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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 Winter 2003, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 9

This page contains materials intended to facilitate class discussion (excerpts from readings, outlines of issues, links to resources, etc.). The materials are not necessarily the same as the instructor's teaching notes and are not designed to represent a full exposition or argument. This page is subject to revision as the instructor finalizes preparation. (Last revised 1/27/03 )

Preliminary Class Business

Literary and Artistic Responses to the Information Revolution

Our agenda in the next series of classes:

  • The Literature of Information
    Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)

  • Toward a New Media Literature
    William Gibson, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (1992)

  • Digital (Hypertext) Literature
    Ed Falco & Olia Lialina (1996-99)

  • Graphic Arts, Digital Art, & Network Art in the New Media Age
    David Carson, April Greiman, advanced Web design, George Legrady, Lisa Jevbratt

Thomas Pynchon

One of the major novelists of the postmodern age, who chronicles the transition from the Cold War to countercultural eras through a literature that draws for its imaginative materials upon:

        — science and technology
        — the "military-industrial complex" & counterculture
        — history
        — information and media culture

What we know about Pynchon:

  • Born 1937; grew up in suburbs of Long Island

  • Contributor to his high-school newspaper, where he wrote a column under the pseudonyms "Roscoe Stein," "Boscoe Stein," and "Bosc"

  • Went to Cornell in late 1950s; studied engineering physics and then English literature (took a class at Cornell from Nabokov); friend of writer and folksinger Richard Farina; graduated 1958
            (Pynchon's reminiscence of Richard Farina)

  • Joined the Navy; served possibly as a signal corpsman

  • Went to Greenwich Village for a year to write. Spent two years beginning 1960 in Seattle as a technical writer and engineering aide at Boeing.

Then drops out of sight. No pictures; no interviews; no appearances at award ceremonies; no TV appearances. Rumored to live at various times in California, Mexico, New York. (Compare/contrast the seclusion of J.D. Salinger)

He is incommunicado. W.A.S.T.E


  • V. (1963)
  • The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
  • Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
  • Slow Learner (short stories, 1984)
  • Vineland (1990)
  • Mason & Dixon (1997)

Crying of Lot 49: (1965):
What Would You Bet?

  • p. 1
  • 10
  • 31
  • 71

And so it begins for Oedipa Maas.


Analogy: the dictionary game.

Is there a message for us in the dictionary? Is it a plot? Or is it just amazing chance?

How would you know?

How much would you bet?

–At the core of Pynchon's novels (and postmodern fictions generally), there is an intellectual puzzle, a question of knowledge regarding a secret order behind things, a conspiracy (cf., other postmodern fictions: Umberto Eco, Name of the Rose; Fredric Jameson's The Geopolitical Aesthetic).
        The grand intellectual question of Pynchon's novel concerns the Tristero conspiracy: What is the Tristero? Does it exist? A question that spins outward into a vast labyrinth of historical speculation, textual mysteries, detective quests, etc., all overlapping with the scientific mystery of entropy.
        The question is compiled in digital form as "either/or" (pp. 88, 140-41, 150).

W.A.S.T.E–But the means of access to knowledge is denied (the muted oracles of the novel: e.g., Pierce Inverarity, Randolph Driblette, the man from Inamoriti Anonymous in the gay bar, the Nefastis Machine)

–So then it becomes a question of character: how far are you willing to go to find out? What would you risk? How much would you bet? (cf. Pascal's wager).
        The real question of the novel–the question that weaves the intellectual puzzle into the dramatic core of the story, in the character of the heroine–is: what is Oedipa Maas willing to bet, and why? (p. 22)

What Oedipa Maas Is Betting (and Why)

Oedipa's life at beginning of novel:

Tupperware parties (p. 1) & Kinneret-Among-the-Pines (2)
(history of Tupperware | Tupperware Homepage)
Cf., Mike Nichols's The Graduate (1967)

Rapunzel in her tower (10-12)

"San Narciso," "Echo courts," and the Narcissus myth

Cold War world (83)

Cf., Mike Nichols's The Graduate (1967) and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

All "echoed" in an all-enclosing environment of Media and Communications:

  • Telephone (the call from Pierce Inverarity)

  • Radio (Station KCUF)

  • Film and TV (Metzger as Baby Igor)

  • Computers
    • San Narciso as a circuit board (14)
    • IBM 7094 (93)
    • the Sailor's mattress as a "computer" (102)
    • digital computers (150)

  • Postal System

What Else? How Can Oedipa Get Out of Her Tower?

"If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?" (12)

  • Counterculture (the way outs, far outs of the 1960s)

      • adultery and the sexual revolution, à la The Graduate (31)

      • rock music (The Paranoids)

      • drugs (and booze) (8, 1) (tequila with Metzger)

      • social otherness (101-105)

      • religion (cf., cults, New Age) (1, 14-15)

      • "revelation" (31, 64, 71, 76)

        • "metaphor" (104-105, 85-86, 87)

        • puns (Oedipa Maas, Mucho Maas, Manny Di Presso, Genghis Cohen, Mike Fallopian, etc.) (105)

  • Pynchon's alternative counterculture: a revelation of media and information

            ["stay tuned"]