Saturday, July 9, 2016

“A pure conspiracy”: Paranoia as Critical Methodology

It is our national tragedy.  We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain and sky.  To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet.  We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us.
~Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

            The second section (“Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering”) of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, presents readers with four maxims, humorously titled “Proverbs for Paranoids.”  They occur intermittently, although in close proximity to one another, throughout the section’s hundred pages, and are labeled as follows:
·       Proverbs for Paranoids, 1: You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures. (240)
·       Proverbs for Paranoids, 2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master. (244)
·       Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers. (255)
·       Proverbs for Paranoids, 4: You hide, they seek. (265; italics in original)

The Proverbs appear throughout the sequence as Tyrone Slothrop attempts to comprehend the conspiracy in which he is embroiled, “the plot against him” as the narrator describes it (240).  Of course, in Pynchon’s elaborate and complex textual world, the conspiracy is the novel, the literary machine in which Slothrop is merely one character among many.  The genius of Gravity’s Rainbow is the way it prevents its readers from achieving any veritable god’s-eye view; it repeatedly pulls the rug out from under its readers’ feet, incorporating their perceptions of the narrative back into the narrative, continually blurring the line between where the text ends and their interpretations of it begin.  Like Slothrop, readers become helplessly embroiled in an irreducible conspiracy.  As media theorist Friedrich Kittler describes the novel, it transforms its readers “from consumers of a narrative into hackers of a system” (162).
            Kittler identifies this transformation as indicative of the novel’s “critical-paranoid method,” a sentiment echoed by John Johnston in Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation (1998).  According to Johnston, Pynchon novel introduces a new organization of human existence in the wake of World War Two’s violent technological upheaval: “World War II as a watershed event in the growth of technology and scientific research is precisely the subject of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, whose publication in 1973 endorsed what had already become a given within the sixties counterculture: that paranoia no longer designated a mental disorder but rather a critical method of information retrieval” (62; italics in original).  As Johnston insinuates, the postwar era witnessed a plethora of ultra-paranoiac literature, likely beginning with William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), but pursued through the work of J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Joseph McElroy, Don DeLillo, Kathy Acker, etc.  The degree to which these literatures embrace their paranoia varies: Dick succumbed almost entirely to a debilitating paranoia, while DeLillo maintains a critical distance.  The notion of paranoia-as-method, however, remains at the forefront of several texts by both writers.  To this day, Pynchon remains the godfather of critical, intellectual, and literary paranoiac fiction.
            The presence of paranoia-as-method predates the field of High Postmodernism, however, appearing as early as the mid-nineteenth century in stories such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (1840) or in classic gothic/detective narratives such as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868).  This paranoiac development does not dissipate with the advent of modernist fiction, but in fact finds itself repositioned and embraced in the work of surrealist writers such as André Breton, whose Nadja (1928) proposes to gather “facts which may belong to the order of pure observation, but which on each occasion present all the appearances of a signal” (19).  Details of paranoiac puzzle-solving appear throughout High Modernism, in works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936); but the power of paranoia as a critical method doesn’t fully materialize until the postwar fictions of Burroughs and Pynchon.  Even at this point, the expansive methodological rigor of paranoia, which I will call critical paranoia, will remain decades away.
            In the same passages where Gravity’s Rainbow lays out the four Proverbs for Paranoids, the narrator also relates the brief life of Paranoid Systems of History – “a short-lived periodical of the 1920s whose plates have all mysteriously vanished” (241).  The narrator goes on to reveal that the periodical has suggested, “in more than one editorial, that the whole German Inflation was created deliberately, simply to drive young enthusiasts of the Cybernetic Tradition into Control work” (241).  Throughout Pynchon’s encyclopedic text, numerous conspiracy theories are broached, from the systematic devastation of European nations to the possibility that Franklin Delano Roosevelt is actually an automaton.  The entire narrative operates according to a kind of conspiratorial logic.  If there is a conspiracy, then there must be a narrative explaining the conspiracy; the textual totality, therefore, abides by a minimal narrative coherency, opting instead for lines of flight that gravitate toward chaos, disrupting the internal consistency that characters (and readers) attempt to impose on the text.
            Line of flight is a Deleuzian concept, outlined by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1980).  In relatively simple terms, it designates the attempt by various energies to escape the territorializing and colonizing confines of the social body.  A traditional Marxist methodology would likely define such confines as ideology, but that doesn’t quite capture Deleuze and Guattari’s sense.  Deleuze-Guattarian territorialization signals a complex technological/post-sociological process of libidinal intensification, of multiple becomings and formalizations that are continually battling the entropy that seeks to dismantle them: “It is not a question of ideology,” they write in Anti-Oedipus; “There is an unconscious libidinal investment of the social field that coexists, but does not necessarily coincide, with the preconscious investments […] It is not an ideological problem, a problem of failing to recognize, or of being subject to, an illusion.  It is a problem of desire, and desire is part of the infrastructure” (104; italics in original).  Allowing for some sense of historical development, we can admit that Louis Althusser’s structural Marxism and Jean-François Lyotard’s post-Marxism bear some similarities to Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy; but none of these theories conform to the traditional strategies of Marxist critique, and the work of Pynchon and other postmodernists can tell us something of why.
            We can sum up traditional Marxism’s treatment of conspiracy through Fredric Jameson’s comments in Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991).  According to Jameson, conspiracy theories are causal (i.e. linear) interpretations of emergent (i.e. nonlinear) phenomena.  They are psychic reductions of vastly complex, systemic conditions.  Jameson describes conspiratorial literature as a kind of high-tech paranoia, in which systems and networks are “narratively mobilized by labyrinthine conspiracies,” reproduced in manner that is linearly comprehensible (38).  Conspiracy theory, however, is a “degraded attempt […] to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system” (38).  In short, Marxist theory treats paranoia in a symptomatic fashion: paranoia is a psychosis, a reaction to the overwhelming pressures of techno-culture.
            Writers such as Pynchon illuminate an alternative to the sociological approach, which treats paranoia as indicative of a larger social problem to be diagnosed.  He displaces paranoia and its cousin, schizophrenia, from the realm of psychic energy to that of material energy, energies of systemic forces at large.  Paranoia shifts from a psychic problem of perceiving the world to a mode of operating technologically within the world.  Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani makes this point in Cyclonopedia (2008) when he compares psychoanalysis with archaeology: “According to the archaeological law of contemporary military doctrines and Freudian psychoanalysis, for every inconsistency or anomaly visible on the ground, there is a buried schizoid consistency; to reach the schizoid consistency, a paranoid consistency or plane of paranoia must be traversed” (54).  Taking Negarestani’s lead (which coincides with Pynchon’s), we might suggest that Freudian psychoanalysis was never well-suited to the psyche at all, but rather to the material distribution of energies along planes of various scales, whether these be microbiological or international.
            In this manner, paranoia is not something to be diagnosed as symptomatic, dismissed as politically reactionary, or pursued as conspiratorially perceptive: it is to be methodologically recalibrated as an instrument of information processing.  Paranoia composes narratives, albeit in a manner that necessarily leaves plot holes; surface inconsistency can only be explained by leaps of faith, assumptions that cannot be proven, in order to construct a linear and often malign explanation.  This is the compulsion of the conspiracy theorist.  Rather than accept such assumptions as rational, surface inconsistency should be countered by a drive toward subterranean consistency, an appeal to the neutral and nonintentional complexity of schizoid systems – what Pynchon articulates as the incomprehensibility of terrestrial matter itself, “the World just before men.  Too violently pitched alive in constant flow ever to be seen by men directly.  They are meant only to look at it dead, in still strata, transputrefied to oil or coal” (GR 734).  Unable to look at it alive, the conspiracy theorist entertains fantasies about its evil plans, its malign motives, as Oedipa Maas does at the end of The Crying of Lot 49 (1965): “[Pierce Inverarity] might himself have discovered The Tristero, and encrypted that in the will, buying into just enough to be sure she’d fine it.  Or he might even have tried to survive death, as a paranoia; as a pure conspiracy against someone he loved” (148).  By contrast, the critical-paranoiac theorists force themselves to see through the senselessness to the schizoid consistency beneath: the horrifying proliferation of networks, systems, and matter.

            If Cthulhu was born today, its name would be Skynet – but then, both are still paranoid reductions of the world we live in.  For the closest thing to an accurate expression of Western culture’s schizophrenic processes, read Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.