5. A Screening Comes Across the Eye

...this net is full of folks like me. They can't create anything but a string of words, but those words can create anything.
John Pugh@Livermore National Laboratory
posting on USENET, 1987

In such circumstances, paranoia blossoms into a fully configured world-view. "The era of function and of the signified has revolved, the era of the signifier and the code is beginning," Baudrillard proclaimed at the end of the sixties (Political Economy of the Sign, 198). At about the same time, Thomas Pynchon was making much of I.P. Pavlov's erroneous but provocative etiology of dementia paranoides: :a cerebral short circuit causing the collapse of cognitive binaries or "ideas of the opposite" (Gravity's Rainbow, 48-49). As both Pynchon and Baudrillard recognize, this convergent dualism leads to far more than mere delusions of persecution or conspiracy. It suggests a world of autoreferential or self-organizing systems, a world not dreamed of in our conventional metanarratives. It is a world (pace Jameson) not of purely dissociated simulacra, but one in which contingent associations may be indistinguishable from necessity or determination. Thus the strange fate of the conspiracy novel. Le Carré's disgust with secret writing and DeLillo's fascination with the deathward drift of conspiracy both partake of an anxiety (indeed an hysteria) generated by the confusion of ostensibly external and internal states: accident and intentionality, history and text, the real and the hyperreal.

In the mid-sixties Pynchon imagined this convergence as a cognitive decadence, a sort of intellectual fetishism. There seemed to be glorious possibilities in paranoia. "The saint whose water can light lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from" (Crying of Lot 49, 95). But after the annus mirabilis of paranoia (1973-74) things began to change as is apparent in Pynchon's fiction from the period, particularly in the transition from The Crying of Lot 49 to Gravity's Rainbow. The earlier novella (published in 1966) ends with a celebrated suspension, Oedipa Maas waiting for an utterance that will either confirm or deny her belief in the Tristero conspiracy. The "crying" of the title (a transaction at a stamp auction) indicates a revelation or informational apocalypse. The last page of the text leaves us on the brink of this disclosure, but we are led to believe that even if we cannot hear (or read) it, the word will come: yes or no, one or zero, Inside or Out.

Though it has not been much noticed, the beginning of Gravity's Rainbow (1973) answers and completes the suspended cadence of The Crying of Lot 49. However, the sound it produces is not what Oedipa was waiting for. The first sentence of the later novel reads: "A screaming comes across the sky." The previous text had left us in silence; now the silence is broken, but only to propel us into différance, into the lexical space between "crying" and "screaming." This space can be easily enough mapped. The scream of 1973 is the sound of a V-2 rocket which has already found its target in wartime London. In a way, it is a revelatory utterance: it is associated, as one of the characters will later reflect, with "a Word, spoken with no warning into your ear, and then silence forever" (25). The screaming of the rocket signifies apocalypse, but only in the mortal or thermodynamic sense; it is the end of knowing, the boundary of language, a version of Derrida's Apocalypse of the Name. Yet ironically it also signifies survivance: since the rocket is supersonic, it explodes on target before the sound of its arrival reaches the witnesses; so if you hear the incoming scream, you know you have survived. The rocket thus also signifies an apparent reversal of causality, sound of arrival before sound of approach, or "a few feet of film run backwards" the inverse phenomenology on which much of the novel depends.

Much could be made of the transition from revelation to holocaust that is implicit in the Rocket's screaming, particularly as it relates to the problem of language under convergent oppositions. In his earlier writing Pynchon suggests that language buffers us from some ineffable higher knowledge; but in the later text he suggests the nastier possibility of terminal enlightenment, one Word followed by eternal silence. Paranoia seems to take a turn here, not inwards toward the "central pulse" of the self, but out toward kenosis or emptiness. What if there is nothing definably Other on the opposite side of that logical buffer, no human or divine voice behind the cry, only the scream of an immachinate conception? This question leads to a further, even more troubling possibility. What if the interface between the central pulse of the self and the world-as-sign-system were breached or dissolved? This question becomes especially salient now that we find ourselves inhabiting a mode of information.

In a world where the distinction between utterance and pattern, words and things has collapsed, language becomes every bit as viral as William S. Burroughs has called it. The convergence of opposites, in hyperreality as in paranoia, restates the basic proposition that the subject and its embodiment have become as extensively codified and textualized as everything else in the known universe. As Haraway puts it, "[l]ate twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert" (152). This realization seems significant enough when applied to the German robot bombs; but as Pynchon well knew, we must not overlook other technologies only nascent in 1945 (Seed, 211). Early in the course of his Fool's errand, Tyrone Slothrop talks to an industrial spy who foresees big changes in his line of work: "Someday it'll all be done by machine. Information machines. You are the wave of the future" (Gravity's Rainbow, 258). And we fin-de-millenium readers are the beach on which that wave has broken. If (imagine this) Marshall McLuhan had taken it into his head to rewrite Gravity's Rainbow, he might have opened with a Joycean variation: A screening comes across the eye.

The implications of this modulation from crying to screaming to screening have been extensively explored in the recent wave of post-paranoid fiction, of which the most significant product may be Umberto Eco's novel, Foucault's Pendulum. Since in many ways this book really does rewrite Gravity's Rainbow, we might call it (with duly historicized irony) the last of the conspiracy novels. "Last" in this case because like Le Carré and DeLillo, Eco seems dedicated to thoroughly debunking the grand narrative enterprise. His book is the story of a deadly literary hoax, a novel about a narrative apocalypse. Intending to foist an intellectual fraud on the occult community, a group of editors and academics compile a synthesis of all arcane knowledge, a key to all paranoias (one of the protagonists is duly named Casaubon). At first they intend nothing more than the National Enquirer crossed with Encyclopedia Brittanica, but the text they produce confounds their expectations. Like the cryptographic "novel" in The Russia House or the "megaton novel" of Libra, this writing becomes yet another instantiation of Enzian's Holy Text, the Torah of artificial systems.

Like those other numinous books, the hoax project in Eco's novel generates a murderous conspiracy around itself, much as in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo the jazz infection Jes Grew creates a hieratic subculture while "seeking its text" (148-49). But Reed wrote in the heyday of counterculture and creative paranoia (1970-72). His jazz epidemic is an "anti-plague," an expression of African vitality breaking out in Euro-America's house of pain. As Reed predicted, white men have been much less capable of redemptive visions. Their plots have a more sinister agenda. In Eco's story, as in Le Carré's and DeLillo's, the energies marshalled by the apocalyptic text veer inexorably toward death.


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