2014 Brennan Prize Winning Essay
Danny Lucero Dixon, "Looking Forward: Post-Postmodernism in The Crying of Lot 49"
In Steve Vine’s essay “The Entropic Sublime in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49,” he argues that entropy in the novel is used as an antithetical representation of Oedipa’s indeterminacy, and that this creates for the reader the possibility of “a historical future whose form is as yet undetermined, and whose political meaning is – in temporal terms – still to be achieved” (Vine 162). Vine looks extensively at the two distinct types of entropy, thermodynamic and informational, viewing them as two versions of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s “postmodern sublime.” For Lyotard, the postmodern sublime “has to do with something that inflicts privation on the subject, and presents the indeterminate or ‘unknown’” (Vine 160). This concept is witnessed most readily through Oedipa’s investigation into the Tristero, a journey which ends unresolved, and ultimately unsatisfactorily in regards to the search for truth and meaning on the part of both the main character and the reader. Where Pynchon’s text is read almost universally in the context of postmodernism and American culture, I would like to explore the elements of the book that hint at something beyond indeterminacy and unpresentability. In this essay I argue that in the midst of Oedipa’s journey, Pynchon explores the possibility of a world not influenced by the hegemonic characteristics of paranoia. This world transgresses the postmodern paradigm of conspiracy and suspicion, and looks forward to an America defined not by secrecy, but by unbridled communication, perception, and understanding. The first part of my argument explores entropy in the novel, and in particular the social and philosophical implications of Maxwell’s Demon. The second part of my argument analyzes existing criticism regarding postmodernism and its relation to the culture of American politics. The final part of my argument discusses how Pynchon uses the character of Mucho Maas to foreshadow the end of postmodernism, and consequently the beginning of a new literary and social epoch.
Oedipa first learns about Maxwell’s Demon while talking to Stanley Koteks at the Yoyodyne plant. Stanley, believing her to be an influential shareholder, expresses his dissatisfaction with the contractual obligation of Yoyodyne engineers to give up the patents rights to their inventions. He points Oedipa in the direction of John Nefastis, an engineer at Berkeley who supposedly has invented a working Maxwell’s Demon. Koteks quickly grows suspicious of Oedipa, but not before he explains the basic idea behind the machine:
“The Demon could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones. Fast molecules have more energy than slow ones. Concentrate enough of them in one place and you have a region of high temperature. You can then use the difference in temperature between this hot region of the box and any cooler region, to drive a heat engine. Since the Demon only sat and sorted, you wouldn’t have put any real work into the system. So you would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something for nothing, causing perpetual motion” (Pynchon 68).
Oedipa later meets with Nefastis, claiming that she wants to know if she is a “Sensitive”, someone capable of mentally enticing the molecules inside Nefastis’ machine to sort themselves and drive a piston. Nefastis explains that the “sorting” of molecules is an information process that does not operate in the physical realm, whereas the energy created by the sorting, a thermodynamic process, does. He tells Oedipa that entropy is a metaphor, and that “it connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow. The Machine uses both. The Demon makes the metaphor not only verbally graceful, but also objectively true” (Pynchon 85). Oedipa cannot work the machine, and is thus not a Sensitive. However, Nefastis is said to know a handful of people who can work the machine, and this poses several significant questions. Is Pynchon suggesting that certain people in the real world might be able to transgress the laws of science and nature like the Sensitives that Nefastis knows? Or is it possible that Nefastis is making the whole thing up, either as a form of self-deception or because he is part of some elaborate scheme set against Oedipa? What does it mean if the Sensitives do exist and are truly capable of breaking the limits of human ability?
Maxwell’s Demon seeks to bridge the gap between two different types of entropy; the informational ordering of molecules creates the thermodynamic production of energy. If this were a legitimately attainable phenomenon, the machine essentially allows the user, or more appropriately the Demon, to “play God.” This is achieved not in the physical application of the science (telekinesis comes to mind), but in the conceptual ideology of humanity as Creator. Actually violating one law of nature, as opposed to modifying or amending it, opens the door to a violation of all laws of nature. Without making too many philosophical speculations, the possibilities are endless. Humanity could transgress its limitations – the laws of nature that define us as human - and in doing so cease to be human, at least in the sense that is currently understood. What that means in terms of existence might be viewed as the ultimate experience of the unknown and sublime power that currently governs nature. The scientific reality of thermodynamic and informational entropy, however, complicates the hypothetical abilities of the sorting Demon. Vine states that,
“while thermodynamic entropy leads to a loss of difference between ‘hot and cold’ molecules, and to equivalence, informational entropy leads to the multiplication of messages in a system, and to exorbitance: to an informational overload that collapses ‘communication’ (72) in a chaos of signals” (Vine 167).
He goes on to explain how “in this way, informational entropy promotes communicational disorder: it generates an excess of output that cannot be reduced to meaning, sense or coherence” (Vine 167). Following this idea, a Sensitive would actually create molecular chaos in trying to establish order. Does this serve as proof of Maxwell’s Demon as a complete impossibility? According to Pynchon, not at all - it merely proves that Oedipa is incapable of transcending the natural law. From here on I refer to informational entropy as falling into one of two categories. The first, or “Hypothetical” interpretation, states that informational expenditure (i.e., the Sensitive while sorting molecules) creates order in the closed system of Maxwell’s Demon. The second, or “Natural” interpretation, states that informational expenditure actually creates disorder in the system. This distinction is necessary for two reasons. On one hand, instances of Natural entropy can be found in the culture of American politics, an embodiment of the postmodern paradigms of secrecy, conspiracy, and paranoia. On the other hand, Oedipa experiences, or at least comes into contact with, instances of Hypothetical entropy before she has any knowledge of Nefastis’ machine. Pynchon seeks the reconciliation of Natural and Hypothetical entropy, through which he suggests that something can come from nothing, and that this is possible both in the literary and social sense.
In “Neither Literally Nor as Metaphor: Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Frank Palmeri writes,
“At the end of The Crying of Lot 49, the binary choices facing Oedipa and the reader reflect the constraining conditions of scientific models and literary genres, which conspire with the paranoid temper of postmodern times to keep her and us suspended far short of certainty” (Palmeri 996).
He argues that Pynchon uses the idiosyncrasies of postmodernism as a means of perpetuating social constraints. Following this idea, the “binary choices facing Oedipa” parallel the binary choices available to American voters. The “Natural” informational entropy that takes the form of political campaigns, media coverage, and political literature convolutes the system in trying to communicate the messages of political parties to the masses. Specifically, political language is used as a hegemonic device meant to create fear and paranoia in the public, and ultimately the idea that one certain person is able to oppose whatever enemy America might face. This idea is exemplified in Casey Shoop’s essay “Thomas Pynchon, Postmodernism, and the Rise of the New Right in California,” in which he argues,
“Restoring Pynchon to history and history to Pynchon reveals that paranoia is not simply a condition of interpretive dysfunction or illness but the prospective ground of new political agency in his work and in the period more broadly” (Shoop 52).
Shoop discusses in particular the 1967 gubernatorial campaign of Ronald Reagan in California, and how the former Hollywood actor who would go on to serve two terms as President of the United States defined his politics with paranoid language and persuasion. He suggests that Reagan’s 1967 election, in which he defeated the career politician Pat Brown, was an indication of an American public that could not distinguish between fantasy and reality. More so, Shoop argues that a great deal of Reagan’s support developed out of his perpetuating, and greatly escalating, tension between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The constant threat of attack and the unthinkable menace of Communism coaxed the American people into support of military growth, national security measures, and an arms race that created a ubiquitous atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Because this was happening on a national level, opposing beliefs were viewed as anti-American, and essentially analogous to support for the enemy. Shoop writes, “Reagan offered his audience a Hobson’s choice: join me in my paranoia or share responsibility for ending civilization as we know it” (Shoop 63). This use of paranoia as a political device is not unique to Reagan. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were initially supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. However, public support of the wars, which are ongoing to this day, has been greatly reduced in the last several years. One of the primary contributing factors to this change was the discovery that Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were the perpetrators. Political manipulation of fear and paranoia were used to instigate a war against Saddam Hussein and his “weapons of mass destruction,” although the validity of his participation and responsibility was convoluted and ultimately lost in the American system of communication. Pynchon’s use of Oedipa as a victim of paranoia demonstrates his critical commentary on Reagan’s political hegemony. Oedipa would be a victim of the same paranoia 50 years later, manipulated by a political force with a different face but the same tactics, and it occurs throughout America. It is through this idea that Pynchon creates the possibility for breaking out of the binds of paranoia. He does this not through Oedipa reaching her goal or finishing her journey, but through the transcendence of her husband, Mucho Maas.
At the beginning of the novel, Mucho comes home and vents his discontentment with his work. Oedipa responds to her husband’s “regular crises of conscience about his profession” by stating simply, “You’re too sensitive.” (Pynchon 3-4). Oedipa perceives Mucho’s sensitivity long before she has any knowledge of Maxwell’s Demon. Similarly, she experiences both the notion of possible sensitivity and her own inability to achieve it when she drunkenly knocks over a can of hairspray in her initial meeting with Metzger.
“The can knew where it was going, she sensed, or something fast enough, God or digital machine, might have computed in advance the complex web of its travel; but she wasn’t fast enough, and knew only that it might hit them at any moment, at whatever clip it was doing, a hundred miles an hour ... She could imagine no end to it; yet presently the can did give up in midflight and fall to the floor, about a foot from Oedipa’s nose. She lay watching it” (Pynchon 25).
Just as Oedipa is unable to sort molecules, she is unable to compute the path of the rogue hairspray. More significantly, Pynchon’s portrayal of Oedipa as a character in search of this Hypothetical entropy, for the experience of the true Sensitive, reflects his belief both in the existence of the preternatural and in our inability to achieve it. “Our” inability is not universal, however, and Pynchon also suggests that some people, perhaps only a minute percentage of the population, are capable of transcendence. In her first minute in San Narciso, Oedipa has a revelation that “tremble[s] just past the threshold of her understanding”:
“She thought of Mucho, her husband, trying to believe in his job. Was it something like this he felt, looking through the soundproof glass at one of his colleagues ... yet really tuned in to the voice, voices, the music, its message, surrounded by it, digging it, as were all the faithful it went out to; did Mucho stand outside Studio A looking in, knowing that even if he could hear it he couldn’t believe in it?” (Pynchon 14).
Oedipa’s entire journey is driven by the sublime; she realizes that something exists outside the realm of her understanding, and this propels her search for meaning in the Tristero mystery. She is on the inside of the system looking out, but Mucho is standing on the outside looking in. While she constantly searches for the sublime, only a true Sensitive is capable of experiencing it. And although she can imagine Mucho on the outside looking in, she perceives that “even if he could hear it he couldn’t believe in it.” This is her biggest mistake; Mucho’s experience with LSD gives him the ability to tune into the “voice, voices, the music, [and] its message” on a whole new level of communication and understanding. Consequently, he does believe in the message, and it is a message of contentment and connection, free from the affliction of paranoia.
After Dr. Hilarius has his meltdown, Oedipa walks out of his office and finds Mucho broadcasting the ordeal on his radio station. He interviews her about this “terrible thing,” and calls her Edna Mosh on the air. He explains to his taken-aback wife that “it’ll come out the right way ... I was allowing for the distortion on these rigs, and then when they put it on tape” (Pynchon 114). This scene indicates the same idea of the Natural entropy, namely that information overload leads to disorder and miscommunication. Mucho changes “Oedipa Maas” to “Edna Mosh” when he says her name on the radio in order to compensate for the auditory alteration that he knows will occur. Mucho’s prescient perception is the first demonstration of his Sensitive abilities. He anticipates disorder in the system, and so establishes the necessary syllabic sorting in his own voice to compensate, and thus maintains order. A song is played, and Mucho is able to hear a single violinist slightly out of tune amongst seventeen others. He asks,
“Do you think somebody could do the dinosaur bone bit with that one string, Oed? With just his set of notes on that cut. Figure out what his ear is like, and then the musculature of his hands and arms, and eventually the entire man. God, wouldn’t that be wonderful” (Pynchon 116).
Here Mucho poses the question of how his newfound abilities might be used. This hints at the issue of “playing God” and how Sensitive ability might be applied in the real world. Mucho imagines the reconstruction of a man, which might be viewed as a form of divine creation, from just listening to the notes of his instrument. Something from nothing. Oedipa asks why anyone should want to do that, and Mucho replies,
“He was real. That wasn’t synthetic. They could dispense with live musicians if they wanted. Put together all the right overtones at the right power levels so it’d come out like a violin ... you’ll think I’m crazy, Oed. But I can do the same thing in reverse. Listen to anything and take it apart again. Spectrum analysis, in my head” (Pynchon 116).
Mucho’s interest lies in the simple fact that the musician he hears was real. “They” could easily have used a machine or computer, some part of their system, to create a song indecipherable from the real version, at least to the in-sensitive ear. Where the great majority of people are organized by the system, a handful of people, Mucho being one of them, are able to organize the system. Along with the single violinist, Mucho perceives that nothing more is happening between Oedipa and Metzger, and he knows this just because of the way she spoke into the microphone a few minutes earlier. His transcendent perception includes a form of communication and understanding that is not based on nor limited by language. Oedipa suggests that Mucho might be addicted to the LSD, to which he responds,
“Oed ... you don’t get addicted. It’s not like you’re some hophead. You take it because it’s good. Because you hear and see things, even smell them, taste like you never could. Because the world is so abundant. No end to it, baby. You’re an antenna, sending your pattern out across a million lives a night, and they’re your lives too” (Pynchon 116-17).
Here Pynchon creates a fuller understanding of Mucho’s Sensitive abilities. Transcendence occurs in the context of a psychedelic drug, although this is just a vehicle for presenting a state of existence that is essentially unpresentable. It is not addicting or manipulative – there are no drawbacks. It enhances the mind and body, and connects with the world and all of the people in it. Communication barriers and the understood limits of humanity cease to exist. And perhaps the most important result of all of this organizing of information is the reconciliation of Natural and Hypothetical entropy. Specifically, omniscience, and the consequent undoing of hegemonic paranoia.
Oedipa will never reach her goal of finding the Tristero. That would require her to become a Sensitive, a path that she in both unwilling and incapable of pursuing. Before witnessing her husband’s abilities, she had been inside Dr. Hilarius’ office trying to calm him down. She speaks with him through his door for several minutes, and he is surprised to find out with whom he is speaking when he lets her into the office. Oedipa begins to ask who he thought she was, and Hilarius interrupts her:
“Discussing my case with? Another. There is me, there are the others. You know, with the LSD, we’re finding, the distinction begins to vanish. Egos lose their sharp edges. But I never took the drug, I chose to remain in relative paranoia, where at least I know who I am and who the others are. Perhaps that is why you also refused to participate, Mrs. Maas?” (Pynchon 111).
Oedipa, like Hilarius, chose to remain in relative paranoia. She refuses to take the LSD, both at the beginning of the novel and when Mucho offers it to her at the end. The limitations of knowledge and understanding that plague Oedipa and perpetuate her search for the Tristero are self-afflicted. Similarly, the social and political effects of paranoia in America are protracted, circular, and self-propagating. This is Pynchon’s ultimate criticism of postmodernism and the world around him; humanity is capable of moving past these limitations, but for some inexplicable reason chooses not to. The Natural entropy that allows information to cause disorder instead of order is in desperate need of reconciliation with the Hypothetical entropy that promises to fix the system. What does that mean exactly? It is unknown, it is the sublime, but it also doesn’t need to stay that way. In the most basic sense, it means full political disclosure, unfettered communication and understanding, and the elimination of paranoia as a hegemonic device. Pynchon creates Oedipa’s world as a portrait of our own, and Mucho’s world as the ideological goal. However, the one thing Pynchon is unable to do is offer a legitimate means of attaining the transcendent perception, contentment, and Sensitivity for which Oedipa longs. The closest Pynchon comes is at the very beginning of the novel, when Oedipa recalls Mucho’s advice the last time that Pierce Inverarity, the symbolic impetus for Oedipa’s Tristero journey, called:
“‘Why don’t you just hang up on him,’ Mucho suggested, sensibly’” (Pynchon 3).
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