Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pynchon and the "Californian Ideology"

In a recent post I wrote,

The hidden relations between these two worlds — Sixties counterculture and today’s Silicon Valley business world — is, I believe, one of the major themes of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction and the chief theme of his late diptych, Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge. If you want to understand the moral world we’re living in, you could do a lot worse than to read and reflect on those two novels.

Then yesterday I read this great post by Audrey Watters on what she calls the “Silicon Valley narrative” — a phrase she’s becoming ambivalent about, and wonders whether it might profitably be replaced by “Californian ideology.” That phrase, it turns out, comes from a 1995 essay by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron. I knew about this essay, have known about it for years, but had completely forgotten about it until reminded by Watters. Here’s the meat of the introduction:

At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of the media, computing and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally happening. Once again, capitalism’s relentless drive to diversify and intensify the creative powers of human labour is on the verge of qualitatively transforming the way in which we work, play and live together. By integrating different technologies around common protocols, something is being created which is more than the sum of its parts. When the ability to produce and receive unlimited amounts of information in any form is combined with the reach of the global telephone networks, existing forms of work and leisure can be fundamentally transformed. New industries will be born and current stock market favourites will swept away. At such moments of profound social change, anyone who can offer a simple explanation of what is happening will be listened to with great interest. At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age: the Californian Ideology.

This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, TV programmes, websites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich. Not surprisingly, this optimistic vision of the future has been enthusiastically embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, innovative capitalists, social activists, trendy academics, futurist bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians across the USA. As usual, Europeans have not been slow in copying the latest fad from America. While a recent EU Commission report recommends following the Californian free market model for building the information superhighway, cutting-edge artists and academics eagerly imitate the post human philosophers of the West Coast’s Extropian cult. With no obvious rivals, the triumph of the Californian Ideology appears to be complete.

Putting this together with Watters’s post and with my essay on the late Pynchon… wow, does all this give me ideas. Perhaps Pynchon is the premier interpreter of the Californian ideology — especially when you take into account some of his earlier books as well, especially Vineland — someone who understands both its immense appeal and its difficulty in promoting genuine human flourishing. Much to think about and, I hope, to report on here, later.


  • Fascinating. I love Pynchon, but if you stopped me in the street and said 'quick now, who is the great contemporary novelist of and about California?' I'd probably say: Kim Stanley Robinson. Isn't the key point about the 'Silicon Valley' culture (broadly speaking) that it's oriented towards the future? Is there a more 'futurist' state in the Union that California? Pynchon, sui generis of course, seems to me fundamentally a historical novelist. Isn't he?

  • Multiple interesting questions here, Adam. Let me try some preliminary answers:

    1) Yes to Kim Stanley Robinson! — whose writerly mind seems to be comprised chiefly of a straightforward and unironic love of place and a straightforward and unironic love of science, especially materials science. (It’s this combination that allows him to write so frequently and powerfully about how materials-science technologies can ruin or restore places.)

    2) But I don't think KSR participates in what Barbrook and Cameron call the “Californian ideology,” because he seems to lack any investment that New-Agey Whole-Earth-Catalog spiritual-but-not-religious side of the ideology — the one that combines so curiously and vitally in Steve Jobs’s Apple (and even in Google, with its investment in Kurzweilian thinking) with technological rationality and corporate ambition.

    3) By contrast, Pynchon, especially in Vineland and Inherent Vice and in slightly less direct ways in The Crying of Lot 49 and V — and even, I would argue, in an largely contrastive way in Bleeding Edge, which I seriously do think of as making with Inherent Vice a diptych — seems deeply, deeply invested in investigating the implications of the Californian ideology.

    4) And I don't think that’s incompatible with his tendency to set his novels in the past. I think of Pynchon not so much as a historical novelist in any conventional sense and more of a paleofuturist: an ethnographer of what the future looked like to the past. “What kind of world are we making, or being blown into?” — this seems the question shared by most of the major characters in Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day. This also seems to me the question that the chief proponents of the Californian ideology don't want us to ask too insistently.

  • Well, it would be barren to quibble, and I do take the force of your points. I suppose I'd only say that there is a third element to the echt KSR approach, which is a deep investment in 'nature', not least in the sense that all utopia must be eco-topia, which moves him quite a long way into the sort of New Age spiritual whole earth vibe you peg as distinctively Californian. It's one of the main differences between his dystopian future California in Gold Coast and his lovely utopian California of Pacific Edge. The 'Green' Martian religion of the Mars trilogy is also pretty New Age-y. But your point about Pynchon as a paleofuturist (beautifully apposite descriptor!) is very well taken.

  • That's not a quibble, but a very good point. It's interesting to think of Sax's model, Ann's model, and Arkady's model of Mars as mapped onto this Californian ideology....

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]