The Pyndustry in Warwick

"Thomas Pynchon: Schizophrenia and Social Control. Papers From the Warwick Conference"
(Pynchon Notes 34-35, Spring-Fall 1994)

Joseph Tabbi

In the academic Fall of 1995, between conferences devoted to "virtual futures" in "the arts and cyberculture" (9), a number of philosophy graduate students at the University of Warwick hosted a conference on Thomas Pynchon and Gilles Deleuze, writers known to the cyberculture but not often studied together as part of it. Working "with no significant financial support from any academic or private institution" (9), the Warwick group tapped into virtual energies that were already in place and gathered around Pynchon Notes, a journal that despite its high scholarly standards has always been hospitable to iconoclasts. If the Warwick conference has in fact helped to produce a "seismic shift in the Pyndustry" (10), as I hope it has, this is because the industry house journal has never rested too comfortably within the apparatus of major authorship. The journal continues to do the important work of gathering hard-to-find biographical data about its reclusive subject, flagging equally elusive sources and allusions, and demonstrating his work's robustness by devising ever new interpretations. Yet beyond these traditional tasks (which the Warwick authors continue to perform well), one senses a more pressing desire to salvage "Pynchon's anarchic materialism . . . from the political correctness of the day," in the words of issue co-editor Eric Cassidy, and "to place his work in a wider historical context" (107).

With Walter Rathenau, the architect of the German industrial state between the world wars whose ghost speaks as a character in Gravity's Rainbow, the organizers of the Warwick conference posed two questions: "First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?" One contributor, Bernard Duyfhuizen, cautions that such leading questions are typical of the various "reader traps" in Pynchon, namely, those "stylistic and thematic techniques that unsettle the readerly desire to construct an ordered cosmos within the fictional space of the text" (88). A trap that the contributors generally avoid is the automatic and often sentimental assumption, common in Pynchon's readers from the sixties and seventies, that he has to be writing against control structures, or the related assumption that any synthetic understanding must of necessity be in the service of a single "totalizing" system. The possibility of a less-repressive synthesis emerges when Pynchon's ideas and narrative structures are put into contact with some of the most resourceful, though academically marginalized, art and critical writing to have appeared in the 25 years since the publication of Gravity's Rainbow: Anti-Oedipus and cyberpunk, Ballard, Donna Haraway, Manuel DeLanda, continental media theory, narratology, and hypertext narrative theory are all points of reference that, taken together, define a cultural climate in which Pynchon scholarship is likely to thrive.

The nine collected papers (and abstracts of twenty others presented at the conference) generally seek to establish more than mimetic connections between literary and cultural forms, and they would introduce more than metaphorical affinities between Pynchon's work and the scientific, technological, and irredeemably scatological subject matter he's famous for. Following Deleuze, the contributors (particularly issue co-editor Dan O'Hara) regard metaphorical readings with skepticism; essentially, these "neo-materialist" critics see metaphor as a lit-crit construction that is too often employed as a way of taming Pynchon's texts, making them representations of something else. Instead, these critics would like to "move away from mere linguistic representation" toward an understanding of literary language that is "unapologetically referential" (69). This DeLeuzian disposition accounts for O'Hara's interest in Pynchon's decision to dispense with metaphor at certain key moments in the early stories. The fact that O'Hara's essay offers a strong new reading of the much-written-about story, "Entropy," suggests that such an anti-metaphorical, anti-representational approach might shed new light on Pynchon's later work as well.

In essence, the issue editors would like to re-assert literature's claims to knowledge and they want to move Pynchon studies into territory that criticism has long ago surrendered to the physical sciences. Criticism's potential to in fact be consequential is suggested by the fact that the scientists have been taking note and not always welcoming literary pretenders to referential knowledge. In the wake of Alan Sokal (the quantum physicist who embarrassed practitioners of interdisciplinary cultural studies by placing a bogus paper on "postmodern science" in one of their most visible journals), the Warwick editors recognize that "if comparisons between chaos theory and postmodernism, or, more generally, science and literature, are not to risk being seen as merely naive appropriations of exclusively scientific ideas, they must move beyond the purely conceptual and begin disclosing the empirical foundation of literature as a material system" (9). One way of evaluating the accomplishment of the remaining essays is by registering the degree to which each author succeeds in this neo-materialist project.

Setting the critical tone, Brian Stonehill opens the collection with a useful collation of the themes shared by Pynchon and cyberpunk writers, a group with clear affinities among the Warwick scholars (who had conceived the Pynchon conference in a bar, while "basking in the afterglow of the first 'Virtual Futures' conference" [8]). Noting that the World Wide Web is a reception and not a broadcasting medium, and that the Internet does not depend on satellites and other atmospheric transmissions, but rather on optical cables buried in the ground, Stonehill shows how this "broadband subterranean spectrum of high-speed transmissions" nicely updates Pynchon's figure of "a gravity's rainbow" (19). Yet, when it comes to thinking about this totality, Stonehill falls short of the collection's promise to investigate potential material foundations for literature and literary criticism. In Stonehill's essay, "The somewhat McLuhanesque conceit that a computer is an extension of the mind" is not quite dispelled. Where media theorists after McLuhan (such as Friedrich Kittler in Germany) have been mapping a multiple and complex technical environment that cannot be reduced to mental terms, Stonehill continues, like most U.S. commentators on the subject, to rely on the metaphor of the human mind, a global "conscience, or even [a] soul," as a way of presenting "The far-flung synapses of cyberspace."

This tendency to turn matter into metaphor, to identify environmental and mental forms of interaction and thus to move away from the material realm (even "purring into transcendence"), is shared by David Porush, an early and influential scholar of both Pynchon and the emerging cyberculture. Porush considers both Pynchon's puncutron machine in Vineland and the legal sentencing machine in Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" as figures for the material nature of text processing. Porush's bi-columnar approach, which places remarks on Kafka and Pynchon in parallel with each other, is a gesture toward the material narrative forms he mentions in the essay - the Talmudic page, for example, the scrolls of the Torah, and the networked and embedded lexia on a hypertext screen. Porush's readings themselves, however, are mostly explications of the theme of transcendence in both authors. Hence his conception of Vineland as a machine, albeit a semi-mystical machine "for producing transcendental meaning," can only be regarded as metaphorical - or speculative, as when he "surmise[s]" and "guess[es]" that "something" happened in 1984, the year of Pynchon's autobiographical introduction to the story collection, Slow Learner, "to permit Pynchon to write again . . . [and] rediscover the magic" (144).

A more immanent view of media is offered in the collection's second essay, by John Johnston, titled "An American Book of the Dead: Media and the Unconscious in Vineland." Opening with a citation from Kittler's foundational essay in twentieth-century media studies, "Gramophone, Film, Typewriter" (October 41), Johnston goes beyond thematic readings by considering the actual interactions between Pynchon's own, print-based medium, and the various verbal and non-verbal media he engages in his work. In the course of his discussion, Johnston offers a convincing account of Pynchon's aesthetic trajectory from Gravity's Rainbow, a book obsessed with images of total connection and energized by the resistance to monolithic global corporations, to Vineland seventeen years later, whose less impressive, restrained, and even wilfully ordinary textual strategies are deployed "to represent the oddly surreal banality of contemporary life among partially connected media systems" (21). Such media, the computer in particular with its "incompatible data channels and differently formatted data" (31), offer systems for thinking about the culture from positions within it. And because each distinct medium is grounded in a somewhat different conceptual order, their individual connective powers are limited accordingly, and each medium becomes capable of critiquing the transcendental tendencies within the others.

Such "media multiplicity," to stay with Johnston's terminology, offers a fresh perspective within which to understand the theme of multiple impinging "worlds" that is pervasive in Pynchon (and never more so than in his long-awaited fifth novel, Mason & Dixon [1997]). The contribution by Hanjo Berressem demonstrates the precision with which Pynchon does in fact superimpose multiple worlds in Vineland and Gravity's Rainbow by carrying reality across various membrane surfaces (such as the film or television screen) and by bringing together such apparently disparate phenomena as Slothrop's sexual encounters and the pattern of V-2 Rocket hits throughout the city of London, both of which follow a Poisson distribution. Where most critics see such patternings as playful games or, at most, metaphors for some vague invisible intersection of "worlds," Berressem lends substance to the crossings with his own complex set of critical correspondences, in which the three-dimensional structure of the Lorenz attractor maps onto Jacques Lacan's "möbial . . . surface of human reality" and the various reality-games in Pynchon become precisely figured as three psychological forces: "the real (id), the imaginary (ego) and the symbolic (superego)" (44).

Reading Berressem, one needs already to know and care a great deal not only about Pynchon but about Lacan and chaos- and catastrophe-theory. Reading the contribution by Martin Rosenberg, which is likewise concerned with world-boundaries or "portals" in Duchamp and Pynchon, one comes to know quite a bit about chess, Einstein's and Minkowski's space-time geometry, and cross-dressing in Frank Zappa no less than Duchamp or Pynchon. One question such essays implicitly pose, given the contributors' general commitment to enlarging the referentiality of critical studies, is how many contexts a literary reading can support and when the process of proliferating contexts can be said to have reached its end. If one were looking for a traditional justification, Berressem and Rosenberg might claim a warrant for their approach by pointing to Pynchon's own playful allusions, in Vineland, to Deleuze & Guattari, to "a - presumably strange - attractor" (Berressem 45), or to a character named Wheeler who evidently lives in the cosmos described by theoretical physicist and mathematician John Wheeler. But the syncretic project that these critics pursue is not, and should not be, reducible to a kind of elaborate explication of Pynchon's sources and contexts. The elaboration of multiple contexts, while it may liberate critics from author- and text- centered practices, requires some sort of narrative constraint, if readers not already disposed toward a given cluster of subjects are going to come away with more than an abstract understanding of the critical work's cognitive value.

In this respect, Steven Weisenburger's essay on hyper-embedded narrative can be of particular use, not only as a means of understanding Pynchon, but as a way of imagining the kind of constraints that even critical writing might adopt and work against, if such writing is to develop further in the directions set out by the very advanced essays in this remarkable collection. Weisenburger demonstrates how the intricate, even "trippy embeddings" in Gravity's Rainbow function as something "more than a clever or playful aesthetic technique crucial to good yarn-spinning or canonical modernist narration," and more even than a way of dramatizing "ontological uncertainty" in Pynchon's fictional cosmos (85). Rather, the framing of stories within stories, the shifting of narrative viewpoints, even the "recursive stacking of embedded focalizations that are analogous to [computer] programs or applications" with their embedded sub-directories and directories (74), provide Pynchon with means of accomplishing "a critical social work" (80). This he does, most notably, by disrupting the hierarchies among frames and the boundaries separating one focalizer from another, even to the point of having separate subjectivities enter into one another. The various boundary-crossings that fascinate Pynchon's critics thus find their narrative equivalent (in Gravity's Rainbow, at least) in a peculiar variation on indirect free discourse, a mode valued by Deleauze and Guattari for its ability to erase "clear, distinctive contours" and thus "to both demolish and reconfigure understanding" (82, 85).

The difficulty of adopting such narrative modes may be gathered from the fact noted by Weisenburger that, except for "a brief reprise in Vineland" (80), nothing in Pynchon's writing since Gravity's Rainbow develops the poetics of hyper-embedded narration to such deterritorializing effect. (The subsequent appearance of Mason & Dixon indicates that, despite the heightened presence of invisible spirit-worlds, Pynchon's writing is becoming ever more linear.) Partly as a result of computers, which have made embedded logics second nature to a mass audience, postmodern techniques of embedding have entered the plots of such popular entertainments as Total Recall. This very pervasiveness makes it all the more imperative that critics working with many different levels of cultural information continue to recognize and develop, even in the mechanics of their own writing, a poetics that will recover the political potential of postmodern narrative.

This review has appeared in print, in Studies in the Novel (fall 1998).

Joseph Tabbi has published essays on Pynchon in his book, Postmodern Sublime, and he has written about neo-materialist approaches to modern literature in the introduction to  Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology, an essay collection due out in the fall of 1997.


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