¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In shifting the focus from what messages mean to who sends them and how, concerns about the network cease being communicational and become organizational. This transition, from reading messages sent by the network to reading the network itself, is due in part to what Friedrich Kittler describes as a leveling effect among thoroughly interconnected media; writing about the rise of optical fiber networks, he suggests that “[t]he general digitalization of information and channels erases the difference between individual media. . . . In computers everything becomes number: imageless, soundless, and wordless quantity” (102). The reason for the novel of obsolescence’s apparent concern about this devolution of all communication into information is twofold. First, quantification implies a certain dehumanizing trend, a deindividualization in the flood of numbers. McLuhan suggests that “[i]n this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information” (57); it is not simply data that is thus quantified, but “we” ourselves. Some critics argue that this is an essential outgrowth of mechanization; for instance, Mark Seltzer points out that “two of the crucial control-technologies of machine culture” are “statistics and surveillance” (100)–that is, the physical wiring that connects the individual to the system and the quantified information that passes along those wires.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Second, however, statistics are arguably responsible not only for the translation of the human into information, but also for the vast overflow of data by which the individual is besieged, the endless stream of numbers that reduces all to sameness. Neil Postman, in writing about the “technology” of statistics, argues that contemporary U.S. culture’s conception of the meaningÂ of statistical data is inherently flawed, its errors resident in problems of reification, ranking, and biased questioning patterns. But the function of statistics, he argues, is even worse than its flaws: “the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and the end of human creativity” (Technopoly 61). Ultimately, he claims–and the postmodern novel concurs–the point of information is no longer any kind of human knowledge but instead a self-referring justification: information for information’s sake. In historicizing this indictment of statistics in the explosion and devaluing of information, however, Postman points to a very specific causal event, one at the center of the networked culture under consideration in this chapter: “[t]he presumed close connection among information, reason, and usefulness,” he claims, “began to lose its legitimacy toward the mid-nineteenth century with the invention of the telegraph” (Technopoly 67). The explosion of information produced by statistics, along with information’s dissociation from what Postman considers to be “reason and usefulness,” created by the ability to transmit this quantified information to areas far from its source, has contributed to the cultural sameness Kittler sees in the movement of all media to a common system of number and wiring: information in entropic decline. In statistics and surveillance, then, we see the double-edged threat of the network’s organizational principles: either connections and the information that flows across them devolve toward the random and meaningless in their overproliferation, or those connections in fact tie everyone in to a central source of authority. This, again, is the dual sense of chaos in contemporary culture: a total lack of order–entropy–or totalized order, an order so fine that it may spontaneously emerge into a new, dangerous being of its own.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Considering entropy as a force in postmodern culture returns us to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. As Oedipa Maas’s quest for some world outside the tapestry woven by the networks of communications proceeds, as she seems to find the solution to her desire for escape in the networks themselves, everything becomes for her a mechanism of communication capable of transmitting some bit of information, from printed transistor circuits to the Southern California networks of highways to an old, filthy mattress absorbing the effluvia of life “like the memory bank of a computer of the lost” (126). She even finds, in John Nefastis and his Maxwell’s Demon machine, both a physical representation of and a principle for this ubiquity of communication: entropy. As Nefastis explains the principle to her, “there were two distinct kinds of this entropy. One having to do with heat engines, the other to do with communication. . . . ‘Communication is key,’ cried Nefastis” (105). The first form of entropy Nefastis mentions is that described by the second law of thermodynamics; theÂ second form arises out of information theory. Norbert Wiener describes theÂ former in The Human Use of Human Beings:
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed systems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness, to move from the least to the most probable state, from a state of organization and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state of chaos and sameness. (12)
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 There are significant similarities between Wiener’s definition of thermodynamic entropy and Callisto’s description of a comparable cultural state in Pynchon’s early short story “Entropy,” in which Callisto claims that consumerism is moving the United States “from the least to the most probable, from differentiation to sameness, from ordered individuality to a kind of chaos” (Slow Learner 88). The overt parallels of language point to the basic texts of information theory or cybernetics as Pynchon’s direct influences; the divergences–from thermodynamics to cultures in decline–point to his metaphoric treatment of entropy as a concept.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In examining this treatment, however, one must first contend with Pynchon’s later dismissal of his use of the concept in both “Entropy” and The Crying of Lot 49 as a mere “thermodynamical coinage” (SL 17), as well as with Oedipa’s sense that John Nefastis is playing fast and loose with what amounts to a linguistic coincidence: ” ‘But what,’ she felt like some kind of a heretic, ‘if the Demon exists only because the two equations look alike? Because of the metaphor?’ “ (CL49 106). Oedipa’s acknowledgment of entropy as a metaphor, rather than invalidating the connection, instead brings it inside the realm of interpretation, where, for the paranoid, all such “coincidences” are meaningful. In fact, the coincidence is not in this case merely linguistic, simply a matter of two concepts with the same name; the coincidence extends to mathematics, as the formulas for these two types of entropy, the thermodynamic and the informational, are identical. And, as Wiener himself points out, quantum theory has led to “a new association of energy and information” (38″“39); one is no longer strictly separable from the other. The “coincidence” of these formulas thus appears more meaningful than coincidental; the connection suggests, first, that information, in parallel fashion to closed heat systems, is subject to entropic decline and has a tendency in its proliferation to devolve from organized messages into noise; and second, that the concept of entropy itself, in its connections between thermodynamics and information, is productive of meaning.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 One finds in the connection of these two distinct entropies the notion that so terrifies the novel: networks of communication, rather than creatingÂ order through the distribution of information, may instead be hastening the entropic decline into meaninglessness. Communication, as Nefastis insists, is the key–but in an entropic universe, the proliferation of information is inextricably tied to heat death. The thermodynamic version of entropy is defined as the measure of the unavailable energy in a closed system, and thus the percentage of its proximity to chaos; in any heat engine entropy increases, tending toward greater dispersal of energy and thus the spread of disorder. This notion of the heat engine, and particularly its associated use as a metaphor for the universe, is connected to the nineteenth-century Newtonian model for man discussed in connection with V.; this is the vision of a premodern world, a universe set in motion by a God who has since disappeared. The replacement for this vanished God, and thus the source of hope for a means of ensuring the universe’s survival, is Maxwell’s Demon, proposed in 1871 by mathematician James Clerk Maxwell. The principle behind Maxwell’s Demon, in the words of Stanley Koteks of Yoyodyne, is that of “a tiny intelligence” that could “sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones” (CL49 86), thus concentrating energy, reducing entropy, and avoiding heat death.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 However, to sort these molecules, the Demon must collect data on every molecule–both its speed and its position. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle declares such a task all but impossible, as certainty about one calls the other into question, and as the act of observing affects the result and therefore renders the knowledge useless. The Demon must also enact this sorting without any use of energy, an impossibility that Oedipa calls attention to with an appropriate reference to the networks of communications: ” ‘Sorting isn’t work?’ Oedipa asked. ‘Tell them that down at the post office, you’ll find yourself in a mailbag headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, without even a FRAGILE sticker going for you’ “ (CL49 86). Scientific refutations of Maxwell’s Demon have taken on many of these physical impossibilities, arguing, for instance, that the Demon would have to have some source of light in order to see the molecules, and that the light would more than use up the energy gained in the sorting. Pynchon, however, in his metaphoric deployment of entropy and the negentropic force of Maxwell’s Demon, invents a solution: the Demon, in the Nefastis Machine, works in communication with a “sensitive,” who gathers the necessary information through extrasensory means and then completes the network by communicating that information and setting the Demon in motion. The quite evident problem, of course, is that this vast proliferation of data is itself the other, informational form of entropy; the system may “lose entropy” as the molecules are sorted, but that loss is “offset by the information the DemonÂ gained about what molecules were where” (105). Only by communicating this vast store of information can the Demon wholly rid the system of entropy by passing that chaos on to the sensitive.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In this sense, thermodynamic entropy and informational entropy, though determined by the same formula, are slightly contrary principles. Wiener argues that “the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization” (23); informational entropy is the opposite of information itself, and thus, in this mathematical sense, the more information in a system the more negentropic it becomes. However, as Orrin Klapp suggests in Overload and Boredom, contemporary network culture does not adhere to such ideal models; in entropic culture, information is a measure not of organization but of its opposite: “The larger the amounts of information processed or diffused, the more likely it is that information will degrade toward meaningless variety, like noise or information overload, or sterile uniformity” (2″“3). Thus, through the notion of entropy, information and noise become indissolubly linked, and information becomes a measure less of organization than of noise. Moreover, quantum theory, in linking information to energy, reveals the cost of the information gathered by Maxwell’s Demon; as Leo Szilard wrote: “any action resulting in a decrease in the entropy of a system must be preceded by an operation of acquiring information, which in turn is coupled with the production of an equal or greater amount of entropy” (qtd. in Mangel 199). Thus Maxwell’s Demon merely trades one form of chaos for another, premodern for postmodern, heat death for information overload, which amounts to the same thing.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Much of DeLillo’s recent work posits this information overload as the baseline state of contemporary U.S. culture; as Johnston suggests, the trajectory of DeLillo’s novels has functioned as a fictional assemblage “in which word and image, film and televisual effects are reconfigured as aspects of an englobing media assemblage, or multiplicity, within which the ‘de-multiplication’ of human identity and the collusion of agencies and institutions are the most striking consequences” (168). The “englobing” effect of the network and the sense in which information culture’s multiplicity paradoxically results in “de-multiplication” of identity, the entropic chaos of sameness, is in part the focus of White Noise. The novel is, as many critics have pointed out, replete with lists, ranging in context from the brief non-sequitur triads of consumer products that appear as part of the novel’s own “white noise”–“Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex” (52); “MasterCard, Visa, American Express” (100); “Krylon, Rust-Oleum, Red Devil” (159); “Clorets, Velamints,Â Freedent” (229); and so on, lists that communicate, as Nicholas Branch’s evidence does in Libra, not meaning but the network itself–to more extended lists of lovingly crafted detail, such as that on the novel’s first page, which catalogs the possessions brought to the College-on-the-Hill by students who are moving into the dorms:
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags–onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chew and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints. (3)
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 This enumeration of the means by which the multiplication of consumer goods has resulted in a kind of informational nonsense–the “Waffelos and Kabooms” through which these students and their parents discover their sense of self–finds its parallel, much later in the novel, in the accounting of the end results of those goods, in their final resting places. Searching through his kitchen trash for the Dylar he craves, Jack performs a kind of excavation of his family’s compacted garbage, discovering the layers of waste resulting from consumerism’s white noise:
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 An oozing cube of semi-mangled cans, clothes hangers, animal bones and other refuse. The bottles were broken, the cartons flat. Product colors were undiminished in brightness and intensity. Fats, juices and heavy sludges seeped through layers of pressed vegetable matter. I felt like an archaeologist about to sift through a finding of tool fragments and assorted cave trash. . . . The compressed bulk sat there like an ironic modern sculpture, massive, squat, mocking. I jabbed at it with the butt end of a rake and then spread the material over the concrete floor. I picked through it item by item, mass by shapeless mass, wondering why I felt guilty, a violator of privacy, uncovering intimate and perhaps shameful secrets. . . . I found crayon drawings of a figure with full breasts and male genitals. There was a long piece of twine that contained a series of knots and loops. It seemed at first a random construction. Looking more closely I thought I detected a complex relationship between the size of the loops, the degree of the knots (single or double) and the intervals between knots with loops and freestanding knots. Some kind of occult geometry or symbolic festoon of obsessions. I found a banana skin with a tampon inside. Was this the dark underside of consumer consciousness? I came across a horrible clotted mass of hair, soap, ear swabs, crushed roaches, flip-top rings, sterile pads smeared with pus and bacon fat, strands of frayed dental floss, fragments of ballpoint refills, toothpicks still displaying bits of impaled food. (WN 258″“59)
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The end of consumerism, and the continuous white noise of its advertising, is this entropic heap. In this repellent mass of contemporary civilization’s detritus, however, which Jack studies so carefully as almost to negate its repellency, he senses–like Oedipa looking down at the highways of Southern California or at the pattern of filth on a discarded mattress–an intent to communicate so veiled as to appear wholly random, but with a randomness that seems to suggest pattern. The piece of twine, for instance, in which Jack detects an “occult geometry”: finding meaning in the knots and loops requires sorting out the garbage heap’s too-apparent entropy, a feat of organization and interpretation that can only add to the world’s white noise another stream of pointless information, further decomposing all communication into chaos.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Underworld centers much of its energy around such garbage heaps, produced on a much more vast cultural scale, as well as on the more dangerously noxious byproducts of the cold war. This encyclopedic narrative is, if anything, more relentless in its determination to read the networks of U.S. garbage, in part because the novel itself comprises such a network: “everything connects in the end,” thinks one of its characters, “or only seems to, or seems to only because it does” (465). The assumption of meaning in waste, and the production of waste through the cultural processes of signification, becomes important in the novel in part because the novel’s own structure seems to rest on the relationship between meaning and waste. Jesse Detwiler, once a “garbage guerilla” (286) known for stealing and reading the trash of the famous and powerful, has become by the late 1970s a “waste theorist” (285) who suggests the role of such entropic decay in shaping U.S. culture: “Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense” (287). Or, more succinctly and more to the point: “Garbage comes first, then we build a system to deal with it” (288). Systems–whether of waste disposal or of meaning–in this rendering, are the necessary containment of the chaos that precedes them. This inversion of the expected ordering of things in a sense replicates the inversions implied by the novel’s structure, which conducts a gradual archaeological excavation through the layers of history and into the past, finding, depressingly, onlyÂ more chaos as the project ensues. The need to seek order–both in garbage’s chaos and in the novel itself–is a result of the jangled significations produced by contemporary culture’s entropy:
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Detwiler said that cities rose on garbage, inch by inch, gaining elevation through the decades as buried debris increased. Garbage always got layered over or pushed to the edges, in a room or in a landscape. But it had its own momentum. It pushed back. It pushed into every space available, dictating construction patterns and altering systems of ritual. And it produced rats and paranoia. People were compelled to develop an organized response. (287)
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 But this “organized response”–landfills, for instance–can only add to the problem; the systems meant to deal with waste produce only more insidious forms of waste. Thus, at novel’s end, a company in Kazakhstan uses nuclear explosions to dispose of dangerous waste, ostensibly destroying it but in actuality–as J. Edgar Hoover thinks of the Soviet test blast in the novel’s prologue–sending it “underground, to spawn and skein” (U 51).
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 If there is a way out of this entropic cycle in Underworld, a way to create meaning out of chaos, art provides it. As Mark Osteen notes in American Magic and Dread, the novel offers a significant number of representations of the reclamation of garbage within the aesthetic enterprise: Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers, Moonman 157’s graffiti-painted tenement walls and subway cars, and, perhaps most significantly for the novel’s own project of reclaiming the history of the cold war, Klara Sax’s desert art project, Long Tall Sally, in which dozens work to create art from cast-off military aircraft. Describing her project to an interviewer, Klara is conscious of her interference in both the entropic systems of waste production and the destructive systems of social order and power:
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 See, we’re painting, hand-painting in some cases, putting our puny hands to great weapons systems, to systems that came out of the factories and assembly halls as near alike as possible, millions of components stamped out, repeated endlessly, and we’re trying to unrepeat, to find an element of felt life, and maybe there’s a sort of survival instinct here, a graffiti instinct–to trespass and declare ourselves, show who we are. (U 77)
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In such acts of creation–or senseless acts of beauty, as the bumper sticker would have it–is a step outside the system that frees the world from the chaos in which it is mired, producing, at least momentarily, a negentropic clarity that allows for individual communication. Thus, as Osteen suggests, “DeLillo offers Underworld as a similar act of resistance and redemption, submerging us in the culture of weapons and waste so that we may re-emerge transformed”Â (216). In fact, DeLillo’s hope, expressed more than a decade earlier in an interview with Anthony DeCurtis, is that fiction can “rescue history from its confusions,” creating a multiplicitous new order by pointing out the chaos within patterns, and the patterns within chaos (DeCurtis 56). The complexity of this fictional assemblage, as Johnston suggests, claims to counter the “de-multiplying” effects of the media assemblage through its access to the aesthetic, the imaginary. As DeLillo’s “Author’s Note” at the end of Libra suggests, the novel is fundamentally a “work of imagination,” and while it may aspire to “fill some of the blank spaces in the known record” (458), those spaces are not primarily factual in nature; rather, the novel’s work is “providing the balance and rhythm we don’t experience in our daily lives . . . correcting, clearing up and, perhaps most important of all, finding rhythms and symmetries that we simply don’t encounter elsewhere” (DeCurtis 56). The novel’s work is to build a multiplicity that can take the reader out of the alternately entropic chaos and strangling uniformity of the network. The novel, given its presumed powers of resistance, can escape the entropic winding down of contemporary culture and, like Maxwell’s Demon, concentrate energy anew.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Art is thus, for DeLillo, comparable in a sense to the “non-equilibrium thermodynamics” pioneered by Ilya Prigogine, which explores “environments where the laws of entropy are temporarily overcome, and higher-level order may spontaneously emerge out of underlying chaos” (Johnson 52). The artists throughout Underworld–as well, of course, as the novelist himself–thus become a kind of humanist “singularity,” a point at which matter shifts into something completely unlike its prior state. Of course, the singularity, in its popular-science and science-fiction conceptions, has no such traditional, benign, or aesthetic results; Vernor Vinge, for instance, argued in 1993 that once the singularity–which he defines as “the technological means to create superhuman intelligence”–is reached, “the human era will be ended” (Vinge). Bruce Sterling, moreover, explores posthuman evolution in Schismatrix, creating a fully posthuman culture in which, at such points of singularity, being proceeds by “Prigoginic leaps” as the chaotic elements of systems both technological and living spontaneously reorganize into new, higher levels of complexity. Thus, while art allows DeLillo, through both his characters and his texts, to escape the entropic trend of contemporary culture via the singular transformation of the chaos of waste into the order of art, such points of singularity in networked culture can prove dangerous to the humanist ideal, in that they demonstrate, in Kevin Kelly’s phrase, just how “out of control” complex networks are.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Thus, in The Crying of Lot 49, Nefastis’s (and Maxwell’s and Oedipa’s)Â desire for the existence of the “tiny intelligence” that can possibly forestall the universe’s demise is doomed to failure, not simply because of the Demon’s impossibility–a non-thermodynamic creature that functions in a thermodynamically closed system–but also because of the danger presented by the interposition of a mechanistic control within an out-of-control system. The longing for such a control parallels V.’s desire for a mechanized self overseen by an all-powerful, if slightly outrÃ© deity; it is less a longing for a world rescued from the brink of chaos by an aesthetic order than one controlled by a ruling principle. The problem is, first, that such control is inevitably oppressive and, second, that it always calls attention to other, uncontrolled possibilities; witness, for instance, the ill-fated Scurvhamite heresy, a Puritan sect that operated under the strictest possible assumptions about predestination:
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Nothing for a Scurvhamite ever happened by accident. Creation was a vast, intricate machine. But one part of it, the Scurvhamite part, ran off the will of God its prime mover. The rest ran off some opposite Principle, something blind, soulless; a brute automatism that led to eternal death. The idea was to woo converts into the Godly and purposeful sodality of the Scurvhamite. But somehow those few saved Scurvhamites found themselves looking out into the gaudy clockwork of the doomed with a certain sick and fascinated horror, and this was to prove fatal. (155)
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 While for the Scurvhamites, the opposition between the controlled and the chaotic finds its expression in a universe either organized and maintained by an omnipotent God or one, like clockwork, fated to run down, this same division is echoed in the contemporary, post-Nietzschean scene of The Crying of Lot 49 in the contrasting beliefs in the possibility of Maxwell’s Demon and the inevitability of the gradual winding down into entropy. While the existence of the Demon would allow for an escape from the rigors of the second law of thermodynamics, the out-of-control presence of such a Prigoginic Demon– and the potential for its malignity–suggests that order is not entropy’s true opposite but its flip side, potentially just as dangerous.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Thus we return to the double-edged sense of “chaos” in contemporary culture: chaos is popularly defined as a state completely lacking order, but as the late twentieth-century developments in multiple branches of science explored in James Gleick’s Chaos make clear, the apparent randomness of chaos may in fact conceal an order that is both pervasive and dynamic. Thus, systems that appear entropic or chaotic in the first sense might instead contain a deep, fractal order that suggests the potential for the system’s control. As Kelly suggests: “there are two kinds of complexity: inherent and apparent. InherentÂ complexity is the ‘true’ complexity of chaotic systems. It leads to dark unpredictability. The other kind of complexity is the flip side of chaos–apparent complexity obscuring exploitable order” (427). This exploitability is precisely the danger of such order, and particularly the danger of unseen levels of order; can a complex network that wires together the citizens of a nation, for instance, be used against those citizens? Perhaps worse, can the network itself become sufficiently complex that it develops a kind of intelligence in its connections, evading by exceeding centralized control? In either case, the novel of obsolescence seems to argue, while chaos is dangerous, the order it masks may be even more so.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The first of these possible threats posed by order within the network operates in the top-down fashion of ideological or governmental control of the networks of communications. Such networks betray ideological biases in their very wiring; as Erik Barnouw argues in his history of the rise of television, Tube of Plenty, the contemporary structures of broadcasting are rooted in the military purposes for which the technologies were originally developed–surveillance and reconnaissance–and the corporate purposes to which they were later turned over. The ideological nature of such development and use of the network reveals another key aspect of McLuhan’s formulation “the medium is the message,” particularly as reinterpreted by novels and critics of obsolescence; the structure of any network of communication will determine what can be said over its connections. This deterministic view of the media of communications perhaps lessens the irony that Peter Abernethy sees at work in The Crying of Lot 49, as pointed out earlier: “our human ability to communicate,” he claims, “seems to decrease in proportion to the increase in our technical ability to communicate” (18); all channels of information, all conduits, are imagined to limit the shape of what flows through them.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 John Stark has claimed that Pynchon’s novels are an effort to “organize satisfactorily the enormous amount of information available to contemporary people.” Despite Stark’s admission that such a task is “probably hopeless” (4), this argument is nonetheless a bit curious, given that the last feeling any reader would claim to have at the end of a Pynchon novel is that of having had an “organized” experience. Rather, that Pynchon’s magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, ends on a maddening note of fragmentation and disintegration seems precisely the point. Nor does DeLillo’s own claim of the ability of fiction to “rescue history from its confusions” seem to bear out, as even his speculative interpretation in Libra of the Kennedy assassination leaves us with more questions than it answers. What the reader, like Nicholas Branch, is finally leftÂ with at the end of such apparently chaotic novels are mounds of information and the vaguely paranoid sense that it should all connect. This is the paranoia of the network: that the novel of obsolescence is, as Stark rightly points out, obsessed with the process of the organization of information, of plot making, is distinctly related to the paranoid late twentieth-century sense that networks of communications may serve as covert means of individual control, whether they are used for state surveillance and reconnaissance or corporate commodity production and distribution. The effort to organize information in the novel suggests the attempt to divine the network’s order; the failure of such organization reflects at the same time the network’s overwhelming complexity and the novel’s drive to free itself from its sticky grasp.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 An early suggestion of the potentially controlling nature of the networks of communications surfaces in the work of Norbert Wiener. In The Human Use of Human Beings, he responds to concerns about his grouping, in the earlier technical text Cybernetics (1948), of “communication” and “control” within the same classification:
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Why did I do this? When I communicate with another person, I impart a message to him, and when he communicates back with me he returns a related message which contains information primarily accessible to him and not to me. When I control the actions of another person, I communicate a message to him, and although this message is in the imperative mood, the technique of communication does not differ from that of a message of fact. (16)
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 What began in cybernetics, at least in theory, as the study of the communication of commands necessary to control a machine already betrays hints that it is moving, at this early moment, into the altogether similar study of the communication of commands necessary to control a human being. The medium is, indeed, the message; to study communication is to study control. Thus Neil Postman’s claim that “[t]he milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed” (Technopoly 70) seems quite wide of the mark. The link between information and meaning–between information and individual purpose–may have been dramatically weakened, if not severed entirely, but the pattern of the circulation of information, even in Technopoly, has ideology at its heart, and what does ideology serve if not some human purpose? Postman himself quite rightly reads educational institutions–which Althusser declared in 1970 to be the dominant ideological state apparatus–as “a mechanism for information control” (71) (see Althusser 152). However, he either does not notice or is unconcerned by the ideological ends which the control of information is inevitably made to serve.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Wiener’s chapter entitled “Law and Communication” makes even more explicit the connection between the dominant ideology and the control of communication, claiming that “[l]aw may be defined as the ethical control applied to communication” (105), and that “the problems of law may be considered communicative and cybernetic” (110). This intimate connection between communication and the pressures of legal structures heavily inflects The Crying of Lot 49. In fact, subterranean ties between lawyers in this novel, or government officials in Vineland, and the period’s most evident and pervasive network, the Tube, strongly suggest the medium’s complicity with centralized forces of control. Remember, for instance, Hector’s late-night vision of the military cooption of the network in Vineland; it is no accident that the officers on-screen claim to be operating under the auspices of a presidential directive or, for that matter, that the viewer on the other side of the screen is himself a government agent. Television, the conduit of “official” messages and representations, bears a covert relationship to these representatives of the dominant ideology, one that may ultimately be exploited for purposes of control. And yet, as Hector’s addiction attests, it’s frequently a love-hate relationship; in The Crying of Lot 49, for instance, Oedipa discovers her family lawyer, Roseman, “brooding over the Perry Mason television program” (18), having gone so far in his contemplations of the lawyerly representations of this show as to draw up a “rough draft of The Profession v. Perry Mason; a Not-so-hypothetical Indictment . . . in progress for as long as the TV show had been on the air” (19). One assumes that Roseman’s fury is over the show’s departures from the standards he holds for lawyering; nonetheless, despite his concern over these breaches of “reality,” he is unable to distinguish the show itself as unreal, drawing not the program but the character into a still-potential but not so hypothetical legal battle.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 This is a common failure in The Crying of Lot 49, this inability to distinguish between the representations of the law and the representatives of the law; Oedipa has the same momentary difficulty at Metzger’s entrance. Having never met the lawyer, she finds herself put off when “[h]e turned out to be so good-looking that Oedipa thought at first They, somebody up there, were putting her on. It had to be an actor . . . she looked around him for reflectors, microphones, camera cabling” (28). Meeting Metzger, Oedipa finds herself transported into an episode of Candid Camera. And as it turns out, Metzger, with his history as a child actor, and with his apparent lawyer’s fluency withÂ the tube, is much more adept at manipulating the medium than Oedipa is. While Oedipa uses the television as a weapon, wielding its rabbit ears to fend off Miles’s advances, Metzger uses it as an instrument of seduction, “accidentally” finding Cashiered, a movie he’d starred in as a child, on the air: “Either he’d made up the whole thing, Oedipa thought suddenly, or he bribed the engineer over at the local station to run this, it’s all part of a plot, an elaborate, seduction, plot. O Metzger” (31). Metzger is much closer to the truth of the medium here in his uses of it than is Oedipa; as demonstrated in Vineland, television will come to be used more as an instrument of seduction than as a tool of overt domination.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 In Oedipa’s ability to create a “plot” out of Metzger’s seduction, though, are the incipient traces of Pynchonian paranoia. Paranoia in Pynchon, as Joseph Tabbi argues, is “not a clinical condition or even a psychological state so much as it is a conceptual commitment to systems of connection” (Postmodern 53). Paranoia, in its emphasis on “connection,” thus becomes the opposite end of the information spectrum from the schizophrenia of entropy; rather than disorganization and chaos, a complete separation of information from meaning, paranoia is the state in which everything means. This state of paranoia seems inevitable given any visible means of organizing information–particularly in patterns and connections like the networks of communications themselves. As Leo Bersani suggests:
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 paranoia is a necessary product of all information systems. . . . Information control is the contemporary version of God’s eternal knowledge of each individual’s ultimate damnation or salvation, and both theology and computer technology naturally produce paranoid fears about how we are hooked into the System, about the connections it has in store for us. (103)
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Between theology and computer technology, however, there is television, the system of communication that appears to bring the world into the home. Paranoia about television, like that exhibited by Roseman with regard to Perry Mason, frequently has to do with the vagueness of the diegetic boundary between “television” and “life,” the difficulty in determining which direction the information is flowing across that border, and the sense in which that border may be crossable.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Metzger’s fluency with the medium, his seemingly instinctive awareness of its uses for seduction rather than physical domination, goes so far as to make him capable of moving with some ease back and forth across its diegetic boundary; when Oedipa questions him on some point of his knowledge of German U-boat maneuvering during the war, he responds offhandedly,Â “Wasn’t I there?” (CL49 32), taking his filmic experiences as equivalent to reality. Oedipa, by asking in the first place and then by attempting to object to this response, reveals her inability to make this same kind of cross in and out of the network. Metzger tries to explain this facility to her, and what it has to do with the law, but to very little avail:
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 “But our beauty lies,” explained Metzger, “in this extended capacity for convolution. A lawyer in a courtroom, in front of any jury, becomes an actor, right? Raymond Burr is an actor, impersonating a lawyer, who in front of a jury becomes an actor. Me, I’m a former actor who became a lawyer. They’ve done the pilot film of a TV series, in fact, based loosely on my career, starring my friend Manny Di Presso, a one-time lawyer who quit his firm to become an actor. Who in this film plays me, an actor become a lawyer reverting periodically to being an actor. The film is in an air-conditioned vault at one of the Hollywood studios, light can’t fatigue it, it can be repeated endlessly.” (33)
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Metzger’s explanation of the reason for the connection between lawyers and the Tube–that lawyers are actors in some fundamental sense–feels highly unsatisfactory, or perhaps only partial; that lawyers are actors seems to imply something more about the relationship of both to the system of “preferred meanings” that makes up the dominant ideology. John Fiske, in Television Culture, claims that the “ideological” codes of television “work to organize” television’s other codes–those inscribed in and by a program’s use of lighting, camerawork, makeup, music, and so forth–into “a congruent and coherent set of meanings that constitute the common sense of a society” (6). Actors and lawyers thus are both entrained in the project of this “organization,” the transformation of codes into common sense. Metzger’s ability to move back and forth across the boundary between these two worlds reveals only the identity of the codes involved.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 However, when Manny Di Presso, Metzger’s actor-double, shows up, chased by the mob, even Metzger loses his bearings. “Are we on camera,” Metzger asks “dryly” (without benefit of question mark). “This is real,” Di Presso responds, clarifying which side of the screen we’re on (CL49 57). Like JesÃºs Arrabal’s anarchist miracle, this is the intrusion of the filmic universe into the real one–and for a moment, even Metzger can’t tell them apart. In fact, the lines between the electronic media and reality begin to blur uncontrollably. As Oedipa discovers later in the novel, speaking with Mr. Thoth in the Vesperhaven retirement home (a part, of course, of the estate of Pierce Inverarity), the television is bleeding out into the “real” world just as easily as the lawyers are moving in the other direction. Mr. Thoth attempts to relate a dream heÂ has just had to her but then says that ” ‘[i]t was all mixed in with a Porky Pig cartoon.’ He waved at the tube. ‘It comes in your dreams, you know. Filthy machine. . . . ‘ ” (91). That the content of this Porky Pig cartoon is “the one about Porky Pig and the anarchist” (91) brings us right back to JesÃºs Arrabal, defining his anarchist miracle as “another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm” (120). The blurring, through the network, of the boundary distinguishing “media” from “life,” then, appears not to be innocent or inconsequential; while Arrabal seems to suggest that such cataclysm might be revolutionary, the exploitation of television by the state’s ideological apparatuses indicates that the coming explosion is one of reaction instead.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 The dangerous nature of such top-down control of the network is not alleviated through a shift in controllers, however, as Oedipa discovers in her encounters with the Tristero. Whether a real or imagined entity, the Tristero seeks its escape from the web of governmental power by attempting to wrest control of the networks of communication away from “official” sources. It is within this framework that Bortz describes the history of the Tristero to Oedipa, or rather pitches it to her as though it were a script for a movie:
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 “He looks like Kirk Douglas,” cried Bortz, “he’s wearing this sword, his name is something gutsy like Konrad. They’re meeting in the back room of a tavern, all these broads in peasant blouses carrying steins around, everybody juiced and yelling, suddenly Konrad jumps up on a table. The crowd hushes, ‘The salvation of Europe,’ Konrad says, ‘depends on communication, right? We face this anarchy of jealous German princes, hundreds of them scheming, counter-scheming, infighting, dissipating all of the Empire’s strength in their useless bickering. But whoever could control the lines of communication, among all these princes, would control them. . . . ‘ Prolonged cheering.” (CL49 164)
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 The Tristero’s response to the entropic decline into which the German Empire is falling is thus to eliminate the official couriers, Thurn and Taxis, and to institute a new system under which communication would be controlled by the underground couriers; this is not anarchy but a new reign of terror. The Tristero may be imagined to correspond to the “tiny intelligence” of Maxwell’s Demon, which would handle the gathering and sorting of information, but it also reflects in its awful brutality the “soulless” Principle of the anti-Scurvhamite universe, an equally entropic world of information overload. Control of the network in any form–by God or by Principle; by government or by corporations; by Thurn and Taxis or by the Tristero–produces the sameÂ bloody results for those who attempt to communicate through it. That this scene is pitched to Oedipa, as would be such a scene from a film, clearly places this scenario on the other side of the diegetic border, with Metzger’s movie in the realm of the law. And it’s impossible for Oedipa to tell what of it may be real and what of it is sheer coincidence, as “[e]very access route to the Tristero could be traced also back to the Inverarity estate” (CL49 170). Perhaps this is all the will of Pierce Inverarity, and thus those elements that appear to exist outside the network’s tapestry are merely that tapestry’s underside.
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 During Oedipa’s overnight adventure in the Bay Area, she discovers that “[t]he repetition of symbols was to be enough” (CL49 118), that in her paranoia she doesn’t after all need connections to be drawn for her through a specific sequence of signifiers in order to discover the world she is seeking, for she has made, as Tabbi suggests, the “conceptual commitment to systems of connection” (Postmodern 53). In fact, she need not “discover” this world at all but can project it for herself. As Joseph Slade points out with regard to Gravity’s Rainbow: “Most of Pynchon’s characters believe that the information [they receive] comes from ‘outside,’ that their senses are like movie cameras recording what is there, but an occasional character worries that he is instead a projector, that something ‘inside’ is responsible for the film he sees and hears” (“Humanist” 59). This anxiety about which side of the diegetic boundary she falls on follows Oedipa through her wanderings in the Bay Area. By the signs she reads around her, she is able to project a world in which “here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U.S. Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery” (CL49 124). This withdrawal from the legally controlled lines of communication is precisely what Oedipa is seeking, some other world outside the tapestry, something not created and ordered for her. The conflict, however, is painfully evident, just as it is with movies: there is certainly an alternate world here, but is it, like a film, merely a diegetic world? Does it really exist, or has it been projected–by Oedipa, by Pierce–from within this world, a mirage, an image? And if there is a mode of control other than the machinery of the republic, is it in fact any less dangerous?
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 This confusion remains unresolved at the end of The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa finds herself circling a dim awareness that, if the Tristero is just her projection, she must embrace it as such, seeing that there is either
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 [a]nother mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there was either some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was justÂ America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia. (182)
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 The only way to be relevant to contemporary culture is to assume the truth of the Tristero, to find meaning in the patterns she reads around her, to accept this bit of communication as meant for her. For such appears to be the only possibility for true communication which exists in this fully networked world; Oedipa reads the Tristero as “a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system” (CL49 170). If there is to be communication, it seems, it must happen outside the tapestry; something rests at the center of the “official” that prevents real communication, transforming everything into “lies,” “routine,” “spiritual poverty.”
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 And yet: the first piece of correspondence Oedipa sees delivered via this alternative system is a meaningless letter to Mike Fallopian, delivered solely because of the organization’s regulations: “To keep it up to some kind of a reasonable volume,” he confesses to Oedipa, “each member has to send at least one letter a week through the Yoyodyne system. If you don’t, you get fined” (CL49 53). And thus, again, alternative forms of centralized control allow for no more freedom, no greater communication, than do the governmentally controlled networks; they merely shift the locus of the order’s oppressions. And thus, whether Oedipa has in fact found “[a]nother mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero” (182), comes to matter precious little. The choices she is left with–Tristero or no Tristero; a way out of the tapestry or just more tapestry; heat death or information chaos; paranoia, in which everything is connected, or entropy, in which nothing is–are not true opposites but mirror images. She is left, in the end, waiting for a middle ground, “waiting for a symmetry of choices to break down, to go skew. She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among the matrices of a great digital computer, the zeros and ones twinned above” (181). That these twinned choices resolve into the inner workings of the next dominant instrument of communication, the computer, is no accident. The officially controlled lines of communication have rationalized the world’s flow of information, creating a quite reasonable paranoia, making it impossible to discern on which side of the diegetic border one stands. Neither choice of any pair means anything, as all choices lead to the same end, one and zero contained by the same computer. Right and Left, anarchy and fascism, are equally meaningless, as the exclusion of the middle through the network’s centralized control has eliminated all possibility of diversity, of individual freedom.
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 The true alternative to such top-down, centralized, exploitable order obscured by the complexities of the network is of course a more diffuse, bottom-up control, in which the elements of the network, not ruled by any imposed order, self-organize into a spontaneous, emergent form of order. That this second kind of hidden order is not imposed by a central source of authority but draws its authority from the network itself, from the complexity of its interconnections, does little to alleviate the contemporary paranoia about organization and control, as this kind of unlocatable, diffuse, interconnected power is the power of conspiracy. Theories of conspiracy, as Timothy Melley argues, are the result of a postwar state of “agency panic,” in which individuals, feeling “a nervousness or uncertainty about the causes of individual action” (12), attribute the motive force for such action to outside sources, imagining that such “controlling organizations are themselves agents–rational, motivated entities with the will and the means to carry out complex plans” (12″“13). The more complex the action, and the more complex the organization, in fact, the more individual agency is threatened, and the more power the network itself absorbs. Thus, while Win Everett claims in Libra that “[s]ecrets build their own networks” (22), it is equally true, and far more threatening, that networks form their own secrets, that the power of connections among individuals quickly outstrips the ability of those individuals to control it.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 DeLillo explores throughout Libra the “tendency of plots to move toward death,” a quality Win believes inherent in “[a] narrative plot no less than in a conspiracy of armed men” (221). Conspiracies are thus self-organizing, dynamic systems whose structures take on the emergent qualities explored in contemporary systems theory, chaos theory, and theories of complexity. Despite Win’s clear attempts at communicating his plan for a staged–and, most importantly, failed–assassination attempt, the multiplication of interconnections among the men involved in the conspiracy causes the network to take on a life of its own. David Ferrie, one of the key figures of this plot, suggests the dynamic nature of such interconnections to Lee Oswald years before the central conspiracy begins to take shape: “I’ve studied patterns of coincidence,” he tells Lee. “Coincidence is a science waiting to be discovered. How patterns emerge outside the bounds of cause and effect” (44). Such spontaneous organization is currently studied in an appropriately interdisciplinary fashion under the rubric of emergence–as author Steven Johnson defines it, “a higher-level pattern arising out of the parallel complex interactions between local agents”Â (19). Ferrie’s sense of coincidence as more meaningful than random–as he tells Carmine Latta, later in the novel, “We don’t know what to call it, so we say coincidence. It goes deeper. . . . There’s a hidden principle” (L 172)–is evidenced, in fact, by the strange multiplicity of his relationship with Lee: having first met when Lee was a teenager in the Civil Air Patrol, they cross paths again, seemingly randomly, in the office of Guy Banister just as the conspiracy gets underway.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Lee in fact becomes, in Libra, the ideal focal point for such a conspiracy, precisely because he is constructed as a network of identity fragments, complexly interconnected and yet without apparent direction or purpose. Win Everett, in setting the conspiracy into motion, assumes that such a figure will have to be crafted; he plans to “script a person or persons out of ordinary pocket litter” (28), creating evidence of alternate identities, false records, fake identifications, all intended to “show the secret symmetries in a nondescript life” (48), to “[a]stonish them. Create coincidence so bizarre they have to believe it” (147). And yet the coincidences he doesn’t create are all the more bizarre. He is profoundly unsettled to discover that Oswald, creature of the network, “existed independently of the plot” (178), that he has already constructed for himself all the documents Win is busily forging for him, that “the fiction he’d been devising” is “living prematurely in the world” (179). Thus Lee, who is more network than individual, simultaneously evades the control of individual members of the conspiracy and becomes of a piece with the larger plot’s operations, as if spontaneously created by the plot itself.
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Late in the novel, Lee comes to understand, if only partially, his emergent existence; having spoken with Ferrie about the Kennedy administration’s perhaps imagined plots against Castro one day, he reads an article about those same plots in the newspaper the next:
¶ 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Of course it was only coincidence that Ferrie mentioned the thing one day and it appeared in the paper the next. But maybe that was even stranger than total control.
¶ 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Coincidence. Banister was trying to find him, not knowing what city or state or country he was in, and he walked in the door at 544 and asked for an undercover job.
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Did military service in the Pacific, like Kennedy. Poor handwriting, terrible speller, like Kennedy. Wives pregnant at the same time. Brothers named Robert. (L 336)
¶ 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 The desperation in some of these “coincidences”–the painful, conflicted desire to identify with both Castro and Kennedy, the random vagaries of postal delivery–suggests that Lee’s dyslexia, evident throughout the text in the difficulties he has with both reading and writing, carries over to his understanding of his own interconnections. The “coincidence” of his appearance at Banister’s office, however, hints at the deep order of the networks of conspiracy, an order that is “stranger than total control” in its diffuseness. The very impossibility of predicting such a connection, combined with the vastness of its effect, suggests that what Lee thinks of as coincidence is instead, as Ferrie insists, determined by the network itself. Ferrie attempts to explain his undiscovered science to Lee, using, appropriately enough, imagery that draws the network in a series of connections:
¶ 59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Think of two parallel lines. . . . One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It’s not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It’s a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny. (L 339)
¶ 60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Coincidence, conspiracy, the network–all are emergent structures that self-organize seemingly random parts into deeper levels of order. However unsatisfactory may be Ferrie’s analysis of the origins of such spontaneous organization, the tissue of “dreams, visions, intuitions” and the desire to be “on the path of his destiny” are all that comprise Lee’s character; if there were no connection between those parallel lines prior to this moment, Ferrie’s speech creates one, completing the network that gives the conspiracy life. In this fashion, by coming to sense the inevitability of coincidence and the emergent connectedness of his own life, Lee is prepared to understand how the television networks, running films about presidential assassinations, could be speaking directly to him, “running a message through the night into his skin” (L 370), even without the controlling presence of any empowered “them.”
¶ 61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 The risk, however, of interpreting coincidence through the concept of emergence, of understanding interconnection as fate, is the violence that such a vision does to the concept of individual agency. As Melley suggests in Empire of Conspiracy, conspiracy theory, or the ostensibly paranoid psychic commitment to divining deep levels of interconnection in the supposedly random, is largely driven by agency panic, and thus serves both to explain away individual powerlessness and to displace that lost sense of power onto the networks that seem vaguely to have absorbed it. Like the anxiety of obsolescence, which announces the death of the novel in order, paradoxically, to augment its cultural influence, conspiracy theory functions to “sustain a form of individualism that seems increasingly challenged by postwar economic and social structures. Conspiracy theory, paranoia, and anxiety about human agency, in other words, are all part of the paradox in which a supposedly individualist culture conserves its individualism by continually imagining itself to be in immediate peril” (6). The danger of the network as represented in the novel of obsolescence is not simply the threat it poses to reading, but that which it poses to readers; not simply the difficulties it creates for coherent communication, but the effect it has of undermining the modern conception of the individual. While top-down control of networked systems directly oppresses by subjecting the individual to governmental, corporate, or other ideological domination, the more diffuse structure of bottom-up control may in fact be riskier, in that the spontaneous development of order out of nothing that occurs at a given level of complexity serves to transform the individual elements of a network into something entirely different: a mass.