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.
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
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.
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,  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.
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
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.  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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
 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.
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.
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.
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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 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.
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