Assembling postmodernism: experience, meaning, and the space in-between.
Subject:
Postmodernism (Analysis)
Literature (Criticism and interpretation)
Author:
Geyh, Paula E.
Pub Date:
03/22/2003
Publication:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Issue:
Date: Spring, 2003 Source Volume: 30 Source Issue: 2
Product:
Product Code: 8425000 Literature NAICS Code: 71151 Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers SIC Code: 8999 Services, not elsewhere classified
Persons:
Named Person: Pynchon, Thomas; Lyotard, Jean-Francois; DeLillo, Don

Accession Number:
108786577
Full Text:
Early in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, we encounter the heroine, Oedipa Maas, standing on a hillside overlooking the Southern California city of San Narciso. As she surveys the landscape below with its "vast sprawl of houses,"

While superimposing her first printed circuit on the Southern California landscape in 1966, Oedipa, without quite realizing it, was standing on the verge of what we now call postmodernity. Both images--the postmodern city and printed circuit (a defining item of our information technology)--and their complex, superimposed linkages are great icons of postmodernism. (1) Now, more than a quarter of a century later, as the postmodern era might be drawing to a close, we are perhaps still just as puzzled and perplexed as we were at its beginning. Like the modernists, "We had the experience but missed the meaning," as T. S. Eliot observed in what became a famous truism of his era. (2) Indeed, by now we appear to be as confused about the meaning of this term "postmodernism" as by the "postmodern" world itself. Like Oedipa, trying to navigate the labyrinths of Pynchon's novel, and like Sophocles's Oedipus wandering through the nightmare of his life, we may learn more and more, and yet its meaning (along with meaning itself) often seems--and is--maddeningly uncertain. And we are haunted by the possibility that it might never quite become clear.

As a result, we inhabit, it seems ever more uneasily, the space between our experience of the postmodern world and its meaning--a space, experience, and meaning that seem even more complex and resistant to our grasp than those of modernism. What we have been learning to do, what we are still learning to do, is to span the gap that is this space. This essay aims to suggest how our students and we might do that, and the role literature might play in the process. My argument here is three-fold: that literature provides a privileged site in which the thought--ideas and conceptual structures--and the experiential "feeling" (both in its sensory and affective aspects) of postmodernism come together; and that, in this way, literature arguably constitutes one of the most powerful models and means available for bridging the gulf between them. Beyond its capacities to represent and synthesize postmodern ideas and experiences, literature is also a source of powerful challenges to various aspects of postmodernism, and so offers ways of thinking through (and perhaps even past) many of our peculiarly postmodern dilemmas.

Postmodernism(s): Definitions

First, however, it is necessary to explain what I mean by postmodernism, even though it may not be possible to define this term in the traditional, "pre-postmodern" way--that is, to give it a single sense, to determine its meaning once and for all, and so forth. In the postmodern theoretical world, such definitions tend to continuously undermine and sometimes un-define themselves. Indeed, even if it were possible to offer such a definition, would it not be too late by now? By this point in history, there are so many ways of seeing postmodernism, and the term is used by so many people in so many disparate ways, that it seems almost to mean or describe everything--and therefore, some of the critics of postmodernism would say, it means nothing. While, however, the first may well be true (although only to a certain degree), the second is not. For, insofar as postmodernism affects, if not defines, nearly every feature of the world we inhabit, and the ways in which we (some of us) see the world, it designates a different way of living in, perceiving, and understanding the world--or different ways of doing so, since this very diversity is itself postmodern. Besides, although the term may mean many things, it does not mean everything; and such "criticisms" themselves often mask attempts to avoid confronting the real meaning and impact of postmodernist ideas and of postmodernism's cultural and political practices. Admittedly, some applications of the term are superficial and discountable (a problem that is probably neither unusual nor, unhappily, even avoidable). Others, however, are effective and productive, and I believe, indispensable, even though we may at this point be confronting a certain closure of (theoretical) postmodernism, if not the culture of postmodernity itself. (I shall explain these distinctions presently.) If so, however, there is an even greater need to understand and be able to explain both postmodernism and postmodernity--culturally, theoretically, and politically. In short, we need to teach it in either sense. At present postmodernism may, I would argue, be given at least three interrelated but distinct meanings.

The first, which we may call theoretical postmodernism, is associated primarily with the arguments of Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition and related works. Lyotard defines modernity as Enlightenment or as the culmination of Enlightenment thought. Postmodernity, he argues, is largely defined by incredulity toward the grand narratives (or metanarratives) that have sought to explain the world though particular legitimating historical or political teleologies. Thus understood, postmodernism is philosophically close to poststructuralism--the radical critiques of traditional views of knowledge, truth, meaning, interpretation, communication, and so on. (3) Such teleologies and radical critiques have in turn indelibly transformed our culture--a transformation that began in modernity and continues apace in postmodernity. "Postmodern," Lyotard argues, "designates the state of our culture following the transformations which, since the end of the nineteenth century, have altered the game rules for science, literature, and the arts" (1984, xxiii). (4)

The extent to which postmodernism constitutes a continuation of, or a radical break from, modernism remains a matter of intense critical debate. My sense is that it is both. Many of the conceptual, epistemological, and aesthetic revolutions of modernism continue to evolve as integral parts of postmodernism. Yet, postmodern thought has also launched the most comprehensive and convincing critiques of many of the grand narratives of modernity (including Hegelianism, Marxism, Freudianism, etc.). Poststructuralism has been the source of many such critiques, which have more often than not been effected through various practices of reading (including deconstruction) modernist philosophical or theoretical works. Such readings generate complex systems of interrelationships, since they often critique these works using strategies suggested by or even derived from the works themselves (reading the "textual unconscious" of Freud's own writings on the unconscious, for example). Many modernist works, particularly literary works such as Joyce's Ulysses, then might be seen virtually to deconstruct themselves, and thus are both the objects and progenitors of poststructuralist and postmodernist critiques. The transformations that mark the postmodern as such, therefore, are inconceivable without the revolutions wrought by (historical and cultural) modernity and (theoretical and aesthetic) modernism.

"Cultural postmodernism" is the second meaning we can assign to "postmodernism" While considered by Lyotard, this category may be more closely associated with Fredric Jameson's work, which gives postmodernism an (Marxist) economic base by seeing it as "the cultural logic of late-capitalism." According to Jameson, cultural postmodernism is defined by certain transformations of material structures of technology, communication, and global economies, which subsequently drive and govern other transformations. Among these transformations are the rise of the computer and other digital technologies (also crucial to Lyotard), and the proliferation of an all-pervasive media culture, which has spawned what Guy DeBord dubbed the "society of the spectacle" in which "all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived ... moved away into a representation" (1983, 1). These transformations also include the development in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, of the "postindustrial society," in which national economies have shifted from a manufacturing to an information and services base, along with the concomitant rise of transnational corporations and the intricately interconnected global economy. Such politico-economic transformations, in turn, correlate with the emergence of new formal features in our cultural productions: in literature, film, art, television, music, dance, and architecture. Jameson himself is at once a theorist and a harsh critic of these transformations, hence, for example, his reading of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of Bob Perelman as a manifestation of the postmodern fragmentation of subjectivity, which, Jameson argues, makes political agency inconceivable.

These two versions of "postmodernism"--that represented here by Lyotard and that represented by Jameson--are interrelated. At an immediate level, many of Jameson's ideas take Lyotard's as their point of departure. (His first essay on the subject was the introduction to the English translation of Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition.) As his tide indicates, Lyotard's concept subsumes and even defines many key aspects of postmodern culture. Yet these interrelations between concept and culture (or theory and literature) run far deeper. We can see all around us a complex circulation of the ideas of these and other theorists throughout the cultural field and then back again, as they, in turn, draw ideas from literature, art, film, television, music, and architecture. The relationships between "theoretical" or critical and "cultural" works, then, are essentially symbiotic and reciprocal, rather than, as some have charged, either parasitic or artificially imposed. By this point, it seems clear that neither "theory" nor "literature" (nor any other form of cultural production) could properly be assumed or considered to be "primary." At the same time, I believe that the many different conceptions of postmodernism can virtually all be found in postmodern literature. One of my goals in proposing the uses of literature here is not to collapse these distinctions between various postmodernisms, but to emphasize that literature is a site in which these many distinctions--and interactions--among postmodernisms are played out. And, as I mentioned earlier, postmodern literature also functions as a site for critiques of postmodernism, particularly in its political and cultural forms.

There is yet a third sense of postmodernism (or more accurately, postmodernity) as a historical period that stretches from the mid 1960s through the present. This era is marked by certain "dominants," the political, economic, social, cultural and aesthetic features that differentiate it from other eras. Of course, there is always a measure of what Marxists refer to as "uneven development"--remnants of older socio-economic structures and modes of thought, and also foreshadowings or intimations of things to come. For example, every day I am convinced that the sun comes up and goes down--a medieval way of thinking about it, though obviously I know that the sun isn't doing any such thing. The intimations of the new, on the other hand, are always easier to spot in hindsight, for instance, the momentous implications of the 1967 creation of the ARPANET (a military system designed to link computer communications in a network capable of surviving a nuclear attack), which was to become one of the most transformative inventions of the 20th century: the Internet.

The experience of these postmodern cultural dominants, the defining features of postmodernity, is (unsurprisingly) not always gladly embraced. The resistance to "postmodernism," as we often see in the screeds appearing in the popular press by commentators such as the conservatives, George Will or John Leo or, on the left, Katha Pollitt or Nat Hentoff, generally takes two forms. One is a rejection of all that is perceived as reprehensible in contemporary culture, and in this case, "postmodernism" is deployed as a catch-all term, a shorthand for the aspects of contemporary life that these critics find distasteful or with which they would rather not engage. Yet to criticize particular aspects of postmodernity--to make an argument, say, that the rise of the European Union is bad for the small regional cheesemakers of France, or that the dead-sharks-submerged-in-formaldehyde art of postmodern artist Damien Hirst isn't on a par with the Mona Lisa--is actually different from wholesale rejections of "postmodernism."

To attempt to reject postmodernism entirely is to endeavor to stand outside one's age, to remove oneself from its everyday life and its cultural and intellectual currents. To do this seems to me either to sentence oneself to a perpetual misreading and misunderstanding of the contemporary world (a misreading that those of us, like Oedipa, whose perceptual apparatus was formed in an earlier, modernist era, might ourselves easily and inadvertently fall prey to, however well-intentioned we are). Or else, it is to doom oneself to irrelevance as a thinker, unless one possesses either the reactionary brilliance of a Jonathan Swift, or the visionary genius of a Friedrich Nietzsche (one of the great precursors and even inventors of theoretical postmodernism), though it should be noted that even Nietzsche was quick to champion the stirrings of the new in his own culture.

The rejection of postmodernism's intellectual currents often takes the form of a powerful but ill-defined public backlash against the perceived effete intellectualism of the academy, and, both outside and within the academy, of poststructuralist or cultural theorists and their "difficult" discourse. There are many strands of the resistance to (or outright rejection of) theory, among them a dislike of the politics of multiculturalism that are changing the constitution of the university's student bodies, faculties, and subjects of study; a fear of the displacement of literature or particular canons of literature; and a denial of theory's challenges to traditional modes of thought and interpretation. In all of these we can hear the echoes of the battles of the ancients and the moderns--battles that seem to be forever being fought from generation to generation. One of the aims of my argument here is to demonstrate that the theory vs. literature opposition is in many ways a false one (hence my earlier point about their reciprocal and symbiotic relationships).

As a historical era, postmodernity is also a literary period, one that follows modernism and includes literature dating from the 1960s on. Some of this literature is of course also postmodern in the sense of engaging with the issues of theoretical and cultural postmodernism, while some of the literature written during the same period would obviously not qualify as postmodern. (Many contemporary authors, including very commercially successful ones, write texts that evidence no awareness of the formal or conceptual revolutions of modernism, much less postmodernism.) The remarkable emergence and proliferation of feminist, multicultural, multiethnic and postcolonial literature is one of the most striking features of the postmodern literary and cultural era. While the degree to which these literatures can be seen as postmodernist is debated, and is often dependent upon the particular works in question, they nevertheless significantly contribute to the literary and cultural landscape of postmodernity. To the extent that the more experimental strains of postmodern literature (some of which are also found in the aforementioned literatures), among them metafiction--a category that encompasses such diverse works as John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera, Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, GeraldVizenor's Heirs of Columbus, and Kathy Acker's Great Expectations--and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of Bob Perelman and Charles Bernstein, have transformed our understanding of literary form, postmodern literature may be seen as an extension or outgrowth of the experiments of high modernism. On the other hand, one can easily argue that some modern novelists and poets (Joyce and Pound come immediately to mind) were ahead of their time in sensing the key features of what was to come, and from which they began to forge the building blocks of theoretical postmodernism. I would argue that the young Pynchon might be considered among them. One could even read the passage from The Crying of Lot 49 cited above as an allegory of Pynchon himself standing on that hill overlooking San Narciso (itself on the verge of postmodernity), simultaneously occupying the space of modernism and postmodernism.

In the discourses of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory, such overlappings and convergences are equally pervasive. Derrida found and developed many key aspects of deconstruction through readings of such modernist icons as Mallarme, Joyce, Kafka, Genet, Freud, and Nietzsche: while de Man developed his main theoretical ideas by reading, among others, Baudelaire, Proust, Rilke, and Yeats. Many of Lyotard's key ideas on postmodernism were also derived from the literature and art of high modernism, including the works of Joyce, Beckett, Pound, Duchamp, and the Cubists (in contrast to Jameson, who almost exclusively considers contemporary literature and art). Among these key ideas is the "disappearance" or withdrawal (and ultimate unmappability) of the real. "Modernity," Lyotard observes, "in whatever age it appears, cannot exist without a shattering of belief and without discovery of the 'lack of reality' of reality, together with the invention of other realities" (1984, 77). (I'll discuss this "disappearance" and unmappability of the real, particularly the forms they take in postmodernity, in much more detail presently). In these, and in many other ways, modernism and postmodernism are irreducibly entangled--aesthetically, conceptually, and culturally.

In the early to middle decades of the 20th century, the emergence of new theoretical and critical discourses (among them, Russian Formalism and New Criticism) that accompanied modernism generated fierce academic disputes regarding the proper subjects and methods of literary study. Similarly, in the later decades, the discourses of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory and their accompanying conceptual and categorical transformations have often been a focal point for wide-ranging debates around the proper goals and purposes of teaching literature in the university, the definition of the discipline and disciplinarity of literary studies (and particularly the status of "theory" in that definition), and the best pedagogical approaches for the study of literature. The conceptual proximities of postmodernism and poststructural theory have positioned the field of postmodern literature in the forefront of the conflicts between the "priests" and the "scientists" of literature, as John Bassett has dubbed them, between those traditional literary scholars "who pass on and interpret the sacred texts," and those theorists "who analytically explain the workings of a cultural system" (1995, 323). The "priests" see themselves as keepers of the flame of culture and as heirs to "an Arnoldian tradition of criticism that encouraged readers to see a continuing relevance of older masterpieces to their own lives ..." (324). And while the "scientists" also make vigorous arguments for the relevance of literature in life, this endeavor frequently involves certain "demystifications" of the secular canon. Thus, they ask different questions--ones that go beyond traditional modes of interpretation: How do literary works function as acts of communication? How do they produce meaning? How are they linked to other cultural productions? How do they both shape and reflect their societies? What is their role in the maintenance or disruption of social systems and hierarchies of power?

Teaching the Postmodern: Postmodernist Literature and the Postmodern World

Seeking a path that would nostalgically return us "to the idea of 'the arts' ... the arts imagined as traditions of experience that intensify our sense of living in and with the world" critics such as Kurt Spellmeyer have taken to proposing "ordinary sensuous life" as the alternative to "the threadbare ideology of 'the text'" (his shorthand for poststructuralist theory) (1996, 894). I would argue, however, that both literature and theory "intensify our sense of living in and with the world" and also enable us to make sense of our sense. Too often, these are set in opposition to one another: "What gets lost in the semiotic universe [i.e., "texts" read through structuralist and poststructuralist theory] is the crucial distinction between 'codes' or 'signs,' which simply 'signify,' and the living words that foster a 'felt' resonance between ourselves and the world," Spellmeyer argues (906).Yet that resonance, that personal connection, is, I think, usually the primary experience of reading literature: it's the being able to explain that "felt" resonance in a way that takes it out of the solely personal into a broader field of understanding that is difficult and requires teaching. One could even argue that the peculiarities of the postmodern era (among them, the pervasive "disappearance" and unmappability of the real) make such understanding all the more essential and urgent.

As professors, our ability to foster this understanding requires that we recognize the implications of the generational divide between our students and ourselves. While professors of literature and culture often see postmodernist configurations in conceptual and categorical terms, our students in fact live postmodernism and/in its complexities. They live it, I would argue, in ways that are quite different from those of us whose modes of thought and perception were shaped in earlier eras. The world of my childhood did not include, for instance, Xerox machines (though there were those fragrant purple mimeographs), fax machines, cordless phones, voicemail, VCRs and videotapes, cable television, CDs, DVDs, PlayStations, or, most important of all, home computers (there were, of course, those IBM behemoths into which legions of technicians fed key punch cards). Though I have grown used to these technologies, for me there still remains an aura of both wonder and alienation about them. For my students, born some twenty years later, they are unremarkable and integral parts of everyday life. Their sensoria have been shaped by them in ways mine have not, and so they--these young postmoderns and these postmodern technologies--belong to each other.

Theorists sometimes go astray in arguing for the essential alien-ness of such technologies or related developments in other spheres. When, for instance, Jameson argues in "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" that the supersaturated mall space of the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles constitutes "something like a mutation in built space itself" and suggests that "the human subjects who happen into this new space have not kept pace with that evolution ... [that] we do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace ... in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space ... the space of high modernism" (1984, 80), I think he is, at least partly, mistaken. That may well be his experience and even my own, but it is not that of the postmodern subject, already shaped by a life lived in this type of space. Although its architects might have designed this space to overwhelm our "mapping" abilities, and while many of us, whose perceptual apparatus was, like Jameson's, shaped in the space of modernism, may experience it as such, there is an entire generation for whom this is not true. (5) The generation born after, say, 1965, does not find this space either overwhelming or unmuppable. Their sensibilities, forged amid the hyperspeeds of PlayStations, MTV fast-cut editing, and hiphop sampling and fragmentation, find such supersaturated hyperspaces quite congenial. In a visceral way, the sensory overload generated by spaces such as the Bonaventure or Niketown (with its hyperbolic blend of sport-specific idolatry and hip-hop sight-and-sound display aesthetics) make sense to them.

In practice, then, today's students are nothing if not postmodern. In terms of intellectual development, however, they're often surprisingly pre-modern. This is so, I think, because they are caught between their postmodern experience and the ever-present transmission of messages (from the media, their parents, their professors) reinforcing traditional modes of thought that make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to fully comprehend their experience. A critical education that went only so far as the doctrine of authorial intention or New Critical unity, for instance, would be of little help to them in understanding the meanings of hip-hop, which is created through sampling; or the art of Bruce Nauman or Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger; or the "plagiaristic" novels of authors like Kathy Acker. The challenge in many postmodern literature classes is actually getting the students to read the literature as postmodern, a process that then easily transfers to the reading of their own experience of the postmodern world. This transfer is a natural one, and they generally make it effortlessly. In a sense, postmodern literature might be defined as the only literature for which current undergraduates are always already prepared, at least at the level of experience. One can contrast this with the "sophistication" required to read works of high modernism (or high modernism as it has been institutionalized by the academy).

I would argue that the most effective way of teaching postmodern literature is in conjunction not just with theory, but also with other works of postmodern culture, particularly in the visual arts and, if one has the expertise, in music. Such an approach makes it possible for students to see the circulation of postmodern ideas that I mentioned earlier through different discourses (aesthetic and theoretical, popular and academic) and media. A course on postmodern American fiction, for example, might contain a unit on "reality, representation and simulacra" that would include many of the works I discuss in this essay (though obviously, there are many others that would work just as well): Don DeLillo's White Noise, Robert Coover's "The Babysitter," and Pynchon's Vineland; excerpts from Baudrillard's "The Precession of Simulacra" and Jameson's "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism"; clips from the films Slacker and The Matrix; and art by Nam June Paik, Sherrie Levine, and Jenny Holzer. Such an assemblage would make it possible for students to gain an understanding of how postmodern transformations of the ideas of "representation" and "the real" are worked out across the cultural field. It would also encourage them to make that "leap" between postmodern literature and their own experience of the postmodern world.

All the works of literature, art and film to be discussed here represent postmodernism in its theoretical and cultural aspects, but they present these elements in more accessible forms for a more general audience than most postmodernist theory does. In the study of literature, those trained in theory would see the linkages between them and teach them accordingly. Yet it is also possible that an attentive reader might derive, even if in a different idiom, the theoretical content from the literature, because these works embody the theoretical and philosophical ideas that are part of the culture. These ideas are inevitably part of the world in which we live; theory only formalizes them. Theory, however, also serves other purposes. Within the discourses of postmodern literary and cultural theory lies the groundwork for critical thinking that is not easily assimilated or co-opted by the technocratic, "professionalist" ethos that increasingly dominates our system of education. This corporatist ethos, which takes as its primary values marketability, utility, and efficiency, sees no higher purpose for education than the production of well-trained functionaries for the powers-that-be, If Lyotard is right, as I believe he is, "postmodern knowledge" (that found in both the literature and theory of postmodernity) "is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert's homology, but the inventor's paralogy" (1984, xxv). This view is often misunderstood as simply abandoning the traditional means of reasoning, explanation, legitimation, and pedagogy. In reality, however, postmodernism retains most of the traditional structures of knowledge, but redefines the rules of the games through which they are deployed. It may not be possible to avoid this type of redeployment in our postmodern world in any event.

Theory alone, however, is not enough for a successful interface with the postmodern, even in the classroom, let alone in the world around us. The world and experience of postmodernism often outstrip its theory, as does the literature. It is not so much that we do not have the concepts we need: I suspect we have most of what is required to make sense of our experience. But in order to comprehend what we might call "the complexity of the concrete," we need to identify and assemble the particular concepts that will help us, and we must know how to deploy them. More than any other cultural or artistic form, I would argue (in what I hope is more than simply a literature professor's conceit), literature in all its complexity provides an unparalleled site in which we can see how the various elements of postmodernism come together, even if sometimes against each other, and how its concepts can be put to work in the "concrete" world. Equally important, literature can pose challenges to the ideologies of cultural and political postmodernity and suggest ways of re-imagining or "rewriting" their underlying conceptual structures.

Postmodern literature, then, is literature to think with. At the surface level, this may sound a bit old-fashioned, and one can trace analogous notions of the role of literature much earlier, to Kant or even Aristotle. As I indicated earlier, many of the theorists most associated with poststructuralism, in particular Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, have developed their innovative conceptual frameworks through careful, rigorous readings of literature, and thus they can be seen to be following in the path of this long tradition, however untraditional their ideas.

Yet while this function might be analogous to previous notions of the role of literature, I would argue that it is not entirely identical. In question are different (postmodern) concepts and different (equally postmodern) concrete sites of application of such concepts, and above all, different (postmodern) relationships between concepts and the sites of the concrete. At no other time in history, for instance, have our imaginary conceptions (particularly our conceptions of technology) and our real-world constructions merged so swiftly and completely. The Internet as such did not yet exist when William Gibson published his 1984 science-fiction novel, Neuromancer, yet by the time of the First Conference on Cyberspace, held at the University of Texas, Austin in 1990, it was observed that "Gibson's powerful vision is now beginning to influence the way virtual reality and cyberspace researchers are structuring their research agendas and problematics" (Tomas 1993, 46). By 1993, the use of Gibson's neologism "cyberspace" was sufficiently ubiquitous that it became the occasion for a humorous exchange in David Lynch's 1993 television mini-series, Wild Palms, in which a character at a cocktail party exclaims, "You're the guy who invented the term 'cyberspace,'" to Gibson (making a cameo appearance), to which he ruefully responds, "And they've never let me forget it."

To see how postmodern literature constitutes a new form of "literature to think with," one might examine the vexed, and quite central, postmodern problem of "the real," particularly in relation to the simulacrum--a technologically created reproduction that assumes the function of the real. One popular exposition of this problem can be found in the Wachowski Brothers' 1999 film, The Matrix. The film is set in a post-Apocalyptic earth that is controlled by machines--our own, artificial intelligence machines that now keep humans enclosed in goop-filled pods, while they use our biological processes as energy sources for themselves. The humans, however, are unaware of their real situation. They are all hooked into a computer-generated virtual reality simulation of late 20th-century earth, where they think they live out their lives. Only a small band of humans remains outside of the Matrix, aware of reality, seeking to liberate the rest of humanity from the reign of the machines and their illusions. (6) The film's immense appeal, I would argue, was only partly due to its superbly choreographed martial arts scenes, its cool (computer-generated) special effects, Keanu Reeve's peculiarly blank visage, and Laurence Fishburne's sonorous voice. The main part of its appeal is that it taps into a very broad and very deep cultural anxiety about our technologies and their effects on the world, and on us. More specifically, The Matrix reminds us of the troubling prevalence of simulacra in contemporary culture, and their immense power over and displacement of the real.

Now it is true that one can deploy Baudrillard, or one might say Baudrillard's matrix, to think through this phenomenon. The makers of the movie certainly did. They even included a shot of the hero, Neo, taking virtual reality program disks out of a hollowed out copy of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, and there is a dark reference to "the desert of the real" in the dialogue, too. (7) (The pre-release version of The Matrix actually contained a discussion of Baudrillard, which didn't make the final cut.) Baudrillard is helpful, particularly his suggestion that the relationship between the original and the reproduction, between the real and the copy, has undergone a fundamental transformation in the postmodern era. Once, perhaps (though it is difficult to be certain when), the distinction between the real and the reproduction seemed relatively clear. But our technologies are so advanced that our copies increasingly become simulacra--reproductions sufficiently powerful that they first obscure, then displace, and ultimately replace (that is, function as) the real.

Yet Baudrillard's analysis of the ways in which simulacra function is far from sufficient. It is often marred by his penchant for overstatement, by the inexactitude of his terminology, and by an over-eager application to phenomena they don't quite fit, for instance, to psychosomatic illness. Besides, the trouble with the real, or how we conceive of the real in the postmodern era, has many other aspects to it, beyond just the relation of the real to the simulacrum. These aspects could be discussed at great length, in an excursus that would take us from the philosophy of Nietzsche, to the physics of quantum mechanics and relativity, to cognitive science, to the poststructuralist critiques of the classical concepts of language and reality. Or, we could turn to literature.

Scenes and Screens of the (Un)real:

The novels of Don DeLillo, like those of Pynchon, are remarkable for their ability to depict the often harrowing "realities" of the postmodern world. DeLillo's 1984 novel, White Noise, is the story of Jack Gladney, the chair of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill, and his family during the crisis of a toxic chemical spill (the "air-borne toxic event") and its aftermath. There are (at least) two scenes in this novel that can be read as allegories of the postmodern.

The first scene is at once an allegory of theoretical postmodernism and a dialogical enactment of several of its central issues, particularly those of "truth" and "reality." The dialogue takes place between Jack and his fourteen-year-old son, Heinrich. Jack is a believer in traditional conceptions of the real and the truth. Throughout the novel, he plays the role--and voices the perplexity--of a modern thinker confronting postmodernity. His son Heinrich, who truly inhabits the postmodern world of the novel, draws upon both his experience and things he has heard (things that naturally resonate with his experience) for his side of this dialogue. We have two worldviews, then, in conflict with one another. Here is what happens when Jack attempts to make light conversation while in the car on the way to school with his son:

While it's true that Heinrich might not be of much help on the question of whether or not one needs an umbrella, he is rather good at laying out what might be called the problematics of the real and the true. Before he even arrives at school, he covers the limitations of our sensory apparatus and the way it mediates our perception of reality, the paradoxes of relativity theory, the arbitrariness of the sign, and the indeterminacy of meaning. He's undoubtedly a pain (in his peculiar, adolescent way), but he is right. And in this, and in various other ways throughout the course of the book, Heinrich, and to a lesser extent, his sisters, constitute representations of the new, postmodern subject, just as Jack represents the older, modern subject, who is certain that if he persists, Heinrich will finally come around:

This encounter could equally be seen as an allegory of the conflicting approaches of the "theorists" and the "traditional literary scholars" to problems of interpretation. Heinrich deploys the insights of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory; Jack appeals to a different set of theories, though he probably doesn't recognize them as such: the unproblematized immediacy of empirical evidence, traditional theories of meaning (that presume a shared or common definition of "the truth" "rain," and "now"), statistical probability ("make a guess"),"common sense," and even the exigencies of plot (Frank J. Smalley from St. Louis with a gun to your head). Like the traditional literary scholars and the theorists, Jack and Heinrich are each asking different questions about many of the same things. And while the traditionalist finds it possible to come up with a single, simple answer, the theorist produces a seemingly endless array of possibilities and even more questions. The traditionalist sees the theorist as appallingly obscurantist, needlessly complicating the obvious; the theorist sees the traditionalist as stunningly unreflective and uninformed about the vast complexities of language and knowledge.

While in everyday life we generally proceed "as if"--as if our senses did not often deceive us and instead revealed to us what is real, even though well before Plato we were warned to exercise great caution here; as if we could handle time and space in the way it is handled in Newton's physics (which long served as a paradigm for our theoretical thought elsewhere); and as if, at the very foundations of matter, cause and effect still retained their common meaning; as if we could be reasonably certain that when using a word in conversation with someone else, they understood it precisely as we did; and as if meaning were not inherently contextual, contingent, eternally in process, and prone to proliferate beyond our control. But that we proceed as if such were the case--and we have good reasons to do so in most situations (for one thing, Newtonian mechanics still accounts for most physics we confront in everyday life)--does not mean that things are not infinitely more complicated and that in certain, increasingly more frequent situations in the postmodern world, these complexities will not become essential in our interactions with the world. Thus, while these considerations might seem relatively unimportant in the context of this particular inquiry regarding the rain, they are anything but in other circumstances, for example, those multiply allegorized through modern and some postmodern science by Pynchon in Oedipa's quest for "reality" and "truth" in The Crying of Lot 49.

Even classically, the real is already a problematic concept. Even if we leave aside (or remained ignorant of) the finer points of cognition, quantum mechanics and relativity, anti-foundationalism and poststructuralism, we could not avoid discovering that there is something amiss with the real, or at least with any claim we can make for it. It is this realization that comes to us perhaps most acutely when we encounter simulacra in our everyday lives.

Robert Coover's 1969 experimental short story, "The Babysitter" is one of the earliest postmodern works to explore the permeable boundaries between the experience of the real, our fantasies, and the televised simulacrum. In rapid succession, the fragmented text of "The Babysitter" juxtaposes the shifting fantasies and (far more mundane) experiences of a babysitter, the couple and their children for whom she is babysitting, her boyfriend and his friend, and two casually and intermittently regarded TVs, both of which are turned on (like just about every character in the story). The story's structure builds upon modernist experiments with stream-of-consciousness narration, as seen, for instance, in Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner's narratives, while also introducing the crucial, technological component of television. It is this technology's functioning that the story aims to replicate; its structure replicates "channel-surfing," a quintessentially postmodern activity and mode of experience. Fantasy and reality blur into one another as the narrative shifts from mind to mind, and viewpoint to viewpoint (including those of the televisions' shows, news, and advertisements, which stealthily infiltrate the fantasies and perceptions of the characters). The ubiquity of the televised simulacrum and the ways in which it transforms our modes of thought, perception, and experience is, of course, a subject explored across the range of postmodern culture.

In the postmodern visual arts, this focus on simulacra--on that which replaces the real--constitutes a shift away from the earlier, modernist-inspired putting "forward [of] the unpresentable in presentation itself" (Lyotard 1984, 81), which one saw, for instance, in the work of the Abstract Expressionists. This more recent (roughly since the late 1960s or early 1970s) strain of postmodern art, which one might call "the art of simulacra," focuses on the prevalence of the image (particularly the media image), technologies of reproduction, and strategies of appropriation. It encompasses the work of a broad range of artists and movements, from the video art of Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, and Bruce Nauman; to the photography of Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine; and the graphic art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Paik's 1974 "TV Buddha," in which a sculpture of Buddha contemplates its own contemplative image on closed-circuit TV, embodies the mysterious, semi-religious aura of the television image and of our "worship" of it. Levine's early 1980s "pirated prints," her photographs of Edward Weston's photographs (themselves icons of photographic modernism) of the naked torso of his young son, Neff, plunge his work into a seemingly endless mise-en-abyme of representation by creating reproductions that are virtually indistinguishable from the "real" reproductions that are Weston's printed images (images that are themselves "copies" of Greek kouroi). Holzer's discursive art series "Truisms" (1977-1982) displayed messages such as "MONEY CREATES TASTE" and "SAVE ME FROM WHAT I WANT" on sites customarily reserved for advertising--on the giant electronic signboards of Times Square and Las Vegas, for example--disrupting the "signs" of advertising and undermining the auras with which they invest material objects, through the appropriation of their own media and discourse.

All of these works of art (as well as many by other artists, some of whom are mentioned elsewhere in this essay) could easily be used as a gloss on DeLillo's (via his character Murray) conceit of "the most-photographed barn in America" which appears in the second passage of White Noise I'll discuss here. (Or, of course, it could be used as a gloss on them). Although it may not at first appear to be a meditation on aesthetics, this passage can easily be read as an exploration of aesthetic and cultural postmodernism.

Early in White Noise, Jack, accompanied by his good friend Murray (unlike Jack, a postmodernist) makes a pilgrimage to a tourist attraction known as "the most photographed barn in America" Along the way there, they count five signs, all advertising "the most photographed barn in America." When they arrive, they walk to "a spot set aside for viewing and photographing" and everyone has cameras. Murray and Jack stand, watching the photographers.

As an articulation of the crisis of the real, of the mediation of our experience by the media, of the primacy of the signifier over the signified, and the functioning of the simulacrum and of aura, this episode works remarkably well. One could, of course, revisit such recent icons as DeBord, Baudrillard or Paul Virilio. (8) Or one could travel still further back in history to Benjamin's brilliant essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which is echoed here, or even Plato's critique of representation in Ion and Book X of The Republic, all of which would address aspects of what DeLillo depicts in their more radical, "postmodern" form. Yet the novel as a whole itself offers a powerful representation of the fascination of the simulacrum and a cogent evocation of the totality and the complexity of what we confront in the postmodern era. As such, it provides a bridge across the gap between our experience of postmodernity and the conceptual matrix that defines postmodernism. It is also, of course, an implicit critique of the power of the simulacrum.

DeLillo's talent for depicting concrete manifestations of postmodernism's conceptual structures is matched by his remarkable ability to capture the peculiar sensibilities of the young postmoderns. The emotions with which such characters confront phenomena such as "the most photographed barn in America" and the tenor of their reactions to them are qualitatively different from those of the late modernists among us. Postmodernity may be the most ironic of ages, and while irony itself obviously isn't new, the emotional valence of postmodern irony is notably different from that of modernist irony. While modernist irony is pervaded by a sense of nostalgia, of loss and longing that lies beneath the surface archness, postmodernist irony is more about "play," both in the sense of enjoyment and in the poststructuralist sense of a production of possibilities of interpretation without end or definitive resolution. This difference at least partially accounts for the markedly disparate responses to texts like White Noise, which seem to appall the late modernists and appeal to the young postmoderns, our students among them.

In "What is Postmodernism?" Lyotard suggests a related divergence of modern and postmodern aesthetics surrounding the presentation of the unpresentable. "[M]odern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one," he argues (1984, 81). In contrast, "the postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable" (81). This schema, while it differentiates between modern and postmodern aesthetics, also allows for the proleptic emergence of the postmodern within the modern, and for the persistence of (aspects of) the modern amid the postmodern.

Like DeLillo's White Noise, Pynchon's 1990 novel Vineland examines the complexities of our ambivalent reactions to the postmodern world, and particularly to the increasing prevalence of simulacra in our lives. As in all of Pynchon's novels, with the exception of The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland looks back in time. Reflecting the modernism/postmodernism divide, the novel is infused with the peculiar nostalgia of a modernist (the protagonist, Zoyd Wheeler, and perhaps even Pynchon himself) attempting to come to terms with postmodernity.

Vineland is set in 1984 (that most apocryphal of years) in Northern California, the terrain Pynchon traversed some 35 years before in The Crying of Lot 49. The novel is pervaded by a not entirely ironic longing for the 1960s, for "a slower-moving time, predigital, not yet so cut into pieces, not even by television" (1990, 38). Its characters are in a sense relics, sixties figures struggling in the neo-Orwellian world of the Reagan era, experiencing life in the mid-eighties as a "series of rude updates" (5).

Any number of these "rude updates" arrive by way of the Tube, television being the dominant technology within the novel. Yet, as in Jack's encounter with the digitized computer file containing the possible effects of his exposure to the airborne toxic event in White Noise, in Vineland the problematics of the real vs. the televised simulacrum are supplemented by meditations on the digitization of our experience via the computer. At one point, Frenesi, Zoyd's ex-wife (once a student rebel and now a government informant), ponders the problem of the "real" Reagan-era budget ax and its simulated proxy: "Someplace there would be a real ax, or something just as painful, Jasonic, blade-to-meat final--but at the distance she, Flash, and Justin had by now been brought to, it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence" (Pynchon 1990, 90). This passage continues in a vein strongly reminiscent of Oedipa's reflections on ones and zeros in The Crying of Lot 49. Both also share a sense of the all-encompassing, seemingly omnipotent yet somehow inaccessible nature of the digital world.

Vineland's satiric depiction of the mid-eighties American society of the spectacle features, among other memorable characters, the Thanatoids, who spend "at least part of every waking hour with an eye on the Tube" (Pynchon 1990, 171). If the humans watching the Tube resemble the living dead, the Tube itself increasingly takes on a curious form of subjectivity. (9) The ex-wife of Zoyd's nemesis Hector "had named the television set, a 19-inch French Provincial floor model, as correspondent [in her divorce suit], arguing that the Tube was a member of the household, enjoying its own space, fed out of the house budget with all the electricity it needed, addressed and indeed chatted with at length by other family members, certainly as able to steal affection as any cheap floozy Hector might have met on the job" (348).

What finally animates the Tube--and feeds our animosity toward it--are our own contradictory desires for the real and the simulacrum. Our longing for the real (one understood and deployed with great success by marketers who assure us that "Coke is the real thing," and that "Beef is real food for real people") is real enough. Yet at the same time, there is the inescapable "truth" of the Video Backpacker in Richard Linklater's 1991 film Slacker, who argues the superiority of the manipulable video image over real-life experience:

The simulacrum is appealing as a supplement or even replacement for fragile, fading memories (something that explains the popularity of videotaping important family events like weddings and graduations). Freely adjustable and infinitely replayable, the simulacrum is controllable in ways "real" life is not. We can see more and differently. Watching his annual dive through a plate glass window on local TV, Vineland's Zoyd sees it replayed "in slow motion, the million crystal trajectories smooth as fountain-drops, Zoyd in midair with time to rotate into a number of positions he didn't remember being in, many of which, freeze-framed, could have won photo awards someplace" (Pynchon 1990, 15). Repeatable, perfectible--the pleasure of the simulacrum is also aesthetic.

We can also use the simulacrum to bracket the real, to create a certain emotional distance or detachment, as Zoyd's son Justin's kindergarten friend suggests when he tells him "to pretend his parents were characters in a television sitcom. 'Pretend there's a frame around 'em like the Tube, pretend they're a show you're watching. You can go into it if you want, or you can just watch, and not go into it" (Pynchon 1990, 351). The simulacrum aids us in an array of psychological stratagems: from repression to the compulsion to repeat, from fort-da to denial. (10) As Takeshi muses, "television, with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialized the Big D itself. If mediated lives, he figured, why not mediated deaths?" (218).

As entrancing as all of this is on many levels, we know that, as Frenesi dolefully observes about the fate of the Kollective's "doomed attempt to live out the metaphor of movie camera as weapon," (Pynchon 1990, 197): "the minute the guns came out, all that art-of-the-cinema handjob was over" (259). Somewhere out there is the "real ax." Yet, again, this is still too simple. All of the simulacrum's power and pleasure do not leave the real itself untouched (assuming that this distinction can even still be made with any certainty). The alienation effect it generates eventually seems to overtake the real, whether we wish it to or not. Increasingly, as the canny video backpacker suggests, the real isn't "right"; pervaded by our longing for the simulacrum, the real itself feels inadequate, wrong.

Mirrors and Maps of the (Un)real: From Descartes Pynchon

It may well be, however, that, among the canonical (as far as we can still provisionally use this term) postmodern works, the two novels by Pynchon that "frame" Vineland, Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, while overtly less concerned with postmodern culture, pose the question of the postmodern (un)real in its most epistemologically radical terms. In this, they provide the greatest challenge to both modernity (especially the Enlightenment) and theoretical or literary-critical postmodernism, which are as yet inadequate to account for such works and the world they present. The key features of these works and of this world may ultimately define our--postmodern and by now even post-postmodern--world, and I would like to close by commenting on them.

Lyotard, again, provides a convenient point of entry into these stranger and more unsettling landscapes by taking his clue from Borges. Lyotard writes: "A layman's version of the de facto impossibility of ever achieving a complete measure of any given state of the system is provided in a note by Borges ["Del Rigor en la ciencia"]. An emperor wishes to have a perfectly accurate map of the empire made. The project leads the country to ruin--the entire population devoted all its energy to cartography" (1984, 55). Borges's fable is an allegory of a new (and, according to Lyotard's view, postmodernist) paradigm of twentieth-century knowledge, including in mathematics and science, such as Godel's incompleteness theorems and quantum physics, to both of which Lyotard refers at the same juncture. (11) Unsurprisingly, these findings (and comparable developments elsewhere in modern science) have helped to shape postmodernist epistemology. By the same token, Borges's allegory also suggests why many theoretical discussions of postmodernity centered on and were shaped by thematics of cartography and mapping, and why such theorists as Jameson, Foucault (who saw himself as a cartographer), and Deleuze link these thematics to postmodernist epistemology.

Pynchon's references and allusions to these mathematical and scientific fields are readily apparent and well known, and Herbert Stencil's search for V. and Oedipa's "quest" in The Crying of Lot 49 could be linked to the same epistemological questions. Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon take this epistemology considerably further, possibly to its ultimate limit. At this limit, and in accord with the epistemology of the mathematical and scientific developments just mentioned, it may not even be possible to assign a state to the systems in these two novels (if we can still speak of "systems" under these conditions), let alone to take a complete, or even any, measure of this state. The "reality" of such systems is finally defined by this impossibility, even though our maps--now inevitably heterogeneous and plural, of ... (we can no longer quite say what they are ultimately maps of)--remain useful and even indispensable, since they allow us to exist on the borderlines of this (un)real.

I use the language of mapping because in Pynchon, as in Borges's fable and in many postmodernist philosophical works, the question of the (un)real is often posed as a question of mapping (mathematical, physical, psychological, political, cognitive, and so forth). Historically and conceptually, modernity and then, though somewhat differently, postmodernity--their surveying and navigation in both literal and metaphorical terms--are indissociable from the idea of the map. In broad outline, Descartes provided modernity with its ultimate paradigm of mapping with his famous (it has been called Cartesian ever since) coordinate system, which extended and fulfilled the Euclidean vision of mathematics and the world. In mathematics and physics, or of course in geography, and by extension, in the modern understanding of the human mind and culture, Descartes's system allows us to locate particular events relative to the orthogonal (and hence easily measurable) fines of coordinates, and perhaps more crucially to coordinate different events with one another within the same frame of reference. In physics, this "coordinate dream" was fulfilled, or was believed to have been fulfilled, in Newton's vision of absolute space and absolute time (Newton and Newtonianism are crucial references in Mason & Dixon and in Gravity's Rainbow). Yet it was to crumble, first, in Einstein's relativity (which is based on non-Euclidean geometry), where such ultimate coordination of events within a single frame is never possible--an argument that is also easily traceable in many of Pynchon's works. Quantum mechanics has since brought this impossibility to its ultimate limit by denying (in view of Heisenberg's uncertainty relations) event coordination even to any single event, which now can only be partially mapped. Pynchon's writings too can be seen in terms of this final collapse of the "coordinate dream" and the subsequent dis-coordination of everything. As earlier, my aim here is not to use Pynchon's works to illustrate (the epistemology of) these mathematical and scientific, or philosophical, theories--although Pynchon clearly deploys them. Instead, I want to argue that in Pynchon's works there is a fusion of radical epistemological conceptions, depictions, and insights, including Pynchon's own, and this fusion often allows him (using the gravitational field of this fusion to drive his works' rocket-like trajectories) to push his radical vision ever further.

This non-Euclidean (metaphorically and, to some degree, physically and geometrically) "space" or "un-space" emerges from the opening lines of Gravity's Rainbow, in the description of Capt. Geoffrey ("Pirate") Prentice's dream of wartime London. Complex cityscapes and city-spaces (already representations) are mixed with theatrical--"it's all theater" (Pynchon 1973, 3)--and cinematic representations, and then with uncanny hauntings of the unrepresentable. The defining allegory of the map is introduced a bit later with the map kept by the main protagonist, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop (unless the designation "main" more aptly belongs to Werner von Braun, the inventor of the modern rocket). Slothrop's map is a map of London on which he marks with stars, colored with the available spectrum (a rainbow), his amorous adventures, or more accurately, the places where he has had erections (the color of the star corresponds to his mood of the moment). The famous setup of the novel is that if one marks on the same map the spots where the German V-2 rockets hit London, the markings coincide with Slothrop's erections (which anticipate the hits). The "plot" of the novel is the history of this coincidence, which raises any number of questions: What kind of history could this possibly be? How, if at all, could it be mapped? Of what kind of maps would its atlas be formed, and how, if at all, can one assemble such an atlas? The same questions could of course be asked concerning the history of the rocket, which--in the long term--is the same history. Or is it?

Pynchon's novel may be seen as set-up to play out, or map, all conceivable views of this history. These views extend from that of the team of Pavlovians dreaming (the dream is contained in a book, the bible of the discipline) in which this history could be calculated in a kind of quasi-Hegelian dream, to visions (scientific, philosophical, aesthetic) of absolute chance. In the first case, chance would be merely a manifestation of an unknown order; in the second, any apparent order would be merely a mask of chaos. Either reading of these events and histories, or Pynchon's vision itself, or the non-Euclidean architecture/geometry of the novel could be tempting, but neither would really be radical enough to "map" them. There is, however, a spectrum (or rainbow) of possibilities in between. Pynchon grafts upon this first spectrum of possibilities a series of others--of mathematical and scientific theories; philosophical and political systems; and literary and artistic systems (including, in particular, the cinematic). The elements and structures of Gravity's Rainbow interact with these spectra, creating a kind of rainbow-tapestry, an immense atlas of coordinated and dis-coordinating maps. This "rainbow" enacts what Derrida sees as the "play" of chance and necessity in calculations without end.

One can also link these (un)mappings to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's vision, via Bernhard Riemann, in A Thousand Plateaus (a work Pynchon refers to in Vineland as "An Italian Wedding Fake Book," parodically, but not altogether off-target, given its deliberately Baroque structure). Pynchon's most recent novel, Mason & Dixon, might well more properly represent this type of vision, both in philosophical-geometrical and cultural-political terms. It was land-surveying that lay at the origin of non-Euclidean geometry, which eventually led to Einstein's space-time. Karl Friedrich Gauss, the first mathematician to discover non-Euclidean geometry (and a near contemporary of Mason and Dixon), was also a surveyor, and he developed some of his key ideas while analyzing the geometry and cartography of land surveying. Some of these ideas may also be traced to the invention of differential calculus by Newton and Leibniz, both invoked by Pynchon in Mason & Dixon. (12) It is not possible to trace here all these trajectories or draw all these maps; they constitute, predictably, yet another immense network or network of networks. I would like instead to close by citing Mason & Dixon:

Pynchon's "caesura" between sections (dealing with the surveying of Ireland) connects as well as separates these two passages, and it links mathematics and the superimposed Ireland and America, and, of course, the modernity of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the postmodernity of our own time. These connections are enacted, ironically, already at the level of Pynchonesque signifiers, such as the unmistakable "Cherrycoke" [Cherry Coke] and "the global-Communications Nabob" [Rupert Murdoch]. More crucially and fundamentally it connects them in and through surveying, in the broadest possible sense, here again superimposing maps or already superimposed atlases--mathematical, philosophical, scientific, cultural, and political--just as Joyce does in Ulysses for Ireland and Dublin, an inescapable reference here. Odysseus is perhaps the first literary land and sea surveyor, and the Greeks are the inventors of both mathematics and democracy. The political parallels are equally inescapable. Mason & Dixon is America, just as Ulysses is Ireland and Dublin. Both, however, can only become one through the geopolitical and geo-cultural dis-coordinating mappings, manifest (or hidden) throughout both works. Such mappings would include "global communications" with or without nabobs and (though this might be more difficult to achieve) "Cherry Coke," the postmodern Coca-Cola, as opposed to "Classic Coke," as it is now called. It is finally such inescapably non-Cartesian mappings that, in various ways and degrees, define all the works considered here, and, beyond them, the (aesthetically) postmodernist and the (culturally and politically) postmodern themselves, with their many coordinates and dis-coordinations.

These are the worlds we and our students inhabit and the maps by which we all must orient ourselves in order to navigate this postmodern age.

Notes

The author would like to thank Arkady Plotnitsky for his invaluable advice on this essay.

(1) The image of a city grid, seen from above, dissolving into the luminous tracery of the printed circuit or directly into the computer-generated grid of cyberspace, is a recurrent image in contemporary literature and film. It appears, for example, in William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, in the Disney movie Tron and the movie-become-TV-series Max Headroom.

(2) "We had the experience but missed the meaning, And approach to the meaning restores the experience In a different form, beyond any meaning We can assign to happiness." (T. S. Eliot "Dry Salvages" II:43-46, Four Quartets, 186)

(3) It should be noted, however, that by this point, there are challenges to post-structuralism that are also seen by many as part of theoretical postmodernism. Challenges to the poststructuralist deconstruction of Enlightenment subjectivity, for example, have emerged from feminist and African-American theory.

(4) Lyotard's reference to "game rules" proceeds via Wittgenstein's definition, i.e., "What he means by this term is that each of the varieties of utterance can be defined in terms of rules specifying their properties and the uses to which they can be put" (1984, 10).

(5) Jameson is using the Bonaventure here as a metaphor for postmodern spatiality in a much broader sense. The difficulty of "mapping" the space of the Bonaventure, then, is an exemplar of the difficulty of creating a "cognitive map" through which postmodern subjects might be able to conceptualize their positions as historical, economic, and political subjects in the world of global capitalism. For a more detailed exposition of this idea, see Jameson's essay "Cognitive Mapping."

(6) An obvious way to read The Matrix is as an allegory of techno-capitalism, its labor relations, and its incessant "creative destruction" in which as Marx famously put it, "all that is solid melts into air." Lyotard, too, remarks upon this phenomenon: "... capitalism inherently possesses the power to derealize familiar objects, social roles, and institutions to such a degree that the so-called realistic representations can no longer evoke reality except as nostalgia or mockery, as an occasion for suffering rather than for satisfaction" (1984, 74).

(7) See Simulations, p. 2.

(8) See, for example, Virilio's analysis of how the real is reconfigured by contemporary communications technologies in The Art of the Motor and Open Sky.

(9) As Donna Haraway remarks in "Cyborg Manifesto," "Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert" (1991, 152).

(10) The child's fort-da (away-here) game described by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is an attempt to overcome or master the anxiety of separation (in Takeshi's case, of the self from the self in death).

(11) Godel's theorems establish, first, the existence, within most mathematical systems, of certain propositions, famously called "undecidable," which cannot be proven either true or false by means of the system, and (this is the content of the second theorem) ultimately the impossibility of ascertaining the consistency of the system itself. Thus, these theorems undermine or indeed defy the long-standing classical ideal of logical reasoning, of which mathematics would be seen as the ultimate refinement. As Lyotard and others have observed, quantum physics makes the concept of "measuring the state of the system" or even the concept of "the state of the system," the corresponding ideal of classical physics, at best questionable (1984, 54-55).

(12) It is also of some significance that C. S. Peirce was also a land-surveyor. Kafka's The Castle (in which the protagonist K. is a land-surveyor) and his short story "The Landsurveyor," which Deleuze and Guattari discuss in their Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, would also be relevant contexts.

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Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition (including "What is Postmodernism?"). Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pynchon, Thomas. 1966. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Bantam Books.

--. 1973. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Viking Press.

--. 1990. Vineland. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

--. 1997. Mason & Dixon. New York: Henry Holt.

Simpson, David. 1995. The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spellmeyer, Kurt. 1996. "After Theory: From Textuality to Attunement with the World." College English 58.8 (December 1996): 893-913.

Tomas, David. 1993. "Old Rituals for New Space: Rites de Passage and William Gibson's Cultural Model of Cyberspace." In Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. Michael Benedikt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

Virilio, Paul. 1995. The Art of the Motor. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

--. 1997. Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London and New York: Verso.

Wachowski, Andy and Larry Wachowski, directors. 1999. The Matrix. 136min. Warner Brothers.

Paula E. Geyh is an Assistant Professor of English at Yeshiva University. She is co-editor, with Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy, of Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (1998).
she [thinks] of the time she'd opened a
   transistor radio to replace a battery and
   [saw] her first printed circuit. The
   ordered swirl of houses and streets, from
   this high angle, sprang at her ... with the
   same unexpected, astonishing clarity as
   the circuit card had ... 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.
   (Pynchon 1966, 13)


"It's going to rain tonight" [Heinrich said.]

"It's raining now," I [that is, Jack] said.

"The radio said tonight...."

"Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend
belief in the evidence of our senses."

"Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they're
right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don't you know
about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems?
There's no past, present or future outside our own mind. The
so-called laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the
mind. Just because you don't hear a sound doesn't mean it's not
out there...."

"What if someone held a gun to your head?"

"Who, you?"

"Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to
your head and says, 'Is it raining or isn't it? All you have to do
is tell the truth and I'll put away my gun and take the next flight
out of here.'"

"What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone
traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy?
Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron
star? Maybe if these people could see us through a telescope we
might look like we're two feet two inches tall and it might be
raining yesterday instead of today."

"He's holding the gun to your head. He wants your truth."

"What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy
with the gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system?
What we call rain he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain.
So what am I supposed to tell him?"

"His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis."

"He wants to know if it's raining now, at this very minute."

"Here and now, that's right."

"Is there such a thing as now? 'Now' comes and goes as soon as
you say it.

How can I say it's raining now if your so-called 'now' becomes
'then' as soon as I say it?"

"You said there was no past, present, or future."

"Only in our verbs. That's the only place we find it."

"Rain is a noun. Is there rain here, in this precise locality at
whatever time within the next two minutes that you choose to respond
to the question?"

"If you want to talk about this precise locality while you're in
a vehicle that's obviously moving, then I think that's the trouble
with this discussion." (DeLillo 1984, 22-24)


"Just give me an answer, okay, Heinrich?"

"The best I could do is make a guess."

"Either it's raining or it isn't," I said.

"Exactly. That's my whole point. You'd be guessing. Six of one,
half dozen of the other."

"But you see it's raining."

"You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving
across the sky or is the earth turning?"

"I don't accept the analogy."

"You're so sure that's rain. How do you know it's not sulfuric
fallout from a war in China? You want an answer here and now.
Can you prove, here and now, that this stuff is rain? How do I
know that what you call rain is really rain? What is rain anyway?"

"It's the stuff that falls from the sky and gets you what is
called wet." (DeLillo 1984, 24)


"No one sees the barn," [Murray] said finally.

A long silence followed.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible
to see the barn...." He fell silent once more. People with cameras
left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one.
Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An
accumulation of nameless energies." There was an extended silence.
The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the
others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will
come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective
perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience
in a way, like all tourism." Another silence ensued.

"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking
of shutter releases buttons, the rustling crank of levers that
advanced the film.

"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said.
"What did it look like, how was it different from other barns,
how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions
because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the
pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura.
We're here, we're now."

He seemed immensely pleased by this. (DeLillo 1984, 12-13)


The video image is much more powerful and useful than an actual
event. Like, back when I used to go out, when I was last out ... I
was walking down a street, and this guy came barreling out of a bar,
fell right in front of me, and he had a knife right in his
back ... landed right on the ground. Well, I have no reference to
it now.... I can't press rewind, I can't put it on pause, I can't
put it on slow-mo and see all the little details. And the blood,
it was all wrong. It didn't look like blood. The hue was off, and
I couldn't even adjust the hue. There I was seeing it for real,
but it wasn't right. I didn't even see the knife impact on the
body.... I missed that part. (Linklater 1991)


"Many of us in the parsonical line of work," admits Wicks
   Cherrycoke, "find congenial the Mathematics, particularly the
   science of the fluxion [differential calculus]. Few may hope to
   have named for them, like the Referend Dr. Taylor, an Infinite
   Series, yet such steps, large and small, in the advancement of this
   most useful calculus, have provided us a Rack-ful of Tools for
   Analysis undreamed-of even a few years ago, tho' some must depend
   upon Epsilonics and Infinitesimalisms, and other sorts of Defective
   Zero. Is it the infinite that tempts us, or the Imp? Or is it
   merely our Vocational Habit, ancient as Kabala, of seeking God
   there, among the notation of these resonating Chains...."

   "Reminds me of America. Strange, some mornings I get up and I think
   I'm in America." Half Mountain, haft Bog, ev'ry other Soul in it
   nam'd O'Reilly, Oakboys with night Mischief in mind all about, this
   is frontier Country again, standing betwixt Ulster and the Dublin
   Pale, whilst of neither,--poor,--the mercy of Land-owners ... such
   as Lord Pennycomequick, the global-Communications Nabob, who now
   approaches Mason upon the Lawn, carrying in Coat-Pockets the size
   of Saddle-Bags four bottles of the Cheap Claret ev'rywhere to be
   found here, thanks to enterprising Irishmen in Bordeaux. "In my
   family since the Second Charles," he calls in greeting. (Pynchon
   1997, 721)
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