Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, December 30, 2016

brief Pynchon update

Well ... I know I said I was going to stop blogging my way through Pynchon, but I am grateful for the comments I've been getting (both on this blog and via email) — they really help me to think through these issues. So I need to find a way to keep getting those benefits without, as an editor put it to me the other day, "giving away the farm" — that is, putting all my best ideas here and thereby making a book superfluous. So after taking a bit of a break to read some other things — I am rather pynchoned-out at the moment — I'll be back with thoughts on Mason & Dixon and then Against the Day. (I have many, many thoughts about Gravity's Rainbow, but those are giving-away-the-farm sorts of thoughts.)

children and culture

Two thoughts about children and culture, prompted by a re-reading — or rather, if I’m honest, my first really thorough reading — of Iona and Peter Opie’s classic The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (hereafter LLS):

1) A few days ago I experienced a wonderfully bizarre moment of readerly serendipity: I was reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which a character hears, from a distance, children singing “Hark the herald angels sing, / Mrs Simpson’s pinched our king” — and then a couple of hours later I picked up LLS (p. 6), where that very verse is cited as an example of “the efficiency of oral transmission” “by the schoolchild grapevine,” a channel of communication whose speed “seems to be little short of miraculous.” The Opies point out that word of King Edward’s dilemma — to keep the throne and reject Mrs Simpson or marry Mrs Simpson and abdicate the throne — only began to reach the public in the last week of November; and Edward formally abdicated on 10 December. Yet when the carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was played at an end-of-term festivity in Swansea, “a mistress found herself having to restrain her small children from singing this lyric, known to all of them, which cannot have been composed much more than three weeks previously.” You don’t need the internet to have the rapid spread of memes.

But when you do have the internet, what becomes of “the lore and language of schoolchildren”? One answer will be that they’ll be just as creative and imaginative and intellectually acquisitive as ever, and will simply use internet-connected devices as their instruments for deployment and dispersal. But I suspect that that’s too glib an answer — as would be its opposite, the one that says that in the age of the internet children’s creativity is dead. But it’s hard for me to see how, in a universally connected age, children can continue to make their own culture wholly apart from the prying eyes and alert ears of adults, many of whom want to find ways to monetize children’s attention. I hope some smart people are studying these matters with care.

2) In chapter 10 of LLS, “Jeers and Torments: Unpopular Children,” the Opies write of hair-pulling and ear-pulling games, citing sources from Blackburn, Swansea, Newcastle, East Texas, and African-American culture as a whole, the last via T. W. Talley’s 1922 book Negro Folk Rhymes. They then comment, “it seems certain that somewhere, sometime, this game played in the nineteenth century by coloured folk in the United States, and the ordeal which little girls undergo in Britain today, must have had a common ancestor.” They suspect a Scottish origin, but of course can only speculate.

And this ought to remind us how completely misbegotten it is to rail against “cultural appropriation”: culture is appropriation. Culture is hearing and borrowing and transforming. Culture is giving and taking and giving again. You can’t legislate against it, and it would be foolish (indeed, a truly tragic error) to try.

Not long ago I saw someone on Twitter declaring that white people shouldn’t clap their hands between words — IRL or via emoji on Twitter — because that’s unjust appropriation of black culture. But, I thought immediately, my grandmother did that — a white woman born in 1906. Was she appropriating? Where did she get that gesture? It’s perfectly possible that she did get it from black people, since, despite the vicious cruelty of the Jim Crow era, many white people in the Deep South, especially poor-ish white people like my grandparents, spent a good deal of time around black people. But maybe the influence went in the other direction. Probably, like the rhymes and taunts shared by people in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and people in East Texas and black people throughout the South, it’s a gesture that has some ancestor we’ll never know. Such uncertainty makes claiming ownership over gestures or styles or memes impossible, even if it were desirable. But it’s not desirable; it’s anything but.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

the Studio and the Church

On Twitter, Ross Douthat tells me that in Hail, Caesar! — a movie I dearly love — “The studio is the church, a corporate entity w/cosmic purpose that polices morals for everyone’s own good…. With its own necessary hierarchies, its place for everyone, its direct line to God (the invisible studio boss), etc.” and that therefore the movie is in a fundamental sense about the Catholic Church.

Sonny Bunch is forcing me to write this reply.

I think Ross’s interpretation is impossible, because the Catholic Church actually plays a role in the movie, primarily through Eddie Mannix’s frequent recourse to the confessional: If the studio equals the Church, then what does the Church itself represent? So it seems to me that Ross’s logic won’t hold up. Plus, what Ross says about the studio is generally true about the Communism that the group of writers in the movie adhere to (that they must be faithful to despite the invisibility of the Boss, etc.). That whole subplot echoes the Christian narrative in other ways as well: its group of faithful disciples in a boat, on the sea, with their leader! Who had previously "prepared a place for them"! Who then undergoes an Ascension, as they look on in awe!

If you look at the Communist subplot alongside Eddie Mannix’s struggle to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of Church and Studio, then I think you can see that one of the movie’s major themes is the way that models of Value that rival the Christian account, those serious competitors for our attention and loyalty, must create their own structures, their own rituals and practices, that mimic those of the Church. Communism and the Studio both, in their different ways and for different purposes, strive to effect a kind of transfer of charisma (to borrow Weberian language) from the Church. The big difference is that Communism does this straightforwardly, repudiating Christianity and claiming the power and authority to overthrow it, whereas the Studio emphasizes that it is deeply respectful of biblical religion and wants to pay proper respect to it — which leads to one of the funniest scenes in recent film history.

Whether the Studio, or more broadly the Movies, and the Church are indeed so compatible is a question the movie leaves wonderfully open. On the one hand Eddie Mannix comes to believe — and several events, especially those made possible by the sleuthing of good, honest Hobie Doyle, conspire to help him believe this — that the Church and the Studio are not rival authorities, but rather that he can serve God through serving the Studio. (After all, “the story of the Christ” is “a swell story.”) On the other hand, there’s the fact that the movie that's supposed to be about "the Christ" is called Hail, Caesar! — which seems to miss a little something about what we're supposed to render to whom. And then there's the sublime moment when Baird Whitlock delivers his great soliloquy about the new cosmic meaning, the transformation of our lives that, when we look upon the Christ, we could achieve had we but … had we but … Dammit, what’s the word? And as Whitlock proclaims that noble speech all the people on the set sit up a little straighter, listen a little more closely, hoping and trusting that right then and there the Studio can deliver to us Truth we can live by. Would that it were so simple.

At the risk of ruining the effect of my absolutely perfect final sentence, I have to comment on this:

I see we're now enacting a drama in which Ross employs a multivalent interpretative scheme closely related to patristic/medieval Catholicism's fourfold exegesis, while I (typecast here as the Reformer) am insisting that we stick to the historical sense as our only guide to valid interpretation. We need a script doctor stat!

does Pynchon write good novels?

(the other two I'm reading digitally)
Reading Pynchon — especially in the large quantities I am ingesting this holiday season — is a peculiar experience for this long-time lover of fiction, because, I find, I don't know whether Pynchon writes good novels. Indeed, it's not obvious that he writes novels at all. I do not doubt for a moment that he is a great genius and that his ideas reward all the attention you choose to give them; I’m not questioning that; every step further into his fiction reaffirms that judgment; but his books are very peculiarly made and I can't say with any confidence whether they are well made. I could only make such a judgment if I were confident that I know precisely what Pynchon is trying to do, and I lack that confidence.

Some critics have argued that Pynchon writes Menippean satires rather than novels, and I'm sympathetic to that argument — indeed, I have said the same about C. S. Lewis, who shares with Pynchon an interest in the drama of ideas and tends also to create characters who are embodiments and mouthpieces of ideas. Northrop Frye's comment that "the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect" is exceptionally pertinent to Pynchon, I think.

But even granted that genre identifier, I still find myself in a constant state of puzzlement about what Pynchon is trying to do at any given point in any given book. I’m in Vineland right now, and I’m finding, to paraphrase what someone famously said about Wagner’s operas, some magnificent moments and some really brutal half-hours. So, to cite a fresh example, why, why, in the middle of the book, do we get page after page of the adventures of Vato and Blood, the proprietors of V&B Tow? They have, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do with anything — they’re just what, in a review of Against the Day, Louis Menand calls “Pynchonian wallpaper.” It gets tiresome enough in a 400-page book like Vineland, so I am trying to prepare myself for dealing with it in a book three times as long.

Now, let me make a distinction here: also in Vineland we hear a good deal about birds — never at the forefront of tha narrative, but often in the background, eating dog food or watching, from outside a window, what this book invariably calls the Tube, or being alarmed by human violence, or whatever. At the moment I have no firm idea why they’re there, and I may never feel that I’ve figured it out, but there is clearly some purpose to their frequent appearances. I can say the same about Pynchon’s use (elsewhere but esp[ecially in this book) of multiple levels of nested flashbacks. But Vato and Blood’s inability to sort out the lyrics of the songs they try to sing together? Useless crap, as far as I can tell.

Maybe that useless crap was fun to write, though. Reading Pynchon, I think that he always has some very clear sense of what a given book is fundamentally about, what he wants to accomplish with it, but I also feel that he just indulges himself sometimes, in a what-the-hell-I’m-Thomas-effing-Pynchon spirit. And if so, then that makes his books less well-made, less coherent and beautiful as aesthetic objects. I once heard the philosopher Nick Wolterstorff comment that his sense of what makes for a good, strong argument was shaped by his having come from generations of woodworkers and cabinetmakers, arts in which he himself was instructed: a sound argument for Nick needs to fit together precisely, to have smooth and tight joints. No image could be less appropriate to a Pynchon novel, which seems to be thrown together any which way and yet clearly rises to a towering height and shows no signs of toppling over.

Which is another way of saying that the techniques of artistic making employed by Pynchon are obscure to me: Not only am I often confused about what he’s trying to do, I can't even see what tools he’s using to do it. In his great book on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, John Bishop cites a comment by friend of Joyce’s who was helping him insert ever more obscure foreign words into the text, but whose suggestions were sometimes met by a pause, and then: “I can’t use it.” Bishop notes that this enigmatic response suggests that Joyce’s methods were “darkly principled”: he had a thought-out rationale, but it wasn’t one he was sharing even with those who had come to help him. I can’t help wondering if many of Pynchon’s most inexplicable passages aren’t also and equally “darkly principled.” But even if they are, in a hundred years I could never guess what Vato and Blood are doing in Vineland.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

my year in technology

Last year I wrote a “my year in tech" post, so why not this year also?

It’s been a one-step-forward one-step-back kind of year. Some of the changes I implemented last year have stuck this year, but not all of them.

1) The big difficulty of this past year was Twitter, thanks almost wholly to the Presidential election. As I explained in last year’s post, I had mostly escaped public Twitter, venturing there only on rare occasions — and regretting every such venture: I still sometimes forget just how many responses from strangers are uninformed or belligerent or both. (However, my moments of forgetfulness have become rarer, and maybe at last I have learned my lesson for good.) So I had confined myself to the much calmer sanctuary of a private account — but during and immediately following the election private Twitter was no refuge. Even given the small population of that world (fewer than a hundred people) the anger just pulsed and radiated — 24 hours a day, it seemed. So for a while I escaped altogether, deactivating my private account and thinking I might never return. But soon enough I found myself really missing my friends there, so I re-activated it, though making sure to disable retweets for almost everyone, hoping in that way to minimize the amplifications of wrath. We'll see how it goes. In March I will have been on Twitter for ten years. Maybe ten years is enough.

But even if I shut down the private account I have to admit that I'm not likely to shut down the public one. In a better world, the great majority of people would learn about interesting posts and articles and sites through RSS readers; but in this world the great majority of people learn about those things on Twitter. If a post falls in the forest of the internet and there's no one there to tweet it, does it really exist?

2) I took a further step towards owning my turf by (a) downloading the posts from my various Tumblrs, (b) copying the more relevant and significant posts to my personal site, and (c) deleting my Tumblr account. Tumblr had become an increasingly annoying platform to be on, thanks to ads and the various hokey ways they were constantly trying to get me to use more of their "features," so escaping that crap has been a big plus. Also, as long as I had access to the site I found myself thinking about whether I wanted to use it: deleting my account altogether solves that problem. I had created a tumblr for my forthcoming book How to Think but then bought a proper domain name and now own my thoughts about the book and its themes.

By the way, I did this through Reclaim Hosting, which is an amazing company focusing on people in academe. If you are part of the academic world and are not using Reclaim, you're really missing out. Their customer service is state-of-the-art, and through the various apps and services they offer you can expand to your heart's content the elements of your online presence you want to control: from static sites to blogs to galleries of images to email to ... well, you name it. Reclaim is the best.

And in case you’re wondering how to download an entire website: If you're comfortable using the command line, wget is the way to go (just make sure you set the parameters correctly or you could end up trying to download an entire domain, like tumblr.com). But if you have a Mac then you could try the accurate and easy-to-use SiteSucker.

Next step: deleting my Google account. — But I can't! This site runs on Blogger!

3) This year I have written more and more often by hand — that's one change I don't think I'll ever go back on. When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that's all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand. My preferred notebook: the Leuchtturm 1917, which works wonderfully with the Bullet Journal method of organizing tasks and ideas. My preferred pen: the Pilot Metropolitan. I have a dream, a dream that I could write a book in that notebook with that pen and have some publisher turn it into editable copy.... I mean, come on, it worked for Dickens and Tolstoy.

4) I'm still listening to CDs a good bit, but the flexibility of digital music is hard to resist — right now I'm writing this post on an iPad and listening to music through the truly remarkable Deepblue 2 from Peachtree Audio — I didn't know a Bluetooth speaker could be this good. Irresistible (for me) convenience.

5) I'm still using a dumbphone — but not as much as I had hoped I would. I go back to an iPhone when I'm traveling, in part because I'm a light-packing fanatic and when I bring that phone I don't need a camera or maps, or for that matter a computer. But then when I come back home and ought to switch out the SIM card to the dumbphone, somehow I manage to forget. Oh well. Here again my problem is having choices: if I just sold one of the phones, my life would be simplified. But that I struggle to do.

6) If the biggest difficulty of the past year was Twitter, the second-biggest was what seems to me the decline of both software and hardware quality on the Macintosh. And I think the Mac problems are just going to beg bigger, as more and more of Apple's energies go into the growth and development of iOS.

When I upgraded to Yosemite, I discovered that Bluetooth had ceased to work, so I couldn't send audio from my Mac to external speakers. (I think that's when my return to CD listening began.) When I upgraded to El Capitan, Bluetooth worked but wifi was totally borked — and since wifi is more necessary than Bluetooth, I reverted to Yosemite. When Sierra came out, earlier this year, I upgraded with fingers crossed, and discovered that Bluetooth works as well as Bluetooth ever works (which is: inconsistently), and wifi works pretty well, though not as reliably as it did in pre-Yosemite versions — but now switching between apps is chaotic. I can use the Dock or my preferred command-Tab method of changing from one app to another and I have no idea what will happen. Sometimes it switches to the app I want, sometimes it continues to show me the app I was in when I switched, sometimes it goes to a third app I didn't ask for. No way to know in advance. Similar problems arise with the use of apps in fullscreen mode, so clearly the code that generates windowing behavior has gone awry in Sierra. My chief point: Every new release of MacOS introduces major new bugs.

Apple's official response to problems of this kind is simply to deny that MacOS has any serious problems, which makes me wonder whether I need to find ways to switch to iOS. After all, that's clearly where the company's focus is. So I've been writing lately on an iPad using Editorial, a very good app, but one that hasn't been updated in so long that I'm assuming it's abandonware — one more iOS update and it could well become unusable, though for now it's fine. (I'm using it to write this post.)

(And by the way, I am also one of those people who thinks that the MacBook keyboard is really terrible — I can type much faster and more comfortably on my Logitech iPad keyboard, which has enough key-travel to give me significant haptic feedback. It also has backlit keys. It's the best iPad keyboard I've used, by a mile.)

In hopes of finding tips for shifting to iOS, I read this post by Federico Viticci on using the iPad Pro as (more or less) his only computer. Viticci's claim is that the iPad Pro fits his needs: he loves working with it, and never wants to go back to the Mac. But as I read his post I almost laughed aloud at the endless hoops he has to leap through to make it all work. I mean, to cite just one example among many possible ones, the guy uses at least six different text editors to make his "workflow" work — it seems to me that that's anything but flow. On the Mac, I almost never have to leave BBEdit, thanks to the ability of pandoc to convert text files into whatever format I need. And given that pandoc is based on underlying UNIX features that deeply embedded in MacOS, and BBEdit has been around for more than twenty years and is still updated regularly, I don't feel nearly as vulnerable as I do when using Editorial on the iPad.

Riccardo Mori, who uses both iOS and MacOS, has written about the logistical complications of using iOS:

The flip side of iOS’s modularity, of iOS’s model of accomplishing a complex task through a series of simple apps, is… well, it’s that often you have to go through unnecessarily long-winded routes and seek the assistance of multiple apps to get stuff done. It’s that in order to find the ‘perfect’ app to handle a task or a series of tasks, you end up installing a lot of similar apps with overlapping features. A personal example: I’ve been toying with the idea of just using my iPad to work when I’m not at home. I’m a writer and a translator, so I shouldn’t need very complex tools or intricate workflows. And yet my experience with iOS has been surprisingly frustrating due to the unexpected fragmentation of what, on the Mac, is a trivial thing to achieve.

Moreover, some of the most basic elements of computer user interaction are still rough and inconsistent on iOS: for instance, selecting text, which in my experience works about 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time I put my finger on one chunk of text and a different chunk gets selected, or I try but fail to find the right pixel to activate the little handle that, were I to find it, would allow me to extend the selection to the length I desire. And I am by no means the only person to have this complaint.

Yet I feel that the far more mature and efficient Mac platform is vulnerable indeed — vulnerable to further degradation and its own inconsistencies of behavior, especially involving any form of wireless connectivity. Old bugs are not being fixed, and new ones keep cropping up, and Apple as a company shows no signs of giving a rat’s ass about any of it. Mori has written about this too: the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that “Mac OS is demoted to ‘hobby status’ inside Apple, and that iOS receives all the attention from now on.” For Mori this will likely mean that iOS will need to develop more “desktop” skills:

When I walk down this hypothetical path, what I see in iOS’s trajectory, more than sheer innovation, is a reinvention of the wheel. iOS was born as a simpler, streamlined version of Mac OS X; its multi-touch interface was ingenious and groundbreaking when applied to a smartphone and (similarly, but less strikingly) to a tablet; to then evolve — through a series of iterations and feature creep — into… Mac OS X?

Sounds like a freakin’ disaster to me.

So here's what I think is coming for me in 2017: a concerted effort to move towards Linux, where I can readily replicate much of what I do on the Mac. I've been spending more time lately in emacs, and especially in org-mode, and I just received a nice Christmas present — this could finally be the year I make the Big Switch.

Mind you, I'm not promising anything. It wouldn't be easy for me to abandon a platform that I've been relying on since the beginning of Ronald Reagan's second Presidential term. And I’ve had enough experience editing configuration files in Linux that I am filled with dread at the prospect, and praying with some desperation that Ubuntu has addressed many of those old bugs. But that after all these years I'm even considering dropping MacOS ... well, that should tell you just how big a mess Apple has created for me.

Monday, December 26, 2016

a change of plan

Re-reading Gravity's Rainbow — for the first time in decades — has been a remarkable experience. Among other things, I had forgotten how dark the book is and how interested in bizarre sexual practices. But if rereading his first two novels had already begun to reward my intuition that Pynchon was going to help me understand the technological history of modernity, GR has exceeded all my hopes. In fact, one scene in particular illuminated a great deal that had been in darkness to me, and after reading it I began to discern the order and shape of the intellectual landscape in new and exciting ways. A narrative, a kind of critical theological meditation on the emergence and development of the modern world, started to come together in my mind.

But see, I can't talk about that here. Because now all this stuff is going to have to be a book, and editors don't like it when the key elements of a book are already available for free online. And truth be told, I am reluctant to put this new understanding forth in half-baked ways. I need to get to work on organizing and developing it properly, with clarity and scholarly depth.

So the Great Pynchon Read-Through is going to continue, but I won't be blogging it — at least, not the central insights that emerge from it (I might follow some more rabbit trails). My apologies to the three of you who care.

Tomorrow: a recapitulation of my year in technology.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Historia Naturalis

A 15th-century copy of Pliny's Historia Naturalis digitized (or digitised, to use the native term) by London's Natural History Museum.

Friday, December 23, 2016


“As things developed, she [Oedipa Maas] was to have all manner of revelations,” we are told in the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49, and as Edward Mendelson pointed out long ago in an essay I’ve already mentioned, the language of the novel is relentlessly religious.

Here’s a passage from Chapter 2:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. 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. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant....

She gave it up presently, as if a cloud had approached the sun or the smog thickened, and so broken the “religious instant,” whatever it might’ve been....

And a little later, when she sees a commercial for a housing development that her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, had invested in:

A map of the place flashed onto the screen, Oedipa drew a sharp breath, Metzger on the chance it might be for him looked over. But she’d only been reminded of her look downhill this noontime. Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead....

As Mendelson comments, Pynchon seems to have borrowed the term “hierophany” from the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who writes in his book The Sacred and the Profane: “To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany.... From the most elementary hierophany — e.g., a manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree” — or a printed circuit, or a map of a housing development — “to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” That is, there is no possibility of accounting for what has been revealed within the structures of everyday experience, no means of domesticating what has shown itself. “We are confronted by ... the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (p.11).

Another way to put this is that the hierophany happens within ordinary space but suggests something beyond ordinary time, something that belongs to or comes from a different temporal order. Therefore, “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (p. 70). Eliade claims that such experiences are “inaccessible to a nonreligious man” (p.71), which would suggest that Oedipa is a religious person — and yet she shows no evidence of participating in any “rites,” any communal worship. This may help to explain her obsession with the possible existence of the Trystero as an organization, a secret community, that bears and transmits revelations of the sacred. Oedipa, like her namesake Oedipus, thus becomes a seeker of truth, a pursuer of religious possibility — a homo religiosus, and perhaps even an anima naturaliter christiana, in this respect not unlike Psyche in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, following her blurry vision from within a kind of cloud of unknowing.

Eliade taught at the University of Chicago for many years but was a native Romanian, and as a young man was an enthusiastic advocate for Romania’s fascist Iron Guard — a fact he later took great pains to obscure. A decade ago Joseph Frank summarized Eliade’s story, along with those of his countrymen Eugene Ionesco and E. M. Cioran, in an essay-review that’s very much worth reading. Here's a key passage:

Sweeping aside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in the carnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: "The myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all this has been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has been contested."

Frank goes on to argue that Eliade's belief that the fascists alone had the power to overcome the secular "myth" and "faith" of modernity led him to endorse anti-Semitism, not just politically but also intellectually:

Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade's postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which "sacred time," the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive "sacred time" because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of "the eternal return" by linking God with linear time. "The Hebrews," he writes, "were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God," and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world.

It’s not clear to me that this is correct: In The Sacred and the Profane Eliade emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, especially in contrast to other world religions (p. 71), and says that Christianity “goes even further” than Judaism “in valorizing historical time” (p. 110). But I don't know that much about Eliade, and we need not settle that matter here; I just felt that I needed to acknowledge the possibility that there is an even darker side to Eliade's thought than I know. And in any case the tendency of religious people to accept authoritarian political figures as bulwarks against secularism has a certain currency.

But: What matters for my attempt to make sense of Pynchon is that the Christian model of time — “The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God” (Eliade, p. 72) — effectively repudiates “the myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism.” To reassert the power and validity of hierophany is at least to begin to emancipate oneself from the claims of technocracy to account for and then govern the whole of behavior. (It is vitally important here that governance and control are the key terms of cybernetics.) It may seem odd that someone as concerned with emancipation from governance as Eliade was would endorse fascism, but presumably he held some analogue of the Kirkpatrick doctrine: a distinction between authoritarian regimes that, as Auden put it, "leave the self alone" and totalitarian ones that leave nothing alone — secularism and technocracy being on Eliade's account totalitarian.

In any case, hierophany is ungovernable — and in this sense is the counterpart of the anarchic Brownian motion of the Whole Sick Crew in V. We could say that the Whole Sick Crew are living in a kind of permanent carnival — which means, as Bakhtin never tires of explaining, that they are not living a true carnival at all, because the healthy and vigorous carnivalesque never rejects and indeed is wholly dependent on the religious structures that prompt its laughter. And indeed this is why the Crew are “sick” instead of vital. They evade technocracy but (and this is the perennial problem of anarchy) have no alternative structure of meaning and value with which to replace it. They have the community but not the hierophany; Oedipa has the hierophany but not the community. The Crew and Oedipa alike enact signs of contradiction, but what they signify is partial, incomplete. Eliade would suggest that lived Christianity, especially in its liturgy, is the truly effectual sign of contradiction because it unites hierophany and community. Pynchon has not stated his views on this topic.

However, what seems to be held out as possibility in CL49 is something other than either pure anarchy or formal organizational structure. Jesús Arrabal of the C.I.A. — the Conjuración de los Insurgentes Anarquistas — says that a miracle is "another world's intrusion into this one," which clearly invokes Eliade's definition of hierophany, but then he explains what happens when such a miracle occurs: "revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul's talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself." I spoke in a previous post about the cyberneticists' interest in the simple rules from which complex behavior emerges without being planned or directed, and Arrabal envisions what we might call spiritual emergence: anarchy is for him not the goal but the precondition for spontaneous and therefore genuine order.

And isn't this reminiscent of what happens in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends to empower "the soul's talent for consensus" among the variegated disciples of Jesus the Christ? I think of W. H. Auden's comment on that passage:

The Christian church came into being at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might equally as well be called the gift of ears.... As writers, readers, human beings, we cannot speak to or understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.

And I think it tells us a lot about Pynchon that the closest approach Oedipa Maas makes to experiencing this emergence of spontaneous order from anarchy does not involve either tongues or ears, but rather when she stumbles into a group of wildly, incomprehensibly dancing deaf-mutes.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


My friends (and former colleagues) Jeremy Botts and Richard Gibson have sent me a lovely Christmas gift: the firstfruits of their Manibus Press. Feast your eyes:

Note the subtle Hebrew lettering on the verso:

Beautiful work, my friends! Many thanks to you, and the merriest of Christmases!

the tragedy of couriers

What is the real tragedy of the courier? That he should be the bearer, the transmitter, of messages which he neither initiates nor receives.

This is the great danger for all of us who practice the disciplines of interpretation, as Hegel explained long ago in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:

There is a type of theology that wants to adopt only a historical attitude toward religion; it even has an abundance of cognition, though only of a historical kind. This cognition is no concern of ours, for if the cognition of religion were merely historical, we would have to compare such theologians with countinghouse clerks, who keep the ledgers and accounts of other people's wealth, a wealth that passes through their hands without their retaining any of it, clerks who act only for others without acquiring assets of their own. They do of course receive a salary, but their merit lies only in keeping records of the assets of other people. In philosophy and religion, however, the essential thing is that one's own spirit itself should recognize a possession and content, deem itself worthy of cognition, and not keep itself humbly outside.

This seems to describe Oedipa Maas through most of CL49, though there is the possibility of her becoming something more at the end. She has been concerned to discover whether there is a message at all, and, if there is, who are the "couriers" of that message — but she is not yet ready to confront what the message is. Not until the last page, when, as the crying of Lot 49 begins, she takes a deep breath....

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

post and courier

People who know almost nothing else about Pynchon know that The Crying of Lot 49 is concerned with the possible existence of a secret postal service, the Trystero, which is a kind of rival or shadow or doppelgänger of the Imperial Reichspost and its successor the Thurn und Taxis Post, the official postal services of the Holy Roman Empire. Postal delivery in its many different forms, I believe, is a vastly underrated element of the rise and consolidation of modernity — I have written a couple of preliminary posts about it here and here. I hope to give the matter more attention in the future, so I can’t resist writing a bit about Pynchon’s transformation of postal delivery into something like a Theme.

If the chapter called “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral” is, as I have suggested, at the heart of V., is the central point from which the book’s various possibilities of meaning radiate outward, I’d say that the equivalent scene in CL49 is the performance of a (made-up) Jacobean revenge play, The Courier’s Tragedy. In fact, a plausible case can be made that The Courier’s Tragedy is in some sense a condensation of the whole of CL49. There are multiple analogues.

For instance, in what remains, forty years after its first publication, the best essay, by miles, on the novel, Edward Mendelson comments that “Until the middle of the fifth chapter Oedipa consistently sees the post horn as a living and immediate symbol, actively present in the daily life around her. From that point on she only hears about its past existence through documents, stamps, books — always second-hand. (This distinction is nowhere mentioned in the book, but the clean break after page 131 [in the original Dutton edition] is too absolute to be accidental.)” So this decisive change occurs about three-fifths of the way through the book; meanwhile, in the intermission of the play, after the third of five acts, “Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol [the muted post-horn] she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by this absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.” The transmissions have ceased. Also noteworthy, in light of Mendelson’s comment and the puzzlement that descends on Oedipa in the latter pages of the book, is this description of fourth-act events in the play: “It is at about this point in the play, in fact, that things really get peculiar, and a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words.... It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage.”

I could go on about this for some time, as I’m sure a number of critics already have. (I'm largely, though obviously not wholly, staying away from secondary sources in this re-read.) The play is put on in a Southern California town called San Narciso; certain events in the play revolve around a statue of Saint Narcissus of Jerusalem. Before attending the play Oedipa has just heard about the deaths of Allied soldiers near an Italian lake; in the play soldiers die near an Italian lake. I’m particularly taken by what the director of the play says about his role (which, by the way, involves altering the text): “That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.” Pynchon’s self-description? Or what he doesn't want to be?

As I say, I could go on, but I’ll stop and ask a question: Why is the play called The Courier’s Tragedy? Because one of the main characters, Niccolò, the rightful Duke whose place Angelo has usurped, disguises himself as a courier. Though he escapes death several times during the course of this exceptionally bloody play, he eventually dies its most significant death.

But maybe there's more to this courier business than a simple disguise. Maybe we should reflect on what a courier is. A courier bears messages without writing or reading them. In that sense couriers are necessary to informational exchange but are outside the communicative circuit. In the fourth act of the play we learn that the dead soldiers, the Lost Guard of Faggio, were in fact ordered massacred by the wicked Duke Angelo, who had their bones burned to charcoal and that charcoal made into ink, which he then employed to write lying messages to those he wished to manipulate or destroy. The Lost Guard had thus become unwilling couriers, transmitters of a message which, being dead, they could not know.

Yet we learn what happened to the soldiers because by an inexplicable miracle the lying words Angelo wrote have transformed into a truthful confession: as through the ink had become conscious and reorganized itself on the paper. The unwilling couriers have somehow become writers, makers of messages. Moreover, this message is found on the body of Niccolò, who thus had in death become not a pretend courier but a true courier indeed. I can’t help thinking here of some famous words from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” — Eliot being a favorite poet of Fausto Maijstral in V., and “Little Gidding” being a poem that hovers over much of Gravity’s Rainbow: “And what the dead had no speech for, when living, / They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

Tongued with fire: earlier in the play one Ercole, a wicked henchman of the wicked Duke, captures an informer named Domenico — Saint Dominic being the founder of the great order of preachers, and the name Dominic being derived from Dominus, the Lord — and, before torturing him to death, cuts off his tongue, sets it on fire, and brandishes it as a torch, crying,

Thy pitiless unmanning is most meet,
Thinks Ercole the zany Paraclete.
Descended this malign, Unholy Ghost,
Let us begin thy frightful Pentecost.

The “zany Paraclete,” the “Unholy Ghost,” does not give the gift of tongues but takes tongues away: poor Domenico has a tongue of fire, but in all too literal a sense, and the flame here destroys the power of communication rather than enhancing and extending it. Ercole and his master Angelo are therefore not anti-Christs but anti-Paracletes, blocking the channels of communication, making people unintelligible to each other.

Two more notes, and then I'll stop for now. First, the play strongly suggests that this communicative revelation, this restoration of intelligibility, is the work of the Trystero. And second, the day we call Pentecost, the day of the Holy Spirit, the day on which people understand foreign languages as clearly as they understand their own, gets its name from the number fifty — while this book is named for the immediately preceding number, which suggests that whatever revelation is made available here it falls just short of the Pentecostal completeness of understanding.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Pynchon, entropy, cybernetics

American Society for Cybernetics

A great deal of learning underpins Pynchon's fiction, and if you're not careful, reading him can pique your curiosity about some of his references and riffs and send you down endless rabbit trails. (And it's all on the internet now! And Pynchon wrote almost all these immensely learned books before the internet! Dude must have spent years in libraries, like scholars used to back in the old days.)

When SHROUD tells Benny, "Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday," it's talking about entropy. Pynchon wrote a story called "Entropy" and he seems fascinated with the concept: I suspect that at least half of the undergraduate papers about Pynchon ever written have taken entropy as their theme. In the long introduction to Slow Learner that I've already mentioned a time or two he acknowledges this interest and mentions that he learned a lot about entropy by reading Norbert Wiener's book The Human Use of Human Beings, so I took some time out from reading Pynchon to read Wiener.

It's an interesting book in some ways, a semi-popular rewriting of his earlier book Cybernetics and a celebration of all the problem-solving the application of cybernetics will achieve. It's rambling, though, and burdened by a woefully inadequate account of language. For Wiener, language is a matter of communication, communication is a matter of messaging, messaging is a matter of information, and information (as Wiener learned from his collaborations with the great Claude Shannon) is a matter of bits. So for Wiener language is simply the transfer of bits. I think Pynchon, whatever debt he may have owed to Wiener, resists this model of language — but more about that in later posts.

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the primary illumination Wiener offers Pynchon may be found, in condensed form, in this passage:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives. Cliches, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

(If only Wiener had thought through the implications of that last sentence!) The key point here is that entropy comes in two varieties: thermodynamic and informational. And I think it's Wiener's intuition that the world of communication and the "external world" are alike governed by the relationship between organization and disorganization that leads him to conceive of cybernetics as a universal science of control. Thus:

Since the end of World War II, I have been working on the many ramifications of the theory of messages. Besides the electrical engineering theory of the transmission of messages, there is a larger field which includes not only the study of language but the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society, the development of computing machines and other such automata, certain reflections upon psychology and the nervous system, and a tentative new theory of scientific method.

I find this ambition very interesting, and couldn't help trotting down some of those rabbit trails. For instance, Wiener praises very highly a book called Design for a Brain by an English psychiatrist called Ross Ashby, and it turns out you can download that book from the Internet Archive. So I did, and read that too, and it's fascinating to discover that Ashby is one of the first people to conceive of the brain as a kind of computing machine — and to describe the kind of behavior we call "conscious" as something that emerges from a relatively small set of rules, so that the brain is mechanistic but also adaptable. So Ashby anticipates a good deal of later reflection on emergent behavior as well as the deeply misleading notion that brains are computers. You can even see the New Atheists' denial of free will embryonically present in Ashby. (Curiously, Ashby says he believes in consciousness and may even believe in free will, but he thinks such hypotheses unnecessary to explain the design and functioning of the human brain, as Laplace in explaining celestial mechanics had no need for the hypothesis of God's existence.)

It's very important to note that — and this is a topic I have written about before — the ambitions of cybernetics arise from a series of solutions to problems of warfare during World War II, from the encrypting of secret messages to the aiming of artillery. Those who had acquired the know-how to win the war claimed on that ground the privilege of directing the postwar world. The details of these ambitions, of their successes and failures, are traced in a truly remarkable book by Ronald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment. Here's a passage from the Introduction to that book in which Kline describes a photograph of most of the key figures in cybernetics that features the anthropologist Margaret Mead front and center:

It might seem odd to today's readers that Margaret Mead sat in a prominent place at the now famous Macy conferences and that she would be remembered a half century later as one of the founders of cybernetics. Why would a world-renowned anthropologist with no expertise or apparent interest in mathematics, engineering, and neuroscience attend all ten meetings, recruit social scientists for the meetings, and undertake the tedious job of editing the proceedings? When the group was first organized, Mead shared the enthusiasm of her husband Gregory Bateson that cybernetics would bring the rigor of the physical sciences to the social sciences. They thought cybernetic models could realistically explain the behavior of humans and society because they contained the information feedback loops that existed in all organisms. This belief was reflected in the original title of the meetings: "Conference on Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biology and the Social Sciences." Everything that Bateson wrote after the Macy conferences – on a wide range of subjects from psychiatry to animal learning – testified to his belief in the power of cybernetics to transform human ways of knowing. The conferences convinced Mead that the universal language of cybernetics might be able to bridge disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences. The presence of Mead and Bateson among the mathematicians, natural scientists, and engineers in the group photo symbolizes the interdisciplinary allure of cybernetics and information theory....

In the 1950s, scientists were excited that Wiener and Shannon had defined the amount of information transmitted in communication systems with a formula mathematically equivalent to entropy (a measure of the degradation of energy). Defining information in terms of one of the pillars of physics convinced many researchers that information theory could bridge the physical, biological, and social sciences. The allure of cybernetics rested on its promise to model mathematically the purposeful behavior of all organisms, as well as inanimate systems. Because cybernetics included information theory in its purview, its proponents thought it was more universal then Shannon's theory, that it applied to all fields of knowledge.

This enthusiasm led scientists, engineers, journalists, and other writers in the United States to adopt these concepts and metaphors to an extent that is still evident today.... The traces of cybernetics and information theory thus permeate the sciences, technology, and culture of our daily lives.

Emphases mine. By the way, some elements of this history have featured in writings here at The New Atlantis: see essays and posts by Adam Keiper, Charles T. Rubin, and David Frantz, among others.

So, after this long detour, back to Pynchon. I think Pynchon's early fiction demonstrates a complicated and ambivalent response to the claims of cybernetics and information theory. There's no doubt that he owes a lot to his reading of these thinkers, and indeed I would argue that you could see V. and The Crying of Lot 49 as a kind of cybernetic diptych, with the former focusing on entropy as a concept in thermodynamics and the latter on entropy as a concept in information theory.

And I am also inclined to see Pynchon's recurrent interest in marginal and chaotic figures, tricksters and buffoons, as an implicit critique of the mechanistic models of thinking and language articulated by Ashby and Wiener. The Whole Sick Crew in V. are indeed kinda sick — as one marginal member of the group rightly says, "there is no one of us you can point to and call well" — but they are also exemplary of what Michael Bakhtin called the human surplus, that which is left over after the scientists and mechanists have made all their calculations, that which the calculations of cybernetics can never quite account for. In this light, Pynchon's praise of Kerouac's On the Road as one of the great American novels makes a lot of sense. Pynchon stands at the intersection of Kerouac and Wiener, the Beats and the Cyberneticists.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The brilliance of Judge Woolsey

From Louis Menand’s New Yorker essay on literary books banned for obscenity:

“The term “obscene” is a conundrum. Is an expression obscene because it’s arousing or because it’s gross? Is the relevant affect lust (a pleasurable feeling) or disgust (an unpleasant one)? Brennan tried to split the difference with a new term. “Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest,” he wrote.

The Supreme Court had used “prurient” only once before in its history. That was in Mutual v. Ohio, decided in 1915, when the Court held that motion pictures are not protected by the First Amendment—the decision overturned in the Miracle case. In Mutual, the Court noted that “a prurient interest may be excited and appealed to” by movies, but made no more of it. Brennan cited Mutual, but he saw fit to add definitions of “prurient” from other sources as well: a “tendency to excite lustful thoughts,” a “shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion,” and an expression “substantially beyond customary limits of candor.”

Possibly sensing that the scattershot nature of his definitions simply provided prosecutors with more weapons, Brennan tackled the problem from another direction. He defined what would not count as obscenity. “All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance—unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion—have the full protection of the guaranties,” he wrote. “Implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.””

I wish Menand here had mentioned an earlier notorious incident in this history, Judge John M. Woolsey’s 1933 decision to allow Joyce’s Ulysses to be published in the United States. Woolsey’s reasoning is superior to that employed by Justice Brennan, and some of the later arguments that Menand describes could have been handled more effectively if Woolsey had been more frequently invoked. Woolsey demonstrated that the laws against “obscenity” are misnamed: they’re really meant to be laws against pornography. If you look at their contexts, such laws are always seeking to ban books that arouse people sexually. But for Woolsey, who thought about these matters philologically, “obscenity” is a much broader concept and may not even overlap that much with pornography. He argued that pornography has one main, usually exclusive, purpose: sexual arousal. But one may write an obscene book — an offensive, a shocking book — for many reasons. (For instance, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” is obscene, and obscene in a righteous cause.)

So, Judge Woolsey argued, to the question “Is Ulysses obscene?” the literally correct answer is Yes. But the laws do not really mean to prohibit the publication of obscenity — they use that word carelessly and inaccurately. They mean to prohibit the publication of pornography, so the proper question to ask here is “Is Ulysses pornographic?” And the answer, to Woolsey, is clearly and obviously No. Therefore, he ruled, Ulysses may be published in the United States of America.

It was a decision both brilliant and correct, but because its logic had been largely forgotten by the time of the trials that Menand describes, those debates were muddier than they had to be.

Pynchon, Henry Adams, and the twentieth century

I mentioned in a previous post Pynchon's interest in The Education of Henry Adams, and I think that interest might profitably be linked with certain others. In his introduction to Slow Learner Pynchon describes his early reading of the novels of John Buchan and how from Buchan and other writers of thrillers he learned to be interested in a particular period of history:

The net effect [of reading many books in this genre] was eventually to build up in my uncritical brain a peculiar shadowy vision of the history preceding the two world wars. Political decision-making and official documents did not figure in this nearly as much as lurking, spying, false identities, psychological games…. My reading at the time also included many Victorians, allowing World War I in my imagination to assume the shape of that attractive nuisance so dear to adolescent minds, the apocalyptic showdown.

(I wonder whether he read The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers — a superb example of the genre. I bet he did. )

It's noteworthy, first, that this is the period in which several of Stencil's historical reconstructions in V. are set, and likewise the whole of Against the Day (that behemoth which looms before me). And it is precisely the period that Henry Adams describes in The Education. Moreover, in that aforementioned chapter on “The Dyanamo and the Virgin” Adams's chief interlocutor is Samuel Pierpoint Langley, one of the pioneers of aviation, who designed and built airships — and one of the chief plots of Against the Day features the group of teen airshipmen called the Chums of Chance.

So while the contrast between the Virgin and the Dynamo is clearly vital to Pynchon, it's really the whole period that captured his imagination, in a way that he has never really got over. He seems, like Virginia Woolf though for very different reasons, to have concluded that at some point in the early twentieth century human nature changed — or perhaps the world itself changed.

We'll get back into these questions when we get to Against the Day, but Louis Menand — who may be the most insightful critic of Pynchon now that Edward Mendelson has for lo these many years been occupied by other things — wrote in his review of of the novel:

I can’t do the math, but I think that the idea behind “Against the Day” is something like this: An enormous technological leap occurred in the decades around 1900. This advance was fired by some mixed-up combination of abstract mathematical speculation, capitalist greed, global geopolitical power struggle, and sheer mysticism. We know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes. It turns out (so far) that we can’t. But we did split the atom—an achievement that must once have seemed equally far-fetched. “Against the Day” is a kind of inventory of the possibilities inherent in a particular moment in the history of the imagination. It is like a work of science fiction written in 1900.

Reading this I'm reminded of C. S. Lewis's comment in his great history of sixteenth-century literature that while the distinctions among science, magic, and alchemy all seem pretty straightforward to us, they did not seem nearly so straightforward five hundred years ago, when a single figure might practice all of them with no sense that he was engaged in multiple and conflicting activities.

We'll see, when we get to the Behemoth, whether like Menand I see it as a book largely about possibilities now foreclosed that were once open — a book that writes the past as though it were the future. But for now I just want to register the point that this sense of being stuck somehow between past and future, of trying to navigate what one has inherited while simultaneously watching much of that inheritance evoporate in the heat of an increasingly technological society, and of not knowing what exactly to think about all the changes and what they mean — all this is in Henry Adams, and it's no wonder he was (is?) so important to Pynchon.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

polarization and its (potential) remedies

This post by Nick Carr features an excerpt from his 2008 book The Big Switch that seems even more relevant now than it did then. It’s a brief survey of the work of Thomas Schelling, who just died at the age of 95. Here’s a key passage:

Just as it’s assumed that the Internet will create a rich and diverse culture, it’s also assumed that it will bring people into greater harmony, that it will breed greater understanding and help ameliorate political and social tensions. On the face of it, that expectation seems entirely reasonable. After all, the Internet erases the physical boundaries that separate us, allows the free exchange of information about the thoughts and lives of others, and provides an egalitarian forum in which all views can get an airing. The optimistic view was perhaps best expressed by Nicholas Negroponte, the head of MIT’s Media Lab, in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. “While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices,” he wrote. “Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.”

But Schelling’s experiment calls this view into question. Not only will the process of polarization tend to play out in virtual communities in the same way it does in neighborhoods, but it seems likely to proceed much more quickly online. In the real world, with its mortgages and schools and jobs, the mechanical forces of segregation move slowly. There are brakes on the speed with which we pull up stakes and move to a new house. Internet communities have no such constraints. Making a community-defining decision is as simple as clicking a link. Every time we subscribe to a blog, add a friend to our social network, categorize an e-mail message as spam, or even choose a site from a list of search results, we are making a decision that defines, in some small way, whom we associate with and what information we pay attention to. Given the presence of even a slight bias to be connected to people similar to ourselves—ones who share, say, our political views or our cultural preferences—we would, like Schelling’s hypothetical homeowners, end up in ever more polarized and homogeneous communities. We would click our way to a fractured society.

And lo, it has come to pass. And the fallout has produced a recent spate of posts and articles on what we need to do to ameliorate the current polarization — for instance, this post by Nicholas Kristof on conservatives to follow on Twitter, or this more detailed and student-focused one by Lee Skallerup Bessette on “overcoming digital polarization.”

These are welcome signs, but I can’t help noting that when people recommend that you listen more closely to what your political opponents are saying, there’s one reason for such listening that is never mentioned: Listen to your political opponents because there may be something they know that you don’t. And until we get to the point of acknowledging that people who don’t share our politics might be right about something, about anything, I fear that our attempts to overcome polarization will bear little fruit.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

V.2: the progression towards inanimateness

Picking up where we left off:

In the scenes we looked at last time, we saw certain structurally similar ideas being raised, that common structure being the V-shape as signifying both convergence and divergence. And so far we have been especially attentive to the divergence of mirrored time-frames, and the convergence of the animate and inanimate. It’s the latter I want to focus on, in a very spoilery way, here. So caveat lector.

V. has, very roughly speaking, two halves, one set in 1954-1956 and tending to center on Benny Profane, and the other set in various times because it’s comprised of stories told, historical reconstructions made, by Herbert Stencil. (Eventually the two characters converge upon one another before, near the end, diverging again, as though a mirror were set up at the point of a V.) I say that I’m speaking very roughly here because Stencil is doing much of this reconstruction while temporarily attached to the same semicoherent network of friends and acquaintances and frenemies, the Whole Sick Crew, that Benny Profane is also temporarily attached to. So while, when immersed in V., you spend a lot of time reading about events that happen in Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, South-West Africa in 1922, and Malta in 1919 and 1942-43, in a sense they’re all coming to you via Stencil in New York City in 1955-56. (It is very rarely that one can make a simple declarative statement about events in a Pynchon novel.)

Anyway: Stencil tells his stories, reconstructs history as best he can either grasp or imagine it, in order to discover the identity of a woman whom his father referred to in his journals only as V. As his stories proliferate, V. becomes more than a woman, becomes a place, an image, a series of possibly contradictory symbols. But though all this confusion we discern that Stencil has identified a single woman, moving under various names (Victoria, Vera, Veronica) in most of the places noted above — usually appearing where the vectors of history converge in tension or outright conflict.

In the chapter of the book called “Confessions of Fausto Maijstral” — which may be a reconstruction by Stencil but which I tend to think is read by him, and therefore more reliable, within the frame of the novel, than his own speculations — we see, or seem to see, the death of V.

In Malta during World War II a charismatic figure shows up whom Fausto refers to as the Bad Priest. The Bad Priest seems to be especially interested in warning young people away from sex: he wants girls to become nuns, to “avoid the sensual extremes” of pain (in childbirth) and pleasure (in sexual intercourse), and to pursue Jesus as the only worthwhile Bridegroom; he wants boys to “be like a crystal: beautiful and soulless,” like the rock that is Malta itself. The animate world — “whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” in Yeats’s words — is to be shunned, though perhaps not, as in Yeats, in favor of “monuments of unageing intellect.”

In a German bombing raid the Bad Priest is crushed in a collapsed building beneath a fallen beam. He is not immediately killed, and is found first by a group of children and then by Fausto. Though he asks for help, the children only mock him (while Fausto stands by, doing nothing). They remove his hat, only to find a wig of white hair, which they also remove, revealing on the scalp a tattoo of the Crucifixion — and also revealing that the Bad Priest is a woman. The children systematically and chillingly remove everything from her: first her shoes, which are revealed to contain artificial feet — we learn elsewhere in the book that V., in Malta twenty years earlier, has longed for artificial feet, feet that could be changed — a sapphire stitched into her navel, a glass eye “with an iris in the shape of a clock” — these we also see elsewhere — and false teeth. All these the children take (“She comes apart,” they say) as Fausto looks on. Eventually all that is left is the nude body of a dying woman, a body that looks younger than it should, but is also partly “disassembled.” Without holy water or oil, Fausto, who had once thought of being a priest, administers the sacrament of extreme unction using the woman’s own blood, which wells up in her navel after a boy has pried away the sapphire. Fausto writes to his daughter: “I have been over it, Paola, and over it. I have since attacked myself more scathingly than any of your doubts could. You will say I had forgotten my understanding with God in administering a sacrament only a priest can give.... At the time I only knew that a dying human must be prepared.” (But later he asks of himself: “And why did he not stop the children: or lift the beam?”)

I have related this terrifying and eerie scene at such length because, as I say, I think it is at the very heart of the book; and because V.’s “progression towards inanimateness,” as it is described in the novel’s epilogue, is catalogued here so thoroughly; and because it intensifies, if it does not clarify, Pynchon’s exploration of the difference between the animate and the inanimate.

One book that is clearly very important to Pynchon — he even mentions it himself, twice, in his introduction to his collection of early stories Slow Learner — is The Education of Henry Adams, and especially the chapter called "The Dynamo and the Virgin," set in the year 1900.

It is the Dynamo that builds modern America; it was the Virgin who built Chartres. What strikes Adams in this chapter is that the Virgin is not an image of beauty or taste or sublime holiness but rather an image of power: the Virgin, he realizes, is the force that raised up the walls of Chartres, and deserves to be recognized as such.

The knife-edge along which he must crawl, like Sir Lancelot in the twelfth century, divided two kingdoms of force which had nothing in common but attraction. They were as different as a magnet is from gravitation, supposing one knew what a magnet was, or gravitation, or love. The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force — at most as sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid of either.

But Adams is perhaps on the verge of growing afraid.

As Edward Mendelson points out, V. is the Virgin who gradually transforms herself into the Dynamo, who gradually exchanges the frailties of flesh for the hard cold soullessness of inorganic, inanimate stuff. Perhaps she despises the power that is hers by (human) nature, perhaps she prefers a different source and model of power; we are not told, at least not directly. There is perhaps a hint near the end when she says, “I would so like to have an entire foot that way, a foot of amber and gold, with the veins, perhaps, in intaglio instead of bas-relief. How tiresome to have the same feet: one can only change one’s shoes. But if a girl could have, oh, a lovely rainbow or wardrobe of different-hued, different-sized and -shaped feet....” This suggests a deep-seated impatience with the given, with what I inherit, what I do not will and choose.

One way to describe V., the virgin who has become a dynamo, is as a cyborg, a fundamentally ambiguous fusion of the animate and inanimate: it's impossible to say whether it is primarily a supplementing of flesh by technology or a supplementing of technology by flesh. In this light it's interesting to reflect on an essay Pynchon wrote in 1984 about the Luddites:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come -- you heard it here first -- when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.

No, we didn't hear it there first. We heard it first when SHROUD spoke back to Benny Profane and said, "Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday."

Oh, and one more thing: SHROUD wears false teeth, and I think I know where they came from.

Monday, December 12, 2016

what I'm doing here

Just a quick post here to note that this ongoing orgy of Pynchoniana will be neither systematic nor scholarly, but rather impulsive and haphazard. I am reading Pynchon with a particular set of concerns in mind, and don't feel obliged to be either fair or balanced, though I do hope to be unafraid.

A few weeks ago I confessed to my friend Edward Mendelson — who remains, for my money, the best critic of Pynchon, even though other interests and obligations have kept him from writing about Pynchon for many years — that I treasure in my secret heart the desire to write a book-length theological meditation on Pynchon. Edward agreed, first, that Pynchon is one of the most theologically literate of novelists (though this is rarely recognized), and second, that I really ought to write that book. These posts are a kind of trial run for that potential project, as well as for the bigger project linked above. As I've explained before, is what I think blogging is for: trying out ideas. What I like about blogging is that you have a responsibility to write clearly and accessibly but you're not required to manifest the scholarly completeness and logical rigor that would be expected in published work. That, for me, when I'm trying to develop and try out ideas, is a nice place to be.

So we'll see how this works out.


In the first pages of V. Benny Profane falls in love with Rachel Owlglass, who at that point in the story seems to love only her MG (an inanimate object). Because he, as schlemihl, cannot get along with inanimate objects, he doesn’t drive.

Later in the book, after having lost touch with Rachel, he sits on a bench in what appears to be Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, and thinks.

Material wealth and getting laid strolled arm-in-arm the midway of Profane’s mind. If he’d been the type who evolves theories of history for his own amusement, he might have said all political events: wars, governments and uprisings, have the desire to get laid as their roots; because history unfolds according to economic forces and the only reason anybody wants to get rich is so he can get laid steadily, with whomever he chooses. All he believed at this point, on the bench behind the Library, was that anybody who worked for inanimate money so he could buy more inanimate objects was out of his head. Inanimate money was to get animate warmth, dead fingernails in the living shoulderblades, quick cries against the pillow, tangled hair, lidded eyes, twisting loins… .

At this point he realizes that “he’d thought himself into an erection,” and then that

His erection had produced in the newspaper a crosswise fold, which moved line by line down the page as the swelling gradually diminished. It was a list of employment agencies. Okay, thought Profane, just for the heck of it I will close my eyes, count three and open them and whatever agency listing that fold is on I will go to them. It will be like flipping a coin: inanimate schmuck, inanimate paper, pure chance. He opened his eyes on Space/Time Employment Agency.

The idea of information-bearing erections — semiotic erections, one might say — returns with a vengeance in Gravity’s Rainbow. But more on that later.

Besides growing erect, another thing that penises do is urinate, and in the penultimate episode of Ulysses, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are urinating in the former’s back yard, we learn that Bloom “in his ultimate year at High School (1880) had been capable of attaining the point of greatest altitude against the whole concurrent strength of the institution, 210 scholars.” That is, when pissing he could hit a higher point on the wall than anyone else in the school, which is meant to remind us, as Hugh Kenner notes somewhere, of the “great bow” of Odysseus that only the hero could bend and string. What Joyce calls the “penumbral” arc of male urination is itself a kind of “gravity’s rainbow.”

And if you’re wondering whether my invocation of Ulysses is truly warranted: Near the beginning of the fourth chapter of V. the word “metempsychosis” is introduced, as it is also introduced near the beginning of the fourth episode of Ulysses, where it is meant to suggest, for the first time, the reincarnational link between Odysseus and Bloom. In V. it is a first hint of the multiple avatars, incarnations, of the mysterious V. herself.

I might also add that when Benny is out with Rachel in her MG, spending a day drinking, near sundown he gets out of the car to urinate and points West, “with some intention of pissing on the sun to put it out for good and all.“ (He reflects first that “inanimate objects could do what they wanted,“ but then corrects that: “Not what they wanted because things do not want; only men. But things do what they do.”) The sun immediately and in defiance of Benny's schlemihlhood sets.

So anyway, Benny obeys the summons given on the line of newsprint raised up, at the point of an upside-down V, on that day’s paper, and when he arrives at the Space/Time Employment Agency the receptionist who receives his application is Rachel Owlglass. But they don’t recognize each other. Apparently they are meeting again, but for the first time. Benny is regularly referred to in the book as a “yo-yo,” and thinks of himself that way, yo-yoing up and down the East Coast from job to job and love affair to love affair, and the title of this chapter begins with the words “In which Rachel gets her yo-yo back” — but no, no sign of recognition.

Somewhere between their first and again-first meeting, Pynchon gives us this:

Rachel was looking into the mirror at an angle of 45 degrees, and so had a view of the face turned toward the room and the face on the other side, reflected in the mirror; here were time and reverse-time, co-existing, cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied; did real time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero and thus serve some half-understood moral purpose? Or was it only the mirror world that counted?

Draw a line on a piece of paper, and then set a mirror atop it. Look at the mirror from a 45º angle and you see two lines that meet and make a V. Make a dot marking the meeting of Rachel and Benny, and another dot appears in the mirror-world. But which of the meetings described by Pynchon is the real, and which the mirror?

Interestingly, later in the book Benny remembers “young Rachel” as almost herself an inanimate object, “half an MG.” Have the timeframes converged? Or did they remember each other after all, when they met in that employment office, simply choosing simultaneously and independently not to acknowledge their history, but in a way that Pynchon chooses not to explain to us? If so, then perhaps we still have two-time frames, just selected and enforced by the characters rather than the author.

In any event, when Benny follows up the job possibility Rachel gives him he gets hired by Anthroresearch Associates — a subsidiary of a company significantly called Yoyodyne — as a night watchman, and finds himself sitting across the room from something called SHROUD (Synthetic Human, Radiation Output Determined.) The purpose of SHROUD is to test radiation absorption, and it is comprised of, among other things, transparent cellulose skin stretched over an actual human skeleton. It is thus built on a frame of once-but-no-longer-animate material, something organic deteriorated into inorganic.

SHROUD is creepy, but more interesting to Benny is SHOCK (Synthetic Human Object, Casualty Kinematics) — basically, a very lifelike crash-test dummy made wholly from the inanimate world, containing, among many other features, a system for circulating “blood” that allows for assessment of likely bleeding in various crash circumstances. Benny feels “a certain kinship with SHOCK, which was the first inanimate schlemihl he’d ever encountered.”

One day Benny decides to speak to SHROUD.

“What’s it like,” he said.

Better than you have it.


Wha yourself. Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday. (The skull seemed to be grinning at Profane.)

“There are other ways besides fallout and road accidents.”

But those are most likely. If somebody else doesn’t do it to you, you’ll do it to yourselves.

“You don’t even have a soul. How can you talk.”

Since when did you ever have one? What are you doing, getting religion?

Benny soon ends the conversation, but keeps thinking. Then:

After a while he got up and went over to SHROUD. “What do you mean, we’ll be like you and SHOCK someday? You mean dead?”

Am I dead? If I am then that’s what I mean.

“If you aren’t then what are you?”

Nearly what you are. None of you have very far to go.

“I don’t understand.”

So I see. But you’re not alone. That’s a comfort isn’t it?

It is very interesting indeed to reflect that a similar conversation — between a living human being and something or someone that may or may not be alive — happens in Pynchon’s most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, published fifty years after V. There the novel’s protagonist, Maxine Tarnow, is talking to someone in a video game, and thinks it may be a friend who has been reported dead. But is he dead? How can she know? This avatar claims to be him … could it be some remnant or simulation of his consciousness?

“How about at least letting me bring you back up. Whoever you are.”

“What. Up to the surface?”

“Closer anyway.”


“I don’t know.” She doesn’t. “If it’s really you, Lester, I hate to think of you being lost down here.”

“Lost down here is the whole point. Take a good look at the surface Web sometime, tell me it isn’t a sorry picture. Big favor you’d be doing me, Maxine.”

Early and late Pynchon is fascinated by the lines that mark — and especially by those that fail to mark — the boundaries between the animate and inanimate worlds. But in 1963 that boundary was investigated by the portrayal of a mechanical object, while in 2013 the same questions were raised by an encounter with digital reality.

More on this theme in my next post.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Big Pynchon Re-Read

As regular readers of this blog will know, I've spent a good bit of time over the past couple of years thinking about what I call the technological history of modernity. I have also suggested that one of the key figures in understanding this history is Thomas Pynchon. So as I begin to ask myself more seriously whether I want to take a stab at writing this particular account of How We Got to Be Who We Are, I'm thinking that I need to do a serious and thorough re-read of Pynchon — the whole of his work. So over the next few weeks (months?), though probably not to the exclusion of everything else, that's what I'm going to be doing here at Text Patterns: reporting on my reading of Pynchon. I'll work in chronological order:

  • V. (1963)
  • The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
  • Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
  • Vineland (1990)
  • Mason & Dixon (1997)
  • Against the Day (2006)
  • Inherent Vice (2009)
  • Bleeding Edge (2013)

It's possible that, since I've read and written about the last two novels fairly recently, I'll stop after Against the Day. I also suspect that if I can make it through Against the Day, something I've failed to do in three previous efforts, I'll be exhausted. But we'll see how that goes.

Also, as I’m reading I’m bound to notice some themes from the earlier books that re-appear in the later ones, so I might do some anticipatory exploration of those themes. Basically, I’m gonna do what I want, is what I’m saying. But y’all knew that already.