rhizomes.05 fall 2002

Conspiracy of Commodities: Postmodern Encyclopedic Narrative and Crowdedness
Alan Clinton

The object, just as easily as the subject, may assume the burden of ideology (of signs and meanings). By conceiving of the subject without an object (the pure thinking 'I' or res cogitans), and of an object without a subject (the body-as-machine or res extensa), philosophy created an irrevocable rift in what it was trying to define.
--Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space p. 406

I. Introduction

[1] In 1976, Edward Mendelson used the novel Gravity's Rainbow in order to introduce a genre that had "never previously been identified"(161), the "encyclopedic narrative." A cynical reading of his essay (published in a volume on Thomas Pynchon entitled Mindful Pleasures) [1] would view the new genre as Mendelson's excuse to glorify his favorite novelist, for his definition of "encyclopedic authors" is extremely exclusive: Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Goethe, Melville, Joyce, and of course, Pynchon. Yet, Mendelson does provide a set of criteria for encyclopedic narratives which extends beyond their exceptional authors: 1) they all include an extensive account of at least one technology or science; 2) they are an encyclodedia of literary styles; 3) they all provide a history of language (are metalinguistic); 4) they all propose a theory of social organization.

[2] What seems apparent from reading Mendelson's essay today, however, is that it introduced a provocative term which has outlived its own definition. This is not to Mendelson's discredit, however, as the same fate has, for instance, accompanied Jacques Lacan's phrase "the unconscious is structured like a language," or for that matter, Guy Debord's "society of the spectacle." Such terms, as Robert Ray has noted, have played an intriguing role in the history of philosophic discourse: "these terms and phrases, while committed to writing, remained elusive, inchoate, quasi-oral charms. As such they enticed, beckoned, fostered work"(132). Mendelson's term is enticing, and yet the idea of the encyclopedic narrative deserves much more attention than the dozen or so articles and dissertations that have been published on the topic, especially given the plethora of postmodern novels which aspire to the general criteria Mendelson sets forth. [2]

[3] Novelists themselves, in fact, seem to be the ones who have responded most vigorously to Mendelson's term, or at least to the conditions which made it viable. There are many possible reasons for this response, including the influential wake left by Gravity's Rainbow. Someone perusing Mendelson's essay would probably also note that two of the encyclopedic work's previously most idiosyncratic features, an extensive account of technology and a theory of language, have attained a central position in our postmodern, information-based technoculture. Academia's counterpart to this new culture would be, at least in the humanities, the post-1968 rise of cultural and literary theory. Thus, I have chosen to begin my exploration of this new trend with a novel by Umberto Eco, a professional semiotician. Eco, by incorporating the combinatorial powers of computer technology into the plot of Foucault's Pendulum, offers a theory of commodity-language in the era of late capitalism that, interestingly enough, mirrors the original object of Mendelson's focus, Gravity's Rainbow.

[4] This essay therefore argues, using these two novels that feature a possessive case in the title and thus introduce the implicit theme of ownership, that contemporary encyclopedic narratives enact an aesthetic of crowdedness that relates to their situation in the era of late capitalism. As encyclopedias are volumes literally jam-packed with information, they provide a fitting model for the novelistic method of an era in which our powers of information and commodity production have reached previously unforeseen levels. Indeed, the organizing logic of the modern encyclopedia, at least since 1771, has been defined by compaction, privatization, and accumulation(Rauch 24-7). Consequently, it is not a matter of course (despite what many critics have asserted) that contemporary encyclopedic texts merely unleash vast fields of play, indeterminacy, chaotic rhetoric, or deranged narrative, characteristics which are arguably as much a characteristic of modernist writing as of postmodern narrative. Instead, they are visions of a contemporary nightmare as much as they are interpretive utopias, at least for the characters featured within the narratives themselves. While Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow finds himself, often wearing highly visible costumes, pursued throughout Europe by the V-2 and its motley associates, the editors of the "Isis Unveiled" series in Foucault's Pendulum use computers to produce a narrative that is immediately appropriated by an occult society that more resembles I.G. Farben than the Golden Dawn. These nightmares, I would argue, are spatial dystopias resulting from the fear that the individual may literally be crowded out in a culture capable of saturating both physical and mental space with commodities. At the beginning of the 20th century, a newly secularized society invested commodities with an almost magical power to confer meaning to identity. By the end of that same century, some writers have envisioned commodity production as a force that can erase individual identity altogether. My reading thus assumes that contemporary encyclopedic narratives share an historical epistemology that to some extent determines their form and content.

[5] The key justification for this mode of analysis comes from Henri Lefebvre's call for a "psychoanalysis of space"(315) in his groundbreaking work The Production of Space. Lefebvre designates the category of space as a privileged, though underrepresented, site of materialist analysis. Yet space, for Lefebvre, is not merely composed of the architecture in which one lives and works, but necessarily involves the whole spectrum of one's social activities. Inasmuch as Foucault's Pendulum and Gravity's Rainbow participate in the realist tradition, they can be analyzed in terms of characters who move about in such spaces. But the novels themselves comprise textual spaces, verbal economies that participate in more general economies of late capitalist, global culture. Ultimately, these two types of spaces cannot be separated, and so my analysis will oscillate between these two areas. It is my hope that this essay will spur research into other contemporary writers (encyclopedic or otherwise) and how their works address issues of space in relation to subjectivity and commodification.

II. Foucault's Pendulum

[6] Foucault's Pendulum begins and ends with, is framed by, scenes in a museum, thereby suggesting the importance of museum space to the novel's consciousness. Indeed, as Fredric Jameson and others have suggested, the museum may be the very emblem of postmodern culture(115). At the very least, one may see the museum as a three dimensional encyclopedia, one whose organizational strategies are up for dispute: "Why should this cubicle, a thing so positivist-scientific, a thing out of Verne, stand beside the emblematic lion and serpent"(Eco 14). Casaubon, the narrator of Eco's novel, finds his mind bombarded by such questions even though he has more important problems at hand. He must find a place to hide within the museum itself so that he may witness the occult ritual to occur after museum hours, a task that will cause some discomfort. As the ritual is taking place underneath Foucault's Pendulum, which is housed in a museum of technology, Casaubon contemplates a number of vehicles to hide within, but they all make you, according to Casaubon, "picture yourself chained to a rack, something digging into your flesh until you confess"(7).

[7] Thus, the novel's opening scene foregrounds an image of the human form twisted amongst the relics of a technoculture based on obsolescence. The space of the body is made to conform to the space of the always already passé object whose immediate fossilization is ensured by the logics of progress and accumulation. Eco makes this issue one of identity itself by placing Casaubon before Lavoisier's mirrors which can cause one's entire reflection to disappear with the slightest (wrong) move. It is with great effort that Casaubon explains to himself, "You know what museums are, no one's ever been devoured by the Mona Lisa"(11). Unfortunately, the very theme of this novel is that one can indeed be devoured by the Mona Lisa, or more accurately by her endless reproductions. Casaubon must in fact be devoured by an object in order to make himself invisible to the museum guards. Causabon's relationship to the museum objects, like the subject's relationship to capital, is one that "offers up its own particular space, as it were, for analysis and overall theoretical explication"(Lefebvre 31). The "particular space," in this case, is one created by Eco's own awareness of the subject's relationship to the hyperproduction of late capitalism. Eco situates the contemporaneity of his narrative by making a computer central to the plot, a machine that Casaubon describes as "inorganic, objective, obedient, nonmoral, transistorized and so humanly inhuman that it enabled [Belbo] to forget his chronic nervousness about life"(21). Consequently, the main characters' computerized encounter with occultism is also an entrance into the postmodern world of simulation, spectacle, and cyborgs. The machine's purpose is a combinatory one--to shuffle the texts that have been sent to the Isis Unveiled series run by the editors. It is, according to Causabon's girlfriend, a quintessentially postmodern purpose: "You sometimes seem profound, but it's only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth"(44). Belbo and others, including Deleuze and Guattari, would probably respond that there is nothing but surfaces. There has never been anything but surfaces, but this fact has not until recently, when "the most controversial notions of textualism expressed by recent French critics. . . are simply literal qualities of hypermedia"(Ulmer 21), received the sort of emphasis that only computer technology can grant.

[8] The proliferation of surfaces matches the cynicism of the editors. Casaubon, a graduate student just after the 1968 uprisings, chose to study at the University of Milan because it was one of the only places in Europe where one could "spend the morning debating proletarian matters downstairs and the afternoon pursuing aristocratic knowledge upstairs"(45). Eco's relationship to these events, I would argue, is not nearly so ironic as that of his characters. If one reads Foucault's Pendulum as sort of a mystery story, then its genre demands that no detail is unrelated to the situation at hand. Thus, Causabon's very disregard for the May 68 revolution ensures that he will fall victim to the dangers the revolutionaries warned about. Guy Debord, leader of the Situationist movement that was a main inspiration for the May 68 revolutionaries, described how, in the postwar era, subjects faced not only a quantitative alienation but a qualitative one as well, "in advertising, publicity, media: instances of the general form of the 'spectacle'"(Wollen 126). One's social alienation was expressed, in disguised form, as a relation to images(Debord 4). The very technologies which helped produce this qualitative shift eventually led to the sort of digital technology represented by Belbo's computer and a previously unimaginable "society of the spectacle."

[9] In Milan, Casaubon is writing his dissertation on the Templars, a medieval society dedicated to conquering the Holy Land for Christianity. The Crusades, in this contemporary context, thus form a condensed image of global capitalism. But the Templars in particular, as Casaubon explains, "'invented the checking account long before the bankers of Florence. . . . the Templars became a multinational'"(74). Perhaps this postmodern aspect of the group, as much as Casaubon's desire to please his audience, makes him describe the Templars as "characters out of a cartoon"(76). Whatever the case, their constant crusading embodies a self-perpetuating logic reminiscent of capital itself(80). Eventually, the Templars became so wealthy as to excite the envy of potentates. The conspiracies against them, involving the charges of homosexuality, heresy, and idolatry that the Templars are now famous for, were invoked by the Templars' precocious economic policies.

[10] Considering these things, the reemergence of the Templars in Eco's late capitalist narrative is not as unmotivated as one might previously have supposed. Indeed, their very confessions take the postmodern form of simulation. As Casaubon paraphrases their confessions, "'Yes, it's all true, but it was only a game, nobody really believed in it'"(84). The chapters move almost seamlessly from tales of the Templars to stories of Situationist demonstrations until, at the sound of a gun, Casaubon finds himself "running along Via Larga, with the mad fear of being hit by some blunt object"(92). He is allegedly saved by Belbo, who leads him into some narrow side streets, but in reality a knell of crowdedness has sounded, a sound that will echo throughout the rest of the novel. Two years after hearing a crackpot theory from an amateur Templars scholar who then turns up missing, Casaubon (who has moved to Brazil) receives a letter from Belbo describing an occult ritual he secretly observed in order to find out more about the Templars. With "walls [that] were draped with banners covered with cabalistic signs, an abundance of owls of all kinds, scarabs and ibises, and Oriental divinities of uncertain origin"(141), the ritual becomes an emblem, one whose variations will appear again and again, of the novel's own crowded aesthetic. The letter has a powerful effect on Casaubon, making him feel "like a walking blender"(146).

[11] Belbo's letter, which seems to hold a fetishistic power, sends Casaubon into a period of occult searching in which Marxism threatens to become the most unreal of philosophies. The most charismatic person Casaubon meets during this time, an independently wealthy expert on esotericism named Agliè, flippantly states, "'Historical materialism. . . . Oh, yes, I believe I've heard of it. An apocalyptic cult that came out of the Trier region. Am I right?'"(154). And indeed, Casaubon's militant girlfriend Amparo finds herself taking, much to her chagrin, a Pentecostal role in the rituals which Agliè allows them to observe for (ostensibly) educational purposes. A year or two later, when Belbo and Casaubon reunite to begin their money-making publishing scheme called Isis Unveiled, they consult Agliè in order to screen manuscripts, making sure they are erudite enough to fool the hacks but entertaining enough to appeal to the masses. At the onset of the endeavor, Belbo makes a comment which signals the ideology of the Manutius Publishing Company they work for: "Casaubon, publishing is an art, not a science. Let's not think like revolutionaries, eh? Those days are past"(216). Yet, the novel's eventual course suggests a nightmare vision of what can happen when one doesn't think like a revolutionary.

[12] It would be somewhat banal if Eco were merely suggesting that esotericism had become commodified in the late capitalist era. It is far more interesting to ask what elements of late capitalism itself are esoteric--even occult--in nature, and perhaps even more interesting to speculate what may happen if those elements are ignored. The ghostly, spiritual nature of commodities, for instance, is fundamental to the notion of commodity fetishism which, according to Marx, characterizes the capitalist process as a whole(Pietz 130). And yet, the spectrality of the commodity form lies not in its invisibility, but in an opaque, fetishized materiality that is able to mask the social relations which have devoloped its exchange value. Thus, the commodity as fetish object bears the property of erasure, of occultation.

[13] In Foucault's Pendulum, then, one witnesses the commodity form in a state of "becoming occult" rather than the occult becoming commodified. The men of Manutius press are businessmen who begin the Isis Unveiled series in order to make money; they are not occultists who compromise their values and "sell out" to the market. Thus, Eco plays with occultation as an economic concept in two ways. First, he uses imagery of the occult in order to suggest the uncanny nature of the commodity form whose system of valuation is occluded in the commodity fetish. Second, he suggests how such occlusion extends to human endeavor and even to human subjectivity itself. This occultation, for instance, literally overtakes Casaubon's main project up to this point, a book on the history of metal. When the project has already been sent out to the "compositors and proofreaders," Casaubon is instructed to convert it to "a big volume [on the occult], four hundred pages, dazzling full-color plates. . . . Reusing some of the graphics from the history of metals"(307). In this formulation, the quintessential raw material (metal) is made a commodity by becoming occult; Eco thus describes a sort of alchemy of commodification where materials turn to "gold" via their occultation. It is an alchemy that overtakes Casaubon himself, who is compared to a psychiatrist who writes "pages on delirium, then pages of delirium"(308). In traditional Marxist terms, Casaubon moves from producing commodities to becoming one himself, which occurs as a matter of course "under the pressure of the abstraction necessitated by exchange"(Keenan 166). Causabon's products, his labor, and ultimately his very subjectivity tend to behave in accordance with the system which produces their initial conditions of existence.

[14] If so many elements of Foucault's Pendulum yield to traditional Marxist analysis, one may well wonder why an author like Eco is so fascinated by these issues in the late 1980s. Furthermore, why do these issues take such a strange, excessive form as they do? Indeed, Foucault's Pendulum "can be seen as a further pursuit of this mania, an overindulgence in what it would, apparently, dismiss"(Kirkpatrick 174). Eco's critique thus compromises itself by romancing the commodity form rather than condemning it outright. Many critics would take issue, in fact, with the idea that Eco has any interest in economic theory at all. Most of what has been published on the novel reads Foucault's Pendulum as a veiled attack on the excesses of deconstruction, one made more explicit in Eco's critical writings. While I do not wish to wholly dismiss this approach, uninteresting as it may be at times, I would argue that it has many problems. First of all, it rather naively relies upon Eco to be the interpreter of his own work, a right he would himself waive, as he in fact does in Postscript to The Name of the Rose: "The narrator should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text"(7). Furthermore, reading Foucault's Pendulum as a merely academic debate would deny the sense of political commitment felt by many European intellectuals. As Eco explains in a preface to the American edition of Travels in Hyperreality, "In the United States politics is a profession, whereas in Europe it is a right and a duty"(xi). Thus, what may sound like traditional Marxism in American academic circles may, for a European scholar such as Eco, merely signal an ongoing political commitment. [3]

[15] Eco's preface also gives another clue as to why Foucault's Pendulum takes the form that it does: "I believe it is my job as a scholar and a citizen to show how we are surrounded by 'messages,' products of political power, of economic power"(xi). This notion of being surrounded evokes the same fear embodied in the novel itself, but explicitly situates it in terms of the spectacle. In late capitalist culture, one is surrounded by a seemingly infinite number of commodified messages. The ease with which such messages are produced and disseminated, combined with the multinationalist state's unprecedented productive capacity, creates a greater sense of crowdedness than ever before. While technological innovations like the computer used by the editors of Isis Unveiled rightly increase one's sense of empowerment, they can also result in a sense of spatial imprisonment where "data collection and computer science abolish distance"(Lefebvre 334), all too often in the name of endless commodity production. Thus, the problems of identity originally articulated by Marx take on an exponential significance in an era where commodity fetishism still rules but commodities themselves are fundamentally different in nature. The unprecedented power of specular production comes in large part, as Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi realize, from the speed made possible by computer technology: "'Then the program randomizes the line numbers. In other words, a new arrangement each time. With ten lines you can make thousands and thousands of random poems'"(311). Awareness of this amoral technology allows the three to begin combining the manuscripts of the very occultists who will eventually do them in. The three are thus, without the benefit of a semiotician like Eco around, surrounded and ultimately strangled by messages.

[16] After Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi fabricate a conspiracy of global proportions, [4] the "Diabolicals" who feel they are the modern day inheritors of the Templars decide they must wrest the secret from Belbo. They take him to the museum where the novel began and, in the presence of a newly reconstructed Pendulum, demand a revelation. After having hidden in a periscope until closing time, Casaubon now watches the proceedings from a sentry box where he hides after "squeezing past the left side of Gramme, a tight fit, painful, even sucking in [his] stomach" (479). While Robert Phiddian (542) reads the "Gramme" reference as one of many clues to the reader that Eco's novel is a sustained discourse on poststructuralist theory, there is no reason not to explore the more obvious connection to the inventor of the Gramme dynamo. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that a museum dedicated to the history of technology should choose to display a statue of the man rather than a replica of his machine. His ossified form, suggesting the human subject's reification, is a fitting object with which to crowd Casaubon at the novel's end. For, witnessing Belbo's murder, Casaubon is confronted with his friend's ultimate reification.

[17] The fact that Signor Garamond (owner of the press producing the Isis Unveiled series) is one of the Diabolicals who sacrifice Belbo further emphasizes the readiness of these events for an economic reading. The "Plan" created by Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi occurs within the corporation in a manner analogous to childbirth. Indeed, concurrent with the development of the Plan is the pregnancy of Lia, Casaubon's girlfriend. The two of them refer to the baby, interestingly, as "The Thing," a moniker also given to Diatollevi on his deathbed. Furthermore, the immediate "incorporation" of the Plan by the Diabolicals, which literally chokes the life out of Belbo, suggests a commodity system of perpetual and instantaneous efficiency. Creativity can only occur within this system, and its incorporation is synonymous with the erasure of the producer. While this nightmare vision may not constitute Eco's own ideology, who theorizes semiotic guerilla warfare against the multinational state, it is the overwhelming emotion left by the novel. The medieval document which originally inspired the Plan may only be, as Lia suggests, a laundry list, but the Plan itself is a laundry list that, subjected to the high-speed occultation of late capitalism, is greatly to be feared.

III. Gravity's Rainbow

[18] While not as thoroughly occult in focus as Foucault's Pendulum, Gravity's Rainbow (1973) achieves a sense of magic with its V-2 rocket that could, arguably, be read as the novel's protagonist: "He won't hear the [rocket] come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you're still around, you hear the sound of it coming in"(7). In the novel's opening section, the rocket achieves a certain immateriality, even a spirituality, due to its excessive speed. As Jean Baudrillard writes in Le système des objets, "Mobility without effort constitutes a kind of unreal happiness, a suspension of existence. . . . At more than a hundred miles an hour, there's a presumption of eternity"(qtd. in Ross 21). One can only imagine what Baudrillard's response would be if he were in the character Gottfried's position at novel's end, strapped to the rocket itself for one final, eroticized ride. The "Rocket," for Pynchon capitalizes it to emphasize both its holy status and its metonymic relation to postwar culture, falls into the present, towards the "last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre"(760), and is still falling, or, as Baudrillard would have it, has always already fallen: "Everything has already become nuclear, faraway, vaporized. The explosion has already occurred; the bomb is only a metaphor now"(qtd. in Materer 129). But what exactly is the nature of this material metaphor, this Rocket of the apocalypse as embodied in Pynchon's protagonist?

[19] One of the things that Pynchon makes clear is that the capitalized Rocket doesn't belong to Germany, but to everyone: "a million bureacrats are diligently plotting death and some of them even know it"(17). It is involved with business as well as death, revealing an intimate, yet transnational relationship between the two. The cartel most intimately associated with the German war effort, I.G. Farben, "controlled about 350 German firms, had linkages with more than 500 foreign firms, and was the biggest and strongest industrial organization in the world"(Moore 139). It was, in short, the prototype for the multinational corporations we now associate with late capitalism. In fact, it was American corporations who mounted the strongest opposition to "German" decartelization after the war(Moore 144). As Khachig Tololyan puts it, "[The Rocket] is both a product and a symbol of the kind of activity that Western technological society [as a whole] idealizes"(52).

[20] Despite these international credentials, the Rocket is also involved on a personal level with Tyrone Slothrop, who "has become obsessed with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it"(25). Only, Slothrop's "obsession" is less paranoid than at first glance, as he begins to realize the coincidence between his carnal affairs and the rocket's trajectory: "There is in his history, and likely, God help him, in his dossier, a peculiar sensitivity to what is revealed in the sky. (But a hardon?)"(26). Slothrop's attraction to the V-2, uncanny as it may be, combines the sexual and economic meanings of fetishism. [5] Jacques Lacan, in fact, shows how "the Freudian subject and the subject of capitalism are inextricably related"(Freedman 17) because they are historically coincident. Lacan himself, for that matter, would qualify as a member of the "White Visitation" designed to study oddballs like Slothrop.

[21] One of the Visitation's actual members, a Pavlovian named Pointsman, reveals, in his very attempts to demystify Slothrop, just how uncanny this fetishism can seem: "he can feel them coming, days in advance. But it's a reflex. A reflex to something that's in the air right now. Something we're too coarsely put together to sense"(49). If there could ever be a mystical form of behaviorism, it would sound identical to Pointsman's explanation. The relationships between objects and their subjects cannot be reduced to linear models, for such relationships beg "the question of how we could bring materials into history as something other than the [official] history of their use"(Brown 9). In other words, how can we access the very strangeness of objects in their itinerary inside and outside of the regulated spaces of contemporary capitalism, what Bill Brown calls "the secret life of things." Of course, a writer who seeks to access this "secret life" is, by foregrounding things rather than characters, reversing the traditional humanist focus of literature. Thus, the frequent discussion of Pynchon's "flat" or "unbelievable" characters, which have plagued Pynchon criticism from the very beginning(Siegel 44), may criticize him for failing to achieve something he never attempted in the first place.

[22] One of the things we learn from reading Gravity's Rainbow is that a light bulb, or a Rocket, can be as "alive" as anything else. "There is a Bulb Baby Heaven"(647), Pynchon's narrator informs us, and light bulbs named Byron. And yet, the bulbs' very animation gives them a sinister, crowding power:

Now and then a roach [who could very well be Slothrop] shows up on the floor, and all the Babies try to roll over to look. . . glowing feebly at the bewildered roach sitting paralyzed out on the bare boards, rushing, reliving the terror of some sudden blast of current out of nowhere and high overhead the lambent, all seeing Bulb.(648)

Here, the crowding takes a specular, virtual form, an "illumination" that is akin to information which "by its nature is mobile and bodiless and will as a matter of course penetrate everywhere"(Moore 171). [6] The mobile, bodiless nature of commodities in the information age is in turn mirrored by the highly visible, and thus artificially crowding, costumes Slothrop wears throughout the novel. At the Casino Hermann Goering, owned by "one César Flebótomo" who "hasn't yet found time to change the place's occupation name," Slothrop dons a Hawaiiain shirt which his companions suggest is visible for ten miles(184). Such a shirt immediately erases space in a manner reminiscent of David Lamelas's installation Situation of Time, in which the otherwise empty gallery is lined with "seventeen state-of-the-art television sets":

Since the space of the gallery had been transformed in its entirety into an area of media reception, all sculptural options for physical and tactile interaction with objects, all opportunities for the enactment of perceptual conventions and bodily phenomenology were dissolved, and the traditional questions concerning sculpture and architectural space appeared to be surpassed in one single gesture. (Buchloh 319)

In Slothrop's sartorial installation, it is almost as if he is using the language of the spectacle to respond to the sensation, developed back in London, that he is being watched. Pynchon's narrator describes the shirt as having "comic-book colors"(186), thereby linking the shirt's high visibility to mass media. [7] Thus, in Gravity's Rainbow characters may appear less than well-rounded, but Pynchon also makes it clear that, in the novel's world, a shirt is never just a shirt.

[23] Determining the novel's world is crucial to understanding the importance of commodity-objects in Gravity's Rainbow. While the setting of Foucault's Pendulum is roughly coincident with its time of production and publication, the events narrated in Gravity's Rainbow occur almost 30 years before its publication date. This discrepancy foregrounds the problem not only of whether or not to read Gravity's Rainbow as a historical novel, [8] but also the problem of defining exactly what sort of entity an historical novel may be. As Fredric Jameson suggests in Postmodernism, the historical novel as such may no longer exist(283). Instead, "what is at stake is essentially a process of reification whereby we draw back from our immersion in the here and now (not yet identified as a 'present') and grasp it as a kind of thing"(284). Consequently, it may not only be incomplete, but even misleading, to read Gravity's Rainbow as an historical novel about the end of WWII, even if that war was the greatest in a history of wars which created "the space of history, of accumulation, of investment, and the basis of imperialism by means of which the economic sphere would eventually come into its own"(Lefebvre 277). Rather, the novel uses this time period as a way of imagining an as yet unnamed, undescribed present even as it recognizes the war's role in creating that present. One must thus follow the Rocket's trajectory into the emerging postmodern moment and read the novel accordingly.

[24] This means that, in addition to reading Gravity's Rainbow in relation to our postmodern proliferation of information and commodities, one must remember how these increased powers of production relate to the individual's awareness, however mediated, that "no free market exists today in the realm of oligopolies and multinationals"(Jameson 266). In fact, it is this combination of unprecedented production and regulation that characterizes both the form and themes of contemporary encyclopedic narrative. Thus, I find readings of the "amoral and free postwar Zone"(Severijnen 338) in Gravity's Rainbow to be a bit naive in their predictable valorization of indeterminacy, reminiscent of Marjorie Perloff's attempts to redeem Ezra Pound's Cantos as "dadaist, quintessentially open"(177). In a lot of ways, the indeterminate nationality of the Zone is less representative of a unique moment in political history than a burgeoning displacement of politics by economics in the era of globalization. "Don't forget," Pynchon's narrator reminds us, "the real business of the War is buying and selling"(105). Thus, for a cartel like I.G. Farben, the Zone is a political realization of a transnational system of transactions occurring not only before and after, but during the War.

[25] It is "In the Zone" that a narrator chooses to reveal Slothrop's "paper misfortune." Lyle Bland, who sat on the board of directors for a Massachusetts paper mill called Slothrop Paper Company, had become involved with a German firm the narrator describes as "a super-cartel that was both horizontal and vertical"(284). When Slothrop, disguised as a British war correspondent, investigates these details, "he reads his name without that much surprise"(285). We too should read his name with little surprise, as Slothrop's experience is meant to be generalizable. In the tradition of Pilgrim's Progress, Slothrop's journies read as the fantastic account of an archetypal (at least for late capitalism) set of experiences. Rather than feeling surprised, Slothrop experiences a suffocating dread: "A gasbag surrounds his head, rubbery, vast, pushing in from all sides, that feeling we all know, yes, but. . . He is also getting a hardon, for no immediate reason"(285). That "feeling we all know" is the combined sense of desire and entrapment that characterizes one's semi-alienated experience of late capitalism, an experience embodied in the "erectile" suits made of a plastic called Imipolex G. Our greatest fear as privileged members of this era is that we will enjoy the suffocating erasure of consumerism, which amounts to a surrender to something over which we felt we had no control anyway. Like Slothrop's hardons, our responses are stimulated with a Pavlovian certainty.

[26] Rationalizing these fears as paranoia does little good when one realizes that this neurosis irrationally animates the external world in a manner that is analogous to commodity fetishism itself. If, as Victor Burgin argues in his essay "Paranoiac Space," paranoiacs "do not clearly differentiate themselves from other people and things"(128), then it barely makes sense to term paranoia a "neurosis" in an urbanized capitalist world. Or, at the very least, paranoia is the neurosis of capitalism. Yet, it is a neurosis that is limited to the subject's early or incomplete experience of the phenomenon. When (and if) the weight of one's commodified surroundings reaches a certain critical mass, the end result may in fact be a schizophrenic implosion, what Henri Lefebvre calls "the absurdity of a pulverized reality"(317). It is this sort of pulverization, I think, rather than any abstract account of postmodern subjectivity per se, which accounts for Slothrop's disintegration at the end of the novel. Slothrop is "Scattered all over the Zone," as we all are, and can't be found by the "Counterforce" because they (and we) "are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that's a hard fact"(712). In this formulation, the Body Without Organs has become a scattered anticollection of objects. [9]

[27] And yet, this is not the end of the story for Slothrop, since his dispersion results in "fragments of Slothrop [that] have grown into consistent personae of their own"(742). This "personification" of fragments corresponds to the recuperative property of commodity fetishism. When everything, including subjects and their social relations, take on the property of things, this reification demands an inherently false but always compelling reanimation. In the early 20th-century, this reanimation took the form of endowing commodities with almost magical qualities resulting in "the proliferation of objects as aids to selfhood"(Leonard 11). Slothrop's "personae," however, are not so much prosthetic aids as completely independent, fetishized commodity-subjects. They represent a schizophrenic nightmare version of a tension already developing in the early 20th-century: "Modernity, then, is the fierce attempt to affirm identity and power over objects in the face of the impossibility to do so, even as the amount and variety of objects inviting us to try, escalates with unprecedented rapidity"(Ibid.) The end of Gravity's Rainbow, then, posits the moment when the proliferation of objects surrounding the subject cross over and become part of the postmodern, specular subject itself, a subject which might not be visible, and might not exist.

IV. Conclusion

[28] As gloomy as the narratives of Foucault's Pendulum and Gravity's Rainbow might seem, it does little good to view the worlds they refer to as closed systems. As Edward Mendelson asserts, the writing of an encyclopedic narrative is a political act because such a narrative "superimposes a theory of social organization, normally a theory which offers itself implicitly for use outside the book"(172). This theory of organization does not assert that a given set of structures is the only one possible at a particular moment, but it does imply that meaningfully changing a given social organization cannot occur without an adequate understanding of its structuration. It is easy to forget, in the postmodern desire for deterritorialization, that creating lines of flight from a given stratum (to use the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari) requires a sufficient mapping of the territory one is fleeing. I read Foucault's Pendulum and Gravity's Rainbow as strange yet accurate maps of the relationship between the late capitalist subject and late capitalist space, maps whose lines of flight can only, given their materialist focus, lead outside the texts where they originated. These two novels not only transgress the division between subjects and their objects, but also combine the narrative and expository modes of writing in new ways, offering up a mode of theory that "contributes to the dismantling of society by exposing what gnaws at it from within, from the core of its 'prosperity'"(Lefebvre 420). Consequently, they do not merely fill up more space with each successive printing; they actually produce new spaces, for those willing to explore them, of both theory and praxis. Both Foucault's Pendulum and Gravity's Rainbow push the encyclopedic form in a utopian direction by embodying Lefebvre's thesis that only the production of new space can allow one to move, however tentatively, beyond current spatial paradigms.



[1] That same year, Mendelson also published a shorter essay called "Encyclopedic Narrative from Dante to Pynchon" in MLN.

[2] A brief list (both incomplete and debatable in its own right) of postwar authors who might vie for consideration as "encyclopedic" include Walter Abish, Kathy Acker, John Barth, Jorges Luis Borges, Octavia Butler, Douglas Coupland, Evan Dara, Don Delillo, Umberto Eco, Günter Grass, William Gaddis, William Gibson, Gabriel García Márquez, James A. Michener, Georges Perec, Richard Powers, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Queneau, Ishmael Reed, Salman Rushdie, Bob Shacochis, Leslie Marmon Silko, Phillipe Sollers, William T. Vollman, David Foster Wallace, and Rebecca West.

[3] Fredric Jameson develops this idea at length in his chapter on Sartre in Marxism and Form. back

[4] concerning the underground, telluric currents alleged to control the earth's surface.

[5] The African tribe of the Hereros, who search for rocket 00001 as a "substitute totem"(Seed 182), ensure that the Rocket is a fetish in the anthropological sense of the word as well.

[6] Alec McHoul and David Houls situate this specular crowding in relation to the novel's fixation with cinema: "film is not only out to shoot Slothrop, no one escapes it. Not even the director, Pointsman, can stay out of camera range"(40).

[7] As well as, remember, Casaubon's depiction of the Templars.

[8] And, as Tololyan also points out, the fact that a 760 page novel about WWII barely even mentions Hitler or the Holocaust ensures readers that Gravity's Rainbow "must be shaped by a peculiar vision"(56) that disqualifies it from being considered as a traditional historical novel.

[9] Which, incidentally, is how Pynchon first introduces to Slothrop. Readers encounter Slothrop's excessively cluttered, excessively described desk, and the implicity suggestion is that Slothrop's "fate" at the end of the novel is really a sort of return to origins.


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