Computer Mediation and Postmodern Narrative Practices:
Computational Narratives in Mason&Dixon

- Miriam Fernández Santiago
University of Huelva

The present essay will analyse some questions derived from the influence of mass media in the narrative processes used in postmodern fiction, and from their coincidence in instrumental techniques when prearranging perceptual wave lengths for the mediation of data. Choosing Thomas Pynchon's latest novel as representative of postmodern narrative is certainly a restrictive choice whose necessity is justified by its interest in subjects like power relations and their connection with accessibility, reflexive processes characteristic of postmodern narrative such as metafiction, questions of complexity and multiplicity of information, and the use of narrative processes whose compositional structures parallel those used by computer technology.

We are already so used to ideas and terminology related to mass media that we often forget essential questions connected to the formulation of the term.  Mass concerns large amounts of people as users, but it could also be interpreted in relation with amount of information as product.  Mass products as such are only possible in close connection with technological and sociological developments proper of the 20th c.  Only in the last century was production focused to massive consumption, which altered products, means of production and distribution, and price.  Such situation implies a politics of selection based on relations of inclusion and exclusion.  Multinational presence affects international relations in the breaking of borders and draws a line of inclusion in distribution that only affects Western middle class.  Lines of exclusion concern means of production, a right most commonly reserved for the Third World.  Economic relations of both exclusion and inclusion thus frame the internal organisation characteristic of mass phenomena.

However, we will not be interested here in the economic configuration of mass phenomena, which are due to historical circumstances that are peripheral to the question since they might vary from time to time.  In contrast, there are the relations of inclusion and exclusion other than the economic ones that mass phenomena favour and are favoured by.  Those are built on the universal violence that is implicit in any kind of mass phenomena, and proper of cognitive relations among human beings.  Numbers matter.  Although the question of cognitive force is basic to the configuration of the individual, it is only through mass relations that its violence is made necessary.  The necessity of such relations is better explored at its core question, which is a question of mediation, of instrumental mediation, or mediation as instrument.

When in 1927, Heissenberg formulated his uncertainty principle derived from uncertainty relations, it came out that it was impossible to determine with absolute certainty the initial position and speed of subatomic particles.  Uncertainty limits were a basic property of matter behaviour that did not depend on the instruments used to make the measurements.  It was the act of measuring that was impossible if absolute certainty had to be respected, since measuring proved to alter both position and movement of the observed object.  A basic question of the space/time coordinates that rule human cognition is at the core of this circumstance.  The fastest humans can perceive is the speed of light.  For measures smaller than the wave-length of light, those measures are lost in the fissure existing between waves.  Within those fissures is that uncertainty relations take place.  Human cognition works at a much slower speed than the speed of light in empty space, which widens the cognitive fissure, if not the sensitive one.

Niels Bohr, the father of Quantum Physics, was very sensitive to the idea that measuring uncertainty and science’s probabilistic capacity to formulate universal rules that would correspond to natural phenomena was a linguistic matter.  When Heissenberg complained about the inaccuracy of classical terminology such as “wave” and “particle,” Bohr argued that any new terminology had to be considered as classical instrument in the last instance.  Human cognition and linguistic expression were the last instrumental barrier between natural phenomena and their measurability.  However, the linguistic boundary that separated imaginary experiments such as the famous one of Shrödinger’s cat, [1] from physical ones was—like all boundaries—not only a dividing boundary line, but a line that could be, and was trespassed.  Language as instrument or medium of measuring the physical world worked as a boundary filter through which trespassing information was altered.  Like a film, language travels at a slower pace than light.  Therefore, all the information particles travelling faster, or of a smaller measure than what we could call “the linguistic wave” are lost to accurate measure in the fissure between waves.  Their position and direction are uncertain.  Such is the mediating nature of language.

Mediation, therefore, is at the core of any cognitive process, it is an inherent property or limitation of the human nature.  Its connection with the mass phenomena is obvious, since meaning is formed by relations of arbitrary connections agreed upon by a community of individuals who oppose singularity as mass members.  Contrary to individuality and parallel to mass relations, language is based in trespassing the boundary between the one and the multiple.  We might deduce from this, that any question concerning mediation is already a question of mass relations.  This introductory questions solved, I will not abound in the redundancy implicit in the phrase “mass media.”  Let it suffice to say that mediation is a phenomenon that cannot be avoided in perceptual processes, and that its content matter is information.

Another question derived from the mediation process is the question of access, which is determined by the instrumental format of the mediation system.  We have pointed at language as the most relevant mediation system, but, of course, it is not the only one.  Gestures, pictures, or sounds other than the discriminatory linguistic are examples of other mediation systems that however function the same “filtered” way as language.  Perceptual wave lengths can be altered depending on the mediation system chosen for measure and interpretation of natural phenomena, and it is both by the agency of choosing and by the specific characteristics of the chosen system that access is conditioned. [2]   The development of new technologies that took place as a consequence of both WWII and the Cold War in the second half of the 20th c. has risen public consciousness of the connection between technological development and power agencies.  The general paranoia resulting from such consciousness became a sign of the cultural movement corresponding to that technological development; namely, postmodernity.

The present essay will analyse some questions derived from the influence of mass media in the narrative processes used in postmodern fiction, and from their coincidence in instrumental techniques when prearranging perceptual wave lengths for the mediation of data.  The width of such topic, however, does not correspond to the length of the format used, which makes me restrict the scope of discussion to those that in my opinion might be the most representative elements of both mass media and postmodern narrative.  The choice of computer technology, given its increasing relevance in communication systems does not need much justification.  Nevertheless, my choice of it is not determined by relevance as much as by questions of complexity and complementarity that are central to the idea of mediation.  Choosing Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel as representative of postmodern narrative is certainly a restrictive choice whose necessity is justified by its interest in subjects like power relations and their connection with accessibility, reflexive processes characteristic of postmodern narrative such as metafiction, questions of complexity and multiplicity of information, and the use of narrative processes whose compositional structures parallel those used by computer technology.

In order to develop this questions further, it is first necessary to go back to crucial issues related to the concept of mediation.  It has been mentioned above that when Heissenberg denounced the inability of classical terms to answer to the wave/particle nature of matter, Bohr replied that any technological or terminological development had to be considered as a classical instrument, and that instrumentality could not be avoided.  Instead, he proposed complementarity as a solution to the wave/particle aporia, a solution that he also applied to questions on mediation.  If the categories of wave and particle reached aporia through their exclusive relation to each other, it was not because of the essential difference between them, but because of understanding the way both particles and waves are related.  The wave/particle distinction had to be formulated not only in terms of exclusion, but also of complementarity.  Classical physics asserted that when two different measures were given of the same phenomenon, at least one of them had to be wrong.  From Bohr’s perspective, measures were not absolute truths, but the result of using specific instruments designed to obtain particular data.  Each instrument was built to render a different aspect of a phenomenon.  Instruments designed to measure waves would do as well as those designed to measure particles, but their results would produce different readings of the same reality.  Contrary to classical physics, quantum physics found that different measures of the same reality did not work in an exclusive way, but in a complementary one.

In the field of information, the nature of truth is established by the relations of complementarity between natural phenomena and means of representation.  The world of physical phenomena and of their imaginary representation were divided in parallel realities as a way to find a solution to the aporias resulting from imaginary experiments such as the one of Shrödinger’s cat.  We would all agree in the assertion that measurable reality and its measure(s) are different realities in an interactive relation.  Since the instruments of observation are included in the same system as observable reality, measuring such reality implies an alteration both in the measure and in that reality.  The act of measuring therefore alters measure instruments and measurable reality.  Truth versions derived not only from measure taking, but from the possibility for measure are in a relation of complementarity.  Those truths, though exclusive in a categorical way, are complementary.  Whatever the definition of reality derived from this circumstance, it is going to be stated as a complex or multiple compound.

Computers are a technological answer to a need for representation of such complex and complementary reality.  Their capacity to adapt to different applications (depending on the programs used) responds to the acceptance of a multiple reading of physical reality.  Their interactive configuration is based on the assumption that reality is both altered by and adapted to measuring stimuli.  Their complex configuration—as users perceive it on screen—present the possibility of multiple and complementary truth vision.  As mass media, computers work through the web the same interactive and multiple way.  Proliferation of servers, web pages and bits of information provided by the net promise an informative freedom denied by the comparatively reduced number of chances offered by other mass media such as newspapers and television.  Never has information been announced with more concern for freedom in the choice of the information required, never has it reached a wider scope, never has it offered such a multiple perspective of the same reality.  However, abundance of information and perspectives has produced a contrary effect in users, since comparison of too many different and often contradictory visions of reality make users grow conscious of their limitations when facing the need to make an interpretive choice.

Never before the Internet have users been so limited in their understanding of surrounding reality precisely because never have they been so diversely and exhaustively informed.  Multiple versions of truth relativises all versions by comparison of different—when not contradictory—measures of reality and raises the suspicion of virtuality (fiction/simulacra) about all the information provided.  In its rejection of univocal and absolute measures or representations of reality, the web breaks with the violence of representation, or media violence that imposes univocity on multiplicity.  Yet, the relativisation of all truth versions derived from this practice leads to virtual violence, or the violence of virtuality, which consists in considering all information about, and perceptions or measures of reality indistinguishable from the virtual reality offered by the web.  Mediation has never been so absolute.

Abundance of information and differences in perspective do also raise the questions of whose authority is behind each bit of information, which of the whole of information is rejected as relevant, or to which interests does such choice answer.  All these questions are about the same topic; the specific characteristics that configure media as instrument for measure.  Whatever the answers, what is apparent is that all perspectives or information quanta are in an exclusive though complementary relation to each other.  The web as media is a technological example of a new conception of truth and reality as multiple compounds characterised by uncertainty.

How does narrative adapt to reproduce such multiplicity?  Which are the narrative techniques used to express the complementary nature of mediation?  What is the linear (discursive) configuration of uncertainty relations between or among multiple measures of the same realities?  Mediation is a main concern for postmodern narratives, which is shown in the use of reflexive narrative techniques such a metafiction.  Metafiction questions linguistic correspondence with reproduced reality or possibility of reality.  Metafictional texts are composed to "resist our desire for distinctions between the real and the fanciful" (Cowart, 1999, p. 357).  They emphasise the arbitrary nature of language as instrument for representation and the discriminatory relations of exclusion on which it is based.  Metafiction focuses on and evaluates language as instrument for measure of reality (imaginary or not), which renders as a result an analysis of the mediating capacity and characteristics of linguistic representation.  The main issue explored by metafiction as technique is the same one that troubled Bohr’s assimilation of Einstein’s condition of completeness, [3] by which “every element of the physical [objective] reality must have a counterpart in the physical theory” (Phys. Rev. 1935).  In Bohr’s opinion, we can have as many counterparts in the physical theory as different instruments we build to measure physical reality, whose objective character is dubious, if not impossible, since it must always appear mediated by measure.

Ambiguity, as the narrative counterpart of uncertainty in physics, is a resourceful narrative effect in postmodern writing that underlines the mediating nature of language as instrument for representation.  Metafiction uses ambiguity as tool for the study of how language a/effects and is a/effected by the reality/ies it refers to.  Thomas R. Pynchon is a master of ambiguity,—among many other things—which he achieves through several means.  The representation of multiple and complex systems of reference, of loosely connected and often contradictory perspectives of lived experience and history, or of non-relevant amounts of information specially selected to work as noises for communication are some of the narrative techniques he uses in his novels in order to produce an effect of ambiguity.  His latest novel, Mason&Dixon, as provisional culmination of his writing activity, is a good instance of the practice of such techniques and an accurate expression of his concern for mediation in general.

Mason&Dixon tells the (hi)story(ies) of Thomas Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, an astronomer and a geomancer employed by the Royal Academy to draw the Mason/Dixon line that divided the American colonies into North and South.  The intention of and agencies involved in what proves to be a rather impossible and uncertain task remain utterly ambiguous through the whole novel.  The Jesuits, the Chineese, the public and private interests of the British Empire, telluric forces, and the birth of American Revolution, are some of the agencies suspected to be hidden behind the purpose of the project.  Although the drawing of the line is a narrative thread that is never absolutely lost in the novel, the amount and variety of plots and subplots are so large that the reader is forced into a loss of narrative direction, which perfectly parallels the situation of the main characters of the novel.

Let us now analyse more closely some of the above mentioned metafictional resources in Pynchon’s novel.  By the end of chapter 51, and after having entered a cave that serves as a cathedral for Sunday masses in the midst of wilderness, Mason says referring to the cave itself: “it is Text,— and we are its readers, and its Pages are the Days turning.  Unscrolling, as a Pilgrim’s Itinerary map in ancient days.  And this is the Chapter call’d ‘The Subterranean Cathedral, or, The lesson Grasp’d” (p. 497-8).  Here, we are actually reading a text widely recognised as fiction while, at the same time, we find both an interpretation of the chapter—most valuable as it is given by Pynchon himself—and a consideration of the possible titles that this untitled chapter might have.  Critical distance breaks suspension of disbelief and readers not only read Mason and Dixon as characters, but themselves too.  The text’s mise en abyme or intended ambivalence of the referential value of pronouns such as “we” or “it” makes the reader reflect on the mediation of all discourses as prearranged texts that make them perceive reality as filtered.

Postmodern narratives are built on a narrative movement that turns over itself, or a "mimesis of process" (Hutcheon, 1991, p. 36).  So, and at the risk of falling into Jackobsonian simplicity, we could join Maureen Quilligan's opinion when she affirms that, in Pynchon’s writings “the immediate focus of the narrative is the language in which it is written” (p. 136).  Considering language as mediator of reality displaces referred reality as object of study, and puts language in its place.  Not until we know and test the instrument for observation, can we trust its readings, yet we are caught in an instrumental aporia, since the only instrument we have to study language is language itself.

In this quotation, Pynchon is pointing at the mediation implicit in referential meaning and the problematisation of reference as "transit."  Pynchon’s insistence in the lack of certainty in measuring the exact moments of the beginning and end of the two transits of Venus in Mason&Dixon, accounts sufficiently for this assertion.  The result is then, a text highly intoxicated with uncertainty, or to put it more coherently with the claims we have made above, with a low probability of ever being measured to occur in the physical world.  It belongs to the scope of the linguistic mediator, the virtual character of represented reality.

The essential question at the core of mediation minds the uncertainty element and the possibility to measure it.  If the process of translation from the real (observed object) into the mental (linguistic) spheres implies a disturbance or necessary deformation of the observed object (or its reading, to be more precise), a calculation of such disturbance might lead to a correction in calculation that would render accurate measures.  The search for the location and implications of such disturbance gives way to paranoia, since any element within the system to be measured might be the disturbing one.  However, this search must be performed within the linguistic, which complicates things much more.  The more accurate you want to be, the more measures you take, and the more disturbances you produce.  A general sense of distrust of the linguistic invades the postmodern.  Reality re-presented through linguistic means impresses the postmodern subject as construct (not-the–real-thing) compared to fiction.  Other measures of the same reality, taken with other instruments in other places and at other times, might render different readings.  Mediation implies that the object referred to might be as re-presented, among many other options.  Such texts are composed to "resist our desire for distinctions between the real and the fanciful" (Cowart, 1999, p. 357), to force a paranoid reading on us.  The meaning or intention behind that resistance to discrimination is that there is no way to discriminate; we are prisoners in the fun-house or imaginary experiment of language.

Ambiguity is built on the basis of multiplicity where discriminatory borders are blurred.  Deleuze and Guattari have developed a terminology adapted to multiplicity in their analysis of the rhizomatic, which they characterise in terms of connection and heterogeneity, multiplicity, and asignifying rupture, among others.  They compare rhizomatic relations to a body without organs, which is not the opposite of a body with organs, but to the organisation of such organs within the body: “A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs [. . . ] is distributed as crowd phenomena [ . . . ]  Thus the body without organs is opposed less to organs as such than to the organization of the organs insofar as it composes an organism” (30). [4]   The rhizomatic could therefore be said to oppose types of linear organisation such as the linguistic chain.  Computer mediation works in a rhizomatic way.  It is characterised by heterogeneity, multiplicity, connection and asignifying rupture in its screen-link presentation.  Information reaches users in heterogeneous and multiple connections that resist linear organisation.

Postmodern narratives adapt the rhizomatic to the linguistic linear chain by means of the implied rhizomatic nature of the linguistic sign, whose referential potential is defined by n-1, which equals the multiple in its most sober way.  At the level of novel, or considering novel as a body, we could start speaking of novels without pages, which would not oppose the idea of a novel with pages, but that of the organisation of pages insofar as it composes a novel.  Space and time disruptions, heterogeneous character and plot formation, multiplicity and unbalance in character and plot relevance, and proliferation of asignifying details are some of the narrative techniques used by postmodern narratives in order to parallel new ways of representing reality as computer mediation does.  In Mason & Dixon, for instance, readers are presented with a wide scope of heterogeneous realities that range from golems, flying tubes, invisible Chinese, utopian places, transvestite Jesuits, mechanical ducks, and jail orgies to speaking dogs, windless clocks, ghosts, and as many apparently (un)related elements as Pynchon’s feverish mind can make up.  All these elements are presented in loose or no connection to each other so that the reader is forced to organise them into a body-with-organs.  Doing so, however, leaves too many fissures or superfluous elements readers cannot ignore, which makes their attempt at linear organisation an obvious oversimplification.  Thus, readers are enforced into complexity as ultimate meaning, an enforcement derived from discursive mediation.  Both the linear and the rhizomatic mediation enforcements work in a complementary relation the same way as experiments do with observable or measurable physical reality.

Computer technology makes possible the same effect with different tools.  Computers are the technological instrumental development Bohr must have desired to take all possible measures of a given event.  Of course, this does not mean that the applications of computer technology are infinite.  It means that they are multiple in the way in which Deleuze and Guattari define the multiple: n-1.  All possibilities or informational perspectives are equally valid, except for those that attempt at annulling the rest.  The unique is not possible as unrelated reality, not even as unrelated fiction.  The nature of mediation has complexity as an inherent property, although there might be media that may attempt at single perspectives of reality that are therefore identified with the idea of univocal truth.

Contrary to what may be derived from ideas of multiplicity and agreeing with the nature of mediation, the ambiguity from which complementarity stems as solution to dual aporetic states does not provide the individual with the certainty that personal choices are as valid as any imposed ones.  Freedom is far from being a characteristic of mediation, since mediation itself is based in conditioning the way we access physical reality.  Single, authoritative media like the language of classical physics forcefully impose on observers the reduction from the multiple into the unique.  The language of the second half of the 20th c., derived from the development of quantum physics into computer language and postmodern writing, enforces a sort of access to physical reality characterised by multiplicity and ambiguity.  The force of media is a natural characteristic of elements that does not depend on the instruments used since there is no possibility of direct experience of the infinite.  New instrumental developments like computers, allow for an access to information (physical reality as can be perceived) plagued with the uncertainty and paranoia derived from the reduced freedom to choose among a multiplicity of informational options.  These have replaced the fanaticism, and safe faith in absolute truths proper of previous media of access to information.  However, no media has ever avoided what is inherent to them as media; namely, the violence of re-presentation.



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[1] The experiment consists of enclosing a cat in a steel box with a rather sadist mechanism: a Geiger counter is placed by a small amount of radioactive substance.  This amount is so small that one of its atoms may disintegrate within one hour, but it might equally not disintegrate.  If it does, the counter produces a discharge that actions a hammer that breaks a glass full of cianhidric acid.  The cat would live if no atom disintegrates within an hour, but the first atomic disintegration would kill it.  What is the state of this system after an hour?  Classical theory would say that the cat is either alive or dead, which would be revealed after opening the box.  For Quantum theory, the cat is neither alive nor dead, but in a state of superposition of both, where Ψ = Ψalive + Ψdead.  Until the pertinent measures are taken (the box is opened and we see the cat), the wave function describing the cat as “half-living/half-dead” does not change the wave function of the living cat or dead cat.

Therefore, until we open the box, the state of the cat can be just any in a non-exclusive relation with the rest of possibilities.  Which is, the cat is in all possible situations at the same time.  Opening the box would imply to alter considerably the conditions for the experiment, which means that all possibilities are valid except one; the one resulting from opening the box.  The conditions for truth/accuracy that are necessary for this experiment exclude the cognitive mediation of opening the box.  By simply having a look at the inside of the box, you make sure that the result of the experiment is altered to some extent.  The most immediate implication of this experiment is that the only possible unmediated approach to objects or events that take place in space-time coordinates is the consideration of all possibilities—remote or not—except for one.

[2] The cinema industry provides a visual example for the question of instrumental mediation in measure taking.  Old cameras used to take pictures at a lower speed than the modern ones.  That implies that between the taking of a picture and the taking of the most immediate following one, there was a lapse of time during which anything could happen without ever being recorded.  Faster recording would diminish the amount of unrecorded events, but there will always be a margin for unrecorded reality.  Such margin is the one existing between the speed of the picture recorder and the speed of light, to which we would have to add the uncertainty limits of the wave function of each electron implied in the act of recording and the objects or events recorded.  Taken to its extreme consequences, such recording is impossible, since the observation of an electron deviates its direction.  We could thus conclude that all mediated observation (which is all observation) is subject to a considerably large margin for error that cannot be calculated but probabilistically.

[3] “If without any way disturbing a system we can predict with certainty (i.e. a probability equal to unity) the value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element of physical reality corresponding to this physical quantity..  Every element of the physical [objective] reality must have a counterpart in the physical theory.  We shall call this the condition of completeness.”  A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rossen, Phys. Rev. 1935.

[4] Internet is in this sense a clear example of the rhizomatic because it is certainly a “body without organs,” not in the sense that it has no organs—discriminated unties—but as an opposition to the organisation of such unities in relation to an organic whole.


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