21 January 2009

disciplinary boundaries: the case of Pynchon's Vineland

I just finished a short piece that used bits from the CBAA conference to talk about the relationship between book history and media studies. You can see it here.

Disciplinary boundaries is a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately, and I've got a few blog posts in the pipeline on the relationship between English/Literature, History of the Book and Media Studies. If MLA panels are any indication, media studies is beginning to influence (and be used as a tool for) the interpretation of literary texts. Most of these experiments are not (in my opinion) very successful -- in part, because they attempt to use media theory as you would other literary theory, as a kind of lens applied to the text. This doesn't work very well.

Last year, I wrote a paper on Thomas Pynchon's Vineland for a comp lit course I took at Harvard. Although it wasn't my best paper, it really taught me how all this stuff I've decided to spend two years studying can contribute to my understanding of literature (and vice versa). In it, I took different models of media consumption -- i.e., the passive consumer, a la the Frankfurt School, vs. the active consumer as described in Stuart Hall's theories of encoding/decoding, or in fan studies -- and used them to read the actions of various characters. So, for instance, the Thanatoids and Hector Zuñiga clearly embody the neo-Marxist critiques of Adorno and Horkheimer, who depict mass media as a homogenizing and inescapable system, trapping consumers in a totalizing culture industry. Prairie and Zoyd, on the other hand, push back against this (bleak) vision by making their own media.

But -- and this is where it gets interesting -- no character purely represents an ideology; they all act passively in some situations, and actively in others. In other words, Pynchon very brilliantly refuses to close the relationship between mass media and interpretive audiences.

Now, if you were to survey the criticism on postmodern American novels, this is not the view you would think Pynchon was espousing. Most critics have read in Pynchon (and Delillo -- especially Delillo) a deep distrust of media. Just check out the titles of these books: Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation (John Johnston); Deep Surfaces: Mass Culture & History in Postmodern American Fiction (Philip Simmons' ). The assumption is that popular culture and mass media brainwash you.

The problem with this mode of interpretation is not only its lack of self-awareness (a published book is itself a form of mass media, and academia is an industry which feeds off it), but its one-to-one correspondence between theory and representation in a text. As it goes: White Noise is about hyperreality; Baudrillard writes about hyperreality; therefore Delillo is writing about a Baudrillarian postmodern hyperreality. No doubt. But White Noise is also about the white noise produced even by its own presence in society, circulating as a flimsy paperback book that contributes to the very waste, even the very cycles of production/consumption that it criticizes. Once we recognize this, we can also see the difference between an author like Delillo (who seems largely unaware of the immense irony of his novels -- at least he doesn't make an effort to play with it), and one like Pynchon, who positively basks in his own irony. Like White Noise, Vineland criticizes mass media -- but it also celebrates it, playing with its own plenitude, pitting diverse and even contradictory ideas, culled from multiple eras and disciplines, against each other.

Only media studies can help us understand this. Unlike other theories used as a lens to examine the text, media studies steps outside the stuff between the endsheets to explore how meaning is made through media objects interacting with a chaotic and complex culture. As a result, it's perhaps the model for reading a novel as chaotic and complex as Vineland, and the only way to truly understand why there can be no Grand Unified Theory of Postmodern Pynchon. The key is to keep all elements -- text, paratext, context and artifact -- in play, and to follow up on the tensions created between then.

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