The tower

by Suspended Reason

Molly Hitte, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon:

Gravity’s Rainbow itself seems held at the edge of discovery. In its encyclopedic scope, the novel appears dedicated to the proposition that everything is connected: there are insinuated links between synthetic polymerization and the evolution of the earth; between astrophysics and psychic phenomena; between African dialects and Rilkean poetics; between international cartels and Freemasonry; between comic books and covenant theology; between Orphism, Parsifalism, Tannhaüserism, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X; between German idealism, Pavlovian psychology, and the American cult of the good-guy loner. Just as these links could be extended, so the connections reach out in all directions, associating disparate bodies of knowledge in such intricate configurations that the universe seems on the point of cohering like a giant molecule dreamed by some macrocosmic Kekulé. But the novel remains at the level of secondary illumination and leading edges. The synthetic dream never occurs. The text refuses to yield a culminating vision of the universe as blindingly One…

One of the themes that keeps arising, in various Discords & reading groups I’m part of—including, of course, TIS—is the failure and impossibility of totalizing codes. We try to get to the bottom” of reality, and unify all our understanding into a single coherent picture, only to find that bottom, that coherence, continually eluding us. At some point we stop looking.

There are three ways—all treated at length by Pynchon—that the world stays mysterious to us, refuses to fully yield, defies attempts at a final, complete and coherent conceptualization.

First is the passage of time, and the inevitable information loss through material degradation, which is unrecoverable. We can never know what was spoken in an anonymous English sitting room in 1708, because the soundwaves did not leave a sufficiently lasting imprint in the environment. Perhaps they were partially written down, but the paper was destroyed. Perhaps they were only inscribed neuronally, but the individuals who remembered died without re-inscribing the information in print. Most of historical happenings are unrecoverable in this way.

Second is the active obfuscation of information by interested agents. Perhaps there is a record—whether meat-memory or ink-print—of what was said last year in a Defense Department conference room. But it is closely guarded; the information exists, but is suppressed. Moreover, any information that has leaked about the conference room discussion—which has escaped suppression—may still be strategically obfuscated through the emission of further information by interested parties (e.g. the DoD)—thus further confusing the situation. There may have once been sufficient information to make a reasonable guess about the contents of the conversation, but there is now insufficient information, not because there is less information available but, quasi-paradoxically, because there is more.

Finally, there is the simple fact of the terrain’s complexity, of the Borgesian map that is so vast it cannot be written or spoken. When dealing with inexactitude, we are dealing with lossy compression, and there will always be parts of the world which are left out. Pynchon thought of these left-out excesses through a frankenhybrid of Gödelian Incompleteness and Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and whatever can go wrong is whatever endless-excess-complexity has been excluded from your model. Which partial model we choose becomes a matter of pragmatism: the question is what you want to do with it.

We might call the first type paleontological or archaeological indeterminacy; the second type, strategic or ecological indeterminacy; the third type, pragmatic or ontological indeterminacy.