number of the original sources for this information, the “witnesses, informers, investigators” involved with the case from its outset, as well as those only tangentially connected, are “conveniently and suggestively dead” (L 57). In these many deaths, beginning of course with the president’s own, is a kind of communication, a message that Branch cannot yet read. With each new death added to the roster, Branch sees not the meaning of that original death but rather the network it created: “the assassination sheds a powerful and lasting light, exposing patterns and links” (58). It is the network itself that draws him in, communicating to him not its origins but its conclusion, his own death. The network is, as DeLillo suggests in White Noise, composed of “waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living” (326), but in the alternately paranoid and schizophrenic contemporary environment, the language of the network communicates only itself.