Bernát Iváncsics is currently a graduate student of the Master’s program in Data Reporting at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. As a journalist and story teller, he covers business and technology. As a student interested in the stories themselves, his academic interests include postmodern American prose fiction, post-structuralist literary criticism, and narratology. Iváncsics wrote Presence and Embodiment as a 2nd-year master’s student at Eötvös Loránd University under the guidance of Enikő Bollobás, Professor of the Department of American Studies (ELTE). Email:
In the following paper, I will argue that the bodies of Thomas Pynchon’s characters, featured in his latest novel, Bleeding Edge (2013), function as nodes of information distribution in the mediatized cyber- and urban space of New York City during the 9/11 terror attacks. By claiming that Pynchon’s employment of fictional characters occurs in the form of hyperlinks and disembodied interactions, I intend to problematize the literary rendering of mediation and communication as influenced by the technologically “extended” body. In my analysis of the novel, I propose to view the mediatized nature of communication and perception in Bleeding Edge as a new form of the body’s embeddedness, where the technologically saturated “information society” becomes its newly devised “natural” habitat.
Pynchon’s most recent novel, a private-eye detective story, features both a physical urban landscape and a virtual cyberspace. The protagonist of the novel, along with a populous tableau of associated characters, navigates in both of the spaces to decipher, pass on, or erase certain clues to reconstruct criminal activities which they perceive as instances leading up to the 9/11 attacks. The clues themselves occur in various forms; they are found in “deep space,” to which a virtual cybernetic application yields access (DeepArcher); they crop up in copied video footages that are devoid of context and metadata; and even become dematerialized—in scattered debris and ash—during the devastation occurring on September 11. Pynchon balances his characters and their perception (as well as construction) of clues on the thin seam that splits the domains of the virtual-textual and the bodily-physical. As a result, his characters become part of the continuum leading from the bodily to the virtual (and vice versa), encompassing their bodily presence and bodily perception as an interface between the two domains.
This essay will first assess relevant discourses in literary and cultural studies to establish a conceptual framework in which “body” and “embodiment,” as well as “presence” and “immediacy,” can be defined. I will construct the contextual backdrop for these terms by adopting theories discussing the “information society.” The two legs of my theoretical approach will involve shifting between my argumentation on both embodiment and presence so as to establish the referential nodes connecting these discourses. Finally, I will briefly rely on the genealogy of these main concepts, and suggest that “embodiment” and “presence,” although here used mainly in a technological discourse, are both heavily indebted to phenomenological insights on “body,” “spatiality,” and “intentionality.”
Situating my reading of the novel in a carefully outlined pool of discourses is especially important in face of overlapping and homologous concepts, such as “body,” “corporeality,” or “mediatization.” Bleeding Edge itself employs the artistic ambiguity of puns in its dialogues, historic fiction in the formulation of its plot, and self-reflexive dialogues in its narrative. Drawing the lines of my theoretical framework is as much a discursive construction of secondary readings as my interpretation of the novel is a creative process. In fact, analogously to Pynchon’s coined ambiguities, the various authors of theory, too, play out in their work the conceptual shifts and etymological binaries contained within important terms, such as Scott Lash’s couple of “representation” versus “re-presentation,” or Chris Shilling’s oppositional pair: “mediation” and “im-mediacy.”
Body studies and embodiment theory are still in their wake as crossover discourses; as a result, various contesting theories put emphasis on different aspects of corporeality. In my following assessment of these theories, I will separate what I view as two paradigms in the approach to embodiment by coining the following—temporary—phrases for the sake of clarity: theories of inscription and theories of corporeality. Theories of inscription subscribe to engendering the bodily existence as a basis for textual inscription within a socio-cultural—and increasingly mediatized—world. Conversely, theories of corporeality view the body as a functioning tool, the virtual extension of which into technologies of the information society places it as the subject of investigation for cybernetics and the discourse on cyborgs. Through this conceptual bifurcation we can more easily elucidate how the newly defined body poses various problems for perception and “presence.” Ultimately the implication of such parallel analysis will point to the conclusion that the notion of the body as interface undermines dichotomies such as immediacy and distance, culture and nature, as well as virtual and physical presence.
I.) Strategies of embodiment
The following section will address and identify humanist and social theories of the body in various interrelated contexts. “Embodiment” and “body” appear in a wide array of recent social discourses and, as a result, have become heavily saturated in their network of reference. My aim is to situate the concept of “embodiment” in a techno-cultural social discourse, through which I intend to respond to Pynchon’s proposed literary problem of placing his characters in a technologically advanced world and guiding them by multi-layered mediatory interactions, such as video footages, video game scenarios applied to real life, electronic stock market trading and so on. Such a multi-faceted definition will necessarily invoke a collective set of related discussions and theories.
1.) Body as text—technesis and poststructuralism
One key feature that body studies inherited from discourses on social class, gender, race, or colonial power is a focus on representationalism, argues Mark B. Hansen in his book Embodying Technesis (12). He claims that this epistemologically motivated discourse has up to this day presented and judged the human body in terms of its capacity to fulfill the role of being a surface for social inscriptions (18). With regards to its performative capabilities, the body enacts certain social scripts imposed upon it. According to this reading, a person’s body functions as the token by which certain social roles are recognized by others and which may initiate normative control in response. Hansen does not denounce the way skin color or visible sexual attributes render specific social responses; he also acknowledges that the body—in its so-to-speak, corpo-reality—is a culturally aestheticized and conceptualized organism (25). The terminological framework of such discourses frequently invokes the concepts of “scripts,” “inscription,” and “ascribing.” However, apart from gender, race, or power structures, what also become the targets for debates are technology and the artificially modified machines and prostheses surrounding human beings. Technologically is often viewed as an intruding, and indeed colonizing, external power, which often penetrates the organic body in the forms of medical or mediatory prostheses. Criticism of technology is thus often motivated by the desire to “re-humanize” society and reinstate traditional forms of communication.
In general, such criticism seems to have provoked a fissure in the ways we understand and live technology. Discourses on technology, therefore, treads the path of viewing digitalization, virtualization, and robotics as a cultural products or rather, externalities of society, which are increasingly characteristic of the current age but which, nonetheless, pose an external threat to normal human life. In fact, discourse on technology frequently involves placing technological evolution into a historical or colonial discourse, and rightly so: the “digital divide” and the problem of accessing technological means is indeed a critical target of cultural criticism. But what do we make of those societies in which emerging generations face a fully saturating technological environment? And what do we make of technologies that already seem to influence the way our criticism of their “intrusion” can be formulated?
When wrapping technological discourse into a larger cultural or sociological framework, it is often difficult to ignore common referential claims targeting the conceptualization of society. One of these claims is that nature and culture are intrinsically different (cf. Bruno Latour in the next section of this paper), describing science and its social products as an autonomous and monolithic force confronting traditional ways of social functioning. As I will address this problem during my elaboration of the cyberpunk literary genre, various moral, religious, and cultural arguments respond to the encroachment of technology upon the lives of human beings. A key aspect of such encroachment is the virtualization and interchangeability of the body, and the general view that the inability to ground identity—or, in broader terms, referentiality—in the body endangers the biological, moral, and perceptional bases of human beings.
Hansen in a later book of his, Bodies in Code, introduces the concept of the “interface” between the human body and different products of media. Before delving into this topic, I propose to briefly cite Donna Haraway’s seminal essay on cyborgs (Haraway, 2004), in which a proposition similar to Hansen’s take place, albeit addressing a different discourse. Nonetheless, due to its potential analogies and its capacity of being a well-known reference, the cyborg-image constructed by Haraway can be viewed as a first step in dismantling the nature-culture opposition; since what Haraway does is argue for a hybrid form for humans through the conceptual eradication of the culturally imposed boundaries segregating humans and machines, humans and animals, or the physical and the non-physical (11-3).
Underscored by the explicit tones of postgenderism, Haraway deconstructs the essentialized female reader and actor, and instead promotes the cyborg: the hybrid socio-political personality who may effectively confront control strategies—such as the scientifically, economically, and medically verified and supported strategies of birth and population control—that form a self-affirming and monolithic political discourse over the individual (17).
While Haraway’s principle of hybridity dons the armor of politically motivated intellectual resistance, Hansen focuses less on power relations and instead foregrounds the body as a particular domain encompassing “practices,” and engendering the “body schema as potentiality” (Bodies in Code 38). Hansen’s argument borrows much from phenomenology and Merleau-Ponty’s concept of spatiality (40) when he says the body constitutes a domain from which (potential) interactions against the material world originate, and thus grounds the intentionality of material interaction in the body’s enactment of potential practices. For Hansenthe question of embodiment verges between psychology and phenomenology, linking the two through the argument that intentionality is the performative side of connecting the “motor and the perception” (44).
2.) Body-schema and the spatiality of the body
Before summarizing Hansen, it is necessary to briefly trace back the line of his criticism to the seminal texts of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the body-theory proposed by his phenomenologist model. Hansen’s reliance on two important terms, namely, “intentionality” and “body-schema,” stems from Merleau-Ponty’s adoption of Edmund Husserl’s disengagement from an “empiricist-atomist” model of perception and taking Husserl’s thinking further by arguing for the physical human body’s constitutive powers in perception and experience (Bodies in Code 66).
Merleau-Ponty embarks on Husserl’s track by adopting his predecessor’s concept of “pre-reflective” cogito, the non-ideological “lived experience” which leads back to the sensation of “unique time” and “unique space” (Merleau-Ponty 226). He argues that even Kant’s transcendental dialectic and his critical categories of space and time need to be bracketed and discarded in order to reach back to this primordial state of experience. For Merleau-Ponty, the point of departure is our body, and the way our pre-cogito experience fathoms the body is constituted in our “body schema” (49). Joona Taipale in her critical volume on Husserl, Phenomenology of Embodiment, remarks that Merleau-Ponty’s proposed “phenomenological body” is in fact a direct extrapolation of Husserl’s “lived experience,” the notion of which, furthermore, entails that all intersubjective encounters should be grounded by embodied experiencing (72-6).In effect, Taipale’s criticism highlights the fact that as soon as perception is conceptualized as a pre-cogito process, it puts the body as the inevitable source for experience.
This “living” of our experiences is made possible by its embeddedness into the body as well as the subject’s “commitment to the world” (Merleau-Ponty 85). The subject’s “commitment” implies that the subject’s pre-cogito experience has a target, that is, it is drawn to its own bodily existence as well as to all exterior and perceptible phenomena. In Merleau-Ponty’s words, all experience is “intentional,” although still not premeditated by critical self-reflection, such as would happen in Descartes’s epistemology (67). The notion of “intentionality” denounces the thought of having a passive sensory system that merely receives and structures sensations.
The body schema (schema corporeal) is constituted by such intentional but pre-cogito sensory functioning. The body enters the process of experiencing by providing what Merleau-Ponty calls the “situational spatiality of the body” as opposed to its “positional spatiality” (102). The body schema implies our awareness of the “posture” of our body in space, but also in relation to other objects and bodies. Positional spatiality is distinguished from situational spatiality by our pre-cogito knowledge of the fact that perception is affected by other surrounding bodies—or the absence of such bodies. This relational perception in space differs from the perceived measurable distance between objects in space, which, conversely, we experience through our bodies’ positional spatiality. Merleau-Ponty points out that embodied perception inherently relies on relational spatial coordinates. The spatiality of the body schema will, in my further elaboration, gain more importance when I discuss the issue of “presence.”
Technology comes into the picture when this approach faces the decision as to whether include the different kinds of prostheses (either physical or virtual extensions of the potential practices of the body) into the body schema. In Bodies in Code, Hansen examines artworks of contemporary new-media art, in which digital, mechanical, and biological extensions problematize the question of embodiment as well as the axioms of traditional aesthetics. For instance, as opposed to the idea of “fullness” or “completeness,” which heavily relies on classical and neoclassical aesthetic measures of viewing an artwork’s (body or object’s) functioning parts as constituting a fully developed whole, Hansen’s favored “hybridity” incorporates foreign elements into the organic body (72-6). He argues that while the hybrid organism may abandon essentializing aesthetic categories, in which its homogeneity is susceptible to veneration, “alien” body parts, in turn, can serve to reinstate the “tactile groundedness” of perception within the body schema (62). Tactility is at once “primordial” and “infrasensory,” that is, grounded in the primitive senses of our “skin container” and also being the body’s only sense able to verify the material nature of the body; tactility thus provides a general mental backdrop of corporeal physicality to all other senses and, in Hansen’s argument, is an important factor in establishing Husserl’s “pre-meditated experience” within Merleau Ponty’s bodily phenomenology (Bodies in Code 65-72). In response to the spatiality of the body schema, Hansen draws three conclusions with regards to the applicability of technological extensions: since the pre-cogito reflection of the world is at the same time intentional and embodied, the body itself is always in “excess,” and, secondly, this excess constantly ties the body to an external environment (which, most often, contains other perceiving bodies). Thirdly, technological means and aids may extend or replace this tie or “coupling” between the body and the external world (38-9).
In his conclusion, Hansen highlights the importance of transition between the body and its surroundings; the gap between the body and technology has been—since the early years of civilizations—bridged by artificial equipment, such as tools and other aids to help humans in their work and survival. Today, such technologies enter the body’s sensory system and go beyond the surface of the skin. The body schema is increasingly perforated by the technologies that appropriate the capacity of intentionality engendered by the body. This transformation situates the body along the continuum spanning two domains: the corporeal and the technological. In conclusion, corporeality’s connection to technological means can be best described by the image of the “interface,” the invisible and ever-shifting seam that marks the convergence of the two domains (45-56).
3.) Information society—The possibility of criticism
Our previous discussion on embodiment needs further elaboration in order to provide a social context to what I have so far only vaguely referred to as “technological” and “technological means.” My hypothesis regarding Pynchon’s novel is that the fictional urban and technological environment depicted in it is—most importantly—an information society. As I will elaborate later in this paper, Bleeding Edge’s detective plot is characteristically clue-driven in its rendition of the backdrop of Manhattan and the structuring of its fictional cyberspace-application, “DeepArcher.” What is at stake for the protagonist of the novel is to reconstruct a criminal activity, find the traces leading back to it, and navigate along contradictory “bites” (and bytes) of information. The main factor that leads astray her investigation on several occasions is the mediated nature of clues, where mediation includes video footages, blogs, the Internet, and a series of chronological events that all are displaced by the fragmented access to certain databases containing their information.
The concept of “mediation” will, in the second part of my theoretical elaboration, eventually lead my line of thought to the problem of “presence,” and I will discuss it there, too. In the context of Pynchon’s novel, however, where I am situating the bodily presence of Pynchon’s characters in the “information society,” I will first turn to a reading that is motivated by socio-cultural inquiry.
Scott Lash in Critique of Information proposes a revised concept and methodology of cultural theory whereby he claims that the main structuring element of society and culture is “information.” Lash concludes that the emergence of this “element” has also caused the decline of the social structure: “postmodernization means the replacement of social structures by information and communication structures” (28). Through the lens of a sociologist, he enumerates the ways in which “postmodernization” occurs on a global level, claiming that contemporary social tendencies transfer the emphasis from the national to the global; from the “logic of manufacturing” to the “logic of information;” and from organization to disorganization (26-32). Ultimately, he contends that due to the nature of the flow of information, which compresses, neutralizes, speeds up, and “stretches out” (makes discontinuous) social communication, there remains no further critical vantage point or transcendental argument from which neutral reflections could be made over culture or society. Information society encroaches upon the critical standpoint by way of its never-ending temporal presence, its inclination to commodify information, and its neutralization of oppositions (18-9).
Lash continues his discussion on the dissimilation of culture in terms of the receding image of the nature-culture duality, as developed by his sociologist predecessor, Bruno Latour in his book We Have Never Been Modern. Latour’s idea was that in modernist societies nature is “transcendental” while culture is “artificial:” One has to discover the previous and construct the latter. Culture consists of not merely pieces of art but of social and political institutions, such as governments, science departments, or urban infrastructure. Lash points out that in the information society such distinction is untenable due to the mediated way humans as social beings encounter their environment. While Latour could say that the rise of modernism can be attributed to the “bracketing of nature” (Latour 29), information society goes beyond this structural dichotomy and once more foregrounds nature as the original and only paradigm. Technological environment, in turn, will qualify as the new nature, and culture will lose its—supposed—essence. Lash, furthermore, argues that no critical or artificial construction can be made in a world which we interpret as being intrinsically mediated. This argument rhymes well with bio-hybrids of the technologized bodies in Hansen’s argument. In short, the same way the body can be described as the medium between potential practices and available extensions, so is technology “discovered”—not constructed—as the new nature of the information society. While I do not defy the artificiality of technology, I do argue that the mediatory nature of the body with relation to its technological extensions avoids bracketing nature, and follows the path of extending the body schema into the technological realm.
In terms of a criminal investigation, where both the criminal and the set of victims need to be determined, such critical vantage point is inevitable and necessary. Pynchon’s millennial world, similarly to works of utopian science fiction, could have suggested a society dominated by excessive surveillance and transparency, especially through its description of the aftermath of 9/11. While thematically secret agency monitoring and the “colonization” of the Internet (135, 354-6) do appear in Bleeding Edge, much of the plot is complicated by the disorganization and the contradictory as well as redundantly cross-referential nature of information. Such disorganization originates from the overlaps of various mediatory sources, which produce a sense of interference (“crosstalk”) between two related domains; the most dramatic example to this last scenario will be the blurred boundaries of life and death, as well as the depiction of cyberspace as the “sanctuary” for the dead.
A final argument that I wish to adopt from Lash’s theory is the McLuhanite idea of the medium losing its instrumental quality and becoming an end in itself, that is, a “finality” (Lash 73). Lash dates this duality back to Kant and early modern thinking about culture, but concludes that the trends and directions of the information society have collapsed this duality. Interestingly, instrumentalization appears in Hansen’s book on new media art, where he argues that the continuum stretching from the body to technological extensions instrumentalize the body; in other words, it foregrounds its technological nature. Regarding corporeality as means of something—a technical capacity—is yet another critical response to the representationalist approach of the body.Replacing signification, embodiment emerges as a technologically motivated process.
4.) Bodies in cyberspace – The codification of the corporeal
i.) Defining cyberspace
Various definitions coexist in circumscribing the discursive domain in which the concept of cyberspace can be articulated. Such variety of definitions can be accumulated and synthesized in a broad term that refers to electrically mediated communications systems, and, more specifically, the space in which electronic communication can occur. In a more concrete fashion, this space emerges as a virtual environment for interaction via the Internet, such as in chat rooms, over social media, or through Internet-based multimedia communication (Schilling 178). These are examples of mostly private interactions but further instances come to mind, like surveillance technologies, online business transactions, and various kinds of control mechanisms conducted over the World Wide Web.
A recurring question regarding cyberspace is whether it is equivalent to the Internet, as we know it from our everyday experience. Referentially speaking, they are equal since both rely on the network of computers and the data stored and shared through this network. In my analysis of Bleeding Edge, I will opt for the broader term of “cyberspace” and discard “Internet” in order to avoid confusion. First of all, “cyberspace” implies “space,” the concept of which is one of the pivotal points in my reasoning. Conceptualizing the network of electronic communication as “space” determines the way we can grasp coding and digital communication as potential extension of the body schema. I argue that cyberspace is, indeed, a spatial concept, and the way Pynchon introduces his analogous term, “deep space” or “deep web,” is fundamental to his employment of DeepArcher, the online application. Conversely, our notion of the “Internet” may only signify two-dimensional, user-friendly webpages, and may even exclude contemporary developments of web 2.0 and web 3.0, which imply interactive user presence. “Cyberspace,” with all its science fictional allusions, remains a concept flexible enough to encompass both what we understand as “the Internet” today, but at the same time include visually rendered virtual “spaces” and user-defined interactive content.
ii.) Good information, bad information. Cyberpunk.
While Bleeding Edge may not qualify as a full-fledged cyberpunk novel, my previous reference to its contents and peculiarities may have evoked the sensation that the novel does, in fact, feature a number of traits that would place it into this science-fiction subgenre.My reason for briefly elaborating cyberpunk in this section is that I view this genre as the literary tradition that comes closest to Bleeding Edge in terms of its scope and relevance in problematizing the technological world. Cyberpunk cannot be mentioned without referring to its representative figure, Canadian writer William Gibson, whose novels such as Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition have set the standards for the genre (Cavallaro x), and whose most notable work deal with cyberspace, virtual realities, and disembodied protagonists. While I believe that Pynchon consciously employs themes of this genre, I do not refer to it here to explore the ways Bleeding Edge is thematically indebted to cyberpunk. Rather, I want to examine briefly how this recent literary tradition addresses problems of information society and information protocol.
Dani Cavallaro, on his comprehensive monograph Cyberpunk and Cyberculture, traces cyberpunk’s origins back to the heyday of American detective stories from the 20s, as well as to the emerging technological sensation of the 60s and 70s, when “the virtual interchangeability of human bodies and machines becomes a recurring theme” (12). Furthermore, the second part of the compound term, “punk,” refers to the frequently adopted characters of this genre: people on the fringe of society, social outcasts, and criminals. Bleeding Edge features many of these in the form of young Silicon Valley hackers, Brooklyn hipsters, and illegal immigrants occupying Manhattan, whose counterculture demarcates the territorial boundaries of the “yuppified” (Pynchon 266-7) uptown areas of the city, east and west of Central Park.
Cavallaro enumerates a set of features that define the genre: the instability of reality and identity; the commodification of identity in brand logos, signs, slogans, celebrities and so on; and finally the philosophical and moral issue of people changing their identities through virtual representations and thus disembodying their existence in a network of interconnected communications (14-22). Narratives of cyberpunk novels depict a chaotic world in which avatars pose as living persons, where history and culture are faked by the mythologies undergirding brand identities of multinational corporations, and where order and communication become intrinsic adversaries. All these features crop up in one way or another in Pynchon’s novel, which I will elaborate in the third main chapter.
4.) The body as function—Cybernetics
To define the body not in such terms as agency or being a surface of social inscriptions (like a piece of paper or a slate on which texts are inscribed), but by technological terms, a short etymological analysis of the word “cybernetics” can help. Originally referring to the ancient Greek “steeringsman” of warships, the expression was coined during the Second World War by developers of military technology in air defense. Cybernetics was the technology designed to calculate the motion and trajectory of military aircrafts, and shoot a missile ahead of the plane (Mindell 21). Experts based their calculations on the motoric motions of the pilot, reasoning that under stress certain corporally programmed protocols begin to work in the body, effectively producing a repetitive and calculable choreography. Such reasoning, by the way, is self-reflexive in that it is based on the disciplining pedagogy of the military, which enforces precisely the repetitive and ordered motion-protocols characteristic of the soldier’s body. Cybernetics thus assumes that the body is a functioning entity, and that the motions it produces is an extension of its corporeal entity into the domain of certain technologies, such as the military apparatus (Schilling 185). Physical movements imply control, and control enforces governed practices (praxis as techne), which in turn renders the body a functioning technological tool.
Cybernetics and, subsequently, cyberspace are rooted in military technology, a feature that is also invoked in Bleeding Edge to contest the pop-cultural narrative which identifies cyberspace as free and not yet colonized land for the “nerd cowboys” (Pynchon 157) who roam without legal or technological constraints. Historically speaking, the same way the predecessor of the Internet had been a Cold War artifact—constructed in order to decentralize the chain of command in case of a nuclear emergency scenario, by way of imposing multi-nodal algorithms which enable counteraction initiated by a network of computers—cyberspace and cybernetics have been first and foremost a technology of control.
The body of the cyberspace emerges not simply as a virtual representation of something but as a controlling element of information and data flow. Pynchon’s novel digresses from the trends of portraying cyberspace as a domain of the information society based on (visual) representation and instead featuresan artificial reality in which the body incorporates this reality and controls and molds its environment. Characters in the novel that descend into “deep space” have to command, pixel by pixel, the visual format of the virtual world. What is more, in Pynchon’s “deep space” avatars, too, remain malleable and must with constant effort establish themselves as stable entities.
5.) Cyberidentity vs. the body as interface
Commanding the virtual space of communication through technologies of the extended body puts certain concepts, such as identity, at risk. Is the virtual self constructed through the assemblage of immaterial data, producing a reader’s or cipher’s identity, or does an organic link still exist between avatar and body? Cybernetics so far has not fully opposed our notion of the textually identified body; it only asserted that bodies are, by implication, technologies, and that the representationalist virtual space of cyberspace and digital interaction can be substituted by the affinity of control as expressed by its inhabitants. We have, so far, implied a discourse in which cyberspace is defined as an extension of the functions of the body and not the extension of its senses. We discarded cyberspace as sensory prosthesis in favor of an extension of the body as apparatus.
To surpass the trap of mutually exclusive discourses entrenched by such dichotomies, I have argued in favor of conceptualizing the body as interface. Through the interface, the body schema can be extended, and by way of this extension, the proprioception of the body foregrounds its instrumentality. I have argued previously that such instrumentalization merely suggests that the body is present in the technologically mediatized information society as a functioning and communicating entity. And the way the body schema is extended is by way of its adoption of external mediatory techniques. According to this interpretation, the shifting surface of the body, where connections to technological externalities occur, is conceptualized by the interface. The interface is the location at which technologies become “humanized,” that is, ready for human interaction.
Furthermore, interfaces are a point of transgression: bodies become functions via technological extensions while extensions and prostheses enter the body to replace or extend its functions. As a result, the interface implies that the body does not end in its physical extension at the surface of the skin. Rather, it may permeate a virtual space in which its motions and bodily functions convert into parcels of information: bits and bytes functioning as utterances, shrugs, and jerks. The physical body escapes the instrumentalization—and hence, reduction of its agency—of the encoded avatar. Instead, the interface grounds “artificial” into the “natural.” Bodily perception is aligned with proprioception.
II. Strategies of Presence
Shifting to my second focal point of analysis, discourse on presence may even span a greater range than the one on embodiment; it can evoke the terminological apparatus of phenomenology and its founder thinker, Husserl, and can reach as far as contemporary hermeneutics; the philosophy on spatiality of artworks (Tanner, 2002); and McLuhanite media theory. I will, however, treat presence strictly in coordination with my theorization on embodiment.
John Tomlinson coins the term “telepresence” to denote interactions in which subjects are present in a way that they are not present (110). How can that occur? Tomlinson cites Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan describing media platforms and utensils as the “extensions of man,” and foregrounds the etymological essence of the word “media,” which “mediates” through evoking a notion of “im-mediacy.” (108). Telepresence bridges distance (“tele”) but also separates by way of presenting the non-present as if it were present. I do not intend to play with puns; instead, the reason to highlight the common thread weaving physical/bodily presence and the mediated presentation of the body together is to underline the inherent contradiction of immediacy produced by the bridging of distance with a medium.
I will combine the concept of telepresence with Hansen’s phenomenology-imbued concept of the body schema, as well as his concept of the interface, to reflect on the spatial groundedness of corporeality. Following the line of thought of Hansen, I will argue in accordance with sociologist Christopher Schilling that spatial and temporal presence can be viewed as the node through which control (political, biological, or social) is imposed on the corporeal subject. In turn, virtuality may offer the required “sanctuary” for the subject, whose disembodiedness alleviates its corporeal subjugation to the “then” and “there.” The idea of the “sanctuary” emerges in Bleeding Edge with an ironically negative overtone: it depicts the futile attempt to bring back the victims of 9/11, at least through remembrance. Furthermore, the investigation facilitated by the detective protagonist suffers—in a variety of instances—from her clues being displaced by different forces preventing them from becoming traces. Finally, through the trace-clue pair I intend to highlight the problem of embodiment in terms of the space of criticism.
The notion of telepresence turns problematic when advanced technologies produce instances in which mediation occurs through the disembodied representation of a person, such as in the forms of “avatars,” as used by entities in cyberspace. Dani Cavallaro and Deborah Lupton grasp “avatars” as the disembodied and constructed representations of users in cyberspace (Cavallaro 2000, Lupton 2004). The reader may notice how I am using the term representation here right after disposing it in the previous chapters in favor of the instrumentalized body. I now want to cut through the polysemy of the term to avoid its limitations: representation invokes an epistemological discourse, while re-presentation assumes something that is already there (and is thus not an alienated representation of itself) but which needs to be discovered. “Discovery” reminds us of Latour’s argument that “nature” opposes construction (“culture”) due to its quality of already being there. I have argued that technology can function as the new nature precisely because through extensions into technology, body discovers its own functionality along the continuum that ties it to its technological externalities. The dichotomy problematized by Latour collapses once more because it is through construction that embodiment “discovers” its own technological nature (71).
How does this tie back to the question of avatars? While avatars are commonly referred to as forms of representation, I propose to rearticulate the terminology and argue that avatars are not representations but extensions of users in the cybernetic world. Mixing up the two leads to “deadly” misunderstandings, as I will point out in examples of ambiguous fatalities found in Bleeding Edge.
Immediacy, according to its etymological structure, implies the lack of mediation. Looking at it the other way, mediatory techniques overwrite the distance-presence conflict, substituting it with the concept of “telepresence,” a term which could be rephrased as presence-at-a-distance (cf. Schilling, Cavallaro). As in the case of avatars, disembodiment functions as a liberating transformation. But perhaps transformation is a wrong phrase to use here, since it implies an altered version of the embodied presence (the body schema grounded into its physical and temporal presence). As I said, I do not view avatars as representations but as extensions: extensions through mediation. As soon as we dispose of “representation,” we end up with presentation, a way of existence—virtual or not—which avoids its representational doubling. In Bleeding Edge, Pynchon depicts cyberspace as purely technical, and even rejects the protagonist’s explicit question whether “avatars” bear any metaphysical significance (Pynchon 70). While avatars facilitate mediation, at the same time they constitute the nature of the bodily extension: the algorithmic thinker and the sign-generator thinker that can, as we will see in the novel, even fake its own image. This malleability makes avatars and end in themselves: not the medium and the message, separately, but a medium that is an extension of the intentional body schema.
2.) Distance of criticism
So far, I have addressed the problem of immediacy through its special relationship to embodiment: as soon as the instrumentalizing quality of embodiment finds its form in its virtual extension, immediacy collapses. Virtual extensions will manifest themselves as obstacles for Pynchon’s protagonist, while the author himself will rely on them to spin a playful plot. From the detective’s point of view, however, the question emerges as to how criticism can be directed at anything in the information society, where information—which compresses time and space—eliminates the foundations for criticism (Lash 28). Or, to put the question differently, how does the algorithmic, selective, and constructive investigation operate in a case of multiple entries (55-8)? Lash argues that any media in the information society eliminates distance because they themselves become a finality. Various forms of media do not represent, that is, do not double by way of creating an image of something which already exists, but stand in themselves as the original image (71).In terms of the plot of a detective story, what this implies is that clues, references, and traces do not reproduce an event or activity that preceded them—but construct them. Temporal or spatial immediacy thus loses its cohesive force and instead yields to the narrative temporal pane of the investigation, which constructs itself along its gradual involvement with the criminal case.
3.) Inside the body. Outside the body.
In this final section, which I dedicate to the possible readings of presence, I revisit the “situational” spatiality of the body schema. By doing so, I wish to connect our current understanding of the spatialized body schema with that of criticism, as in the perception of critical distance. Critical distance, as described by Scott Lash, is a pivotal aspect of attempting to process information: to structure it, interpret it, and to convert it into meaningful content from raw data. As we have seen, Lash sees the lack of a critical vantage point as the fundamental problem—and inherent product—of the information society. Flows of information through mediatory utilities define their immediate presence by rendering media a finality.
Our model of the technologically extended body schema is defined by its intentional ability to situate itself spatially through its pre-reflexive experiencing. The space of such proprioception is altered as a result of the body schema being perforated by and attached to its extensions, effectively producing an interface that bridges the two domains. The concept of the interface implies that technology is at once humanized and that human interactions are increasingly defined by a technologizing economy of information culture and mediated presence. We may now ask Hansen and Merleau-Ponty how our critical capacity is retained. Arguing that intentionality vouches for the lost space of criticism would mean conflating intentionality with the critical faculty. Regarding intentionality, we defined it as the inherent “excess” of the body schema, capable of embodying its perceptions by situating sensory information through aligning them via spatial-bodily coordinates. Critical space requires the post-cogito capacity of the mind. The way to bridge the two stems from by my previously introduced argument that in favor of a new ontology of the information society, we must discard our cultural reading of technology, which is mainly informed by presuppositions of epistemology. If we argue so, the critical space should also be discarded.
How does the detective protagonist function, then? Not by maintaining an illusory distance towards its subject, but by foregrounding her act of subjugating the criticized object, instead of which she would engage in the production of the critical medium. In Pynchon’s universe, the detective’s role is informed by the user’s approach of choosing from possible scenarios and structuring them in a set of meaningful ways. Confronted by a series of loose ends, Maxine realizes that the clues she had perceived to be leads confirming her initial suspicion turn out to be merely symptomatic of her mental preconception of the suspected crime, nothing else. Maxine choice of correspondents—as in: what leads she should consider and whom she should trust—engenders the production of a critical scenario, which is an assemblage of plots enacting their own capacity of problematization. The database of contesting scenarios is available to Maxine but she is required to establish through hyperlinks the connection of these narrative instances. It is also important to note that hyperlinks are always two-way streets: on the one hand they facilitate the production of analogies and within such analogies subscribe to a form of narrative reasoning that justifies establishing the very connection between two elements of the database in the first place. On the other hand, however, hyperlinks offer the possibility of “undoing” whathas been established in writing or utterance. This undoing turns out to be less of a universal characteristic of the information society and more of an indication that hyperlinks are multi-purpose nodes of criticism: at once producing the critical discourse and reflecting upon that discourse. Irreversibility affects both information structures since “entropy”—as I discuss this concept elsewhere in this paper— implies a propensity of information accumulation and information disintegration.
In sum, Pynchon’s response to the inquiry as to whether hyperlink-based narrative strategy denies creative freedom can be found in an invisible message box that pops up for Maxine as she “writes” her way through deep space: “it’s part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost” (Pynchon 76).
1.) Pynchon’s “millennial novel”
i.) The female detective. Data and narratives.
Pynchon’s most recent novel simultaneously features characteristic tricks taken from Pynchon’s literary toolbox and offers new motifs to extend this palette. In the followings, I venture to situate Bleeding Edge in Pynchon’s body of work and by doings so discover continuities as well as abruptions in this current novel in relation to previous works.
Bleeding Edge qualifies as the first Pynchon-novel to fully employ a female sleuth. Maxine, a single mother of two and occasional wife to her ex-husband, Horst, investigates business fraud through semi-legal means. It is also through her episodic interactions, conversations, and private investigation that the main plot unfolds in the forms of various contesting sub-plots which seemingly lead towards a conclusive summit. An obvious reference to a similar Pynchon-protagonist would be the California housewife Oedipa Maas in Pynchon’s 1966 novella, The Crying of Lot 49. As with Maxine, Oedipa embarks on an investigative journey to unravel what she perceives as a worldwide conspiracy. Both female protagonists are witty, cunning, and both pursue an insatiable need to reconstruct mysteries surrounding them. The way they begin their respective investigation, by following clues and footages, bears a set of resemblances: as in the millennial world of Bleeding Edge, Oedipa’s world of the sixties features recurring clues from a mysterious source: the stamps of the underground postal service, Tristero. The division between “meat space” and “deep space,” the two domains of existence in Bleeding Edge, furthermore, resembles the layered cosmology found also in The Crying of Lot 49: Tristero’s secret, message delivery-based underground world can be interpreted as the pre-Internet age version of the coded realm of cyberspace, which is set up in opposition to “real world” power structures. Tristero camouflages their operations by installing waste bins on the streets to function as secret post boxes; analogously, DeepArcher, constructed by Brooklyn-hackers, resemble a virtual wasteland in the form of codes and hyperlinks, which are constantly rewritten, restructured, and recycled. Maxine at one point during her presence in deep space remarks that deep web seemed to her like an endless “junkyard,” a “dump, with structure” (Pynchon 226).
Besides the striking similarities, however, it is not simply the four decades in time that sets these two works of Pynchon apart. The way I have approached Bleeding Edge through the conceptualization of information society and the problematization of embodied and disembodied interactions marks a paradigmatic shift—so to speak—in Pynchon’s most recent novel. While Oedipa’s investigation could be characterized as an act of forever deferred signification, Maxine’s approach is notable for what I would call an “information overdrive,” in which seemingly complementary pieces of clues dissolve into ambiguous “crosstalk.” I find this latter technological expression an ample metaphor to mark my distinction: “crosstalk” implies interference between television or radio channels when neighboring frequencies jam each other’s channel due to energy leakage or the circuit coupling of the two energy sources supporting these channels. In practice, crosstalk entails a vague montage of garbled communication during which perfectly sensible strings of code, data, or information “bleed through” into another discourse. Oedipa Maas’ conspiracy theories fuelled by Tristero’s signs foregrounds the problem of referentiality. As Deborah Madsen put it in her volume on Pynchon’s postmodernist strategies, “because the semantic potential of Tristero signs is not regulated by any ultimate signified that she could identify, Oedipa finds herself in the realm of écriture, of ungrounded discourse and suggestively disseminating signs” (57-8).Conversely, Maxine’s investigation conducted in the information society highlights the problem of structuring and interpreting information.
Indeed, the majority of Maxine’s investigative work consists of running transaction data and revenue stream spreadsheets through her “Benford’s Law” calculations (Pynchon 41) whereby she aims to detect overwhelming regularities, such as steady increase or steady decline in trading figures or pricing trends as compared to a larger market context. In her procedure, Maxine’s greatest problem is to structure data and separate their sources by arranging them into graphs, groups, diagrams, or attribute them to certain real time events. Such association of data to physical and thus perceivable events is one literary strategy by which Pynchon roots his fictional plots into the “historiographic” backdrop of real life events—which I will discuss soon below. In a way Maxine’s approach is similarly constructive as is Oedipa’s, and both protagonists battle an overwhelmingly chaotic external world of dizzying clues. However, while Oedipa’s struggle stems from her feverishly produced imaginary plots on Tristero’s actions, Maxine is fighting against the disguise of information: the way it emulates facts and hard-boiled statistics but ultimately confuse their readers and interpreters by subjecting them to the idea of scientific justification. Production of information and its distribution becomes automatized and saturates Maxine’s “informed” understanding of what various forms of rendered data show her.
In its original definition, Maxine’s applied Benford’s Law calculates the frequency distribution of digits in numbers and concludes the mathematical fact that digit 1 occurs more frequently than, for instance, digit 9. Pynchon’s humorous employment of Benford’s Law is one of the scattered instances in Bleeding Edge in which he refers to his recurring leitmotif: entropy. The idea of the world heading towards total disorder crops up in various forms throughout Pynchon’s oeuvre, appearing in a variety of forms, from metaphors of space and room to fragmented narratives functioning as rhetorical enactments of the idea itself. Most importantly, however, the topos of entropy became a central role in Pynchon’s most celebrated novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. The image of total disorder in this 1973 opus is produced through the apocalyptic vision of war, more specifically embodied by the infamous token of Nazi destruction in the form of the V-2 bomb developed and used during World War II. In Bleeding Edge, forces of order and disorder meet in the cataclysmic image of the penetrating, firm, and worshipped towers of the World Trade Center being demolished by terrorists. Pynchon elucidates this parallel with another, contemporaneous parallel: the demolition of the Twin Buddha statues by Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. As one of Maxine’s friends remarks: “Twin Towers, Twin Buddha’s: both religious… believing in the Invisible Hand of the market that runs everything” (338). Pynchon’s satirical picture of the positivist, self-governing, and forever evolving society, which is based strictly on information exchange and supported by the image of the free market, stands erect and on the tip of the isle of Manhattan. The 9/11 incident comes during this recession of the technological sector, and effectively destroys the symbolic edifice of technology and finance. In addition, the narrator connects physical devastation to the entropy and crosstalk of data by referring to how material particles of ash and smoke blown around by the wind at Ground Zero resembles the city being blown to pixels (Pynchon 441).
2.) Bodies in Bleeding Edge
i.) “Deep space” &“meat space”
Pynchon introduces a particular version of cyberspace in the seventh chapter of his novel. The access tool to this space, dubbed as the “DeepArcher” application, is revealed to Maxine by Lucas and his partner, Justin, two former Stanford-student hackers residing in Brooklyn. Both being in the midst of developing DeepArcher’s visual interface, they offer Maxine a test run of their application so that she can delve into the undisclosed realms of cyberspace, which is still in its early-Internet version considering how primordial its visual interface and cumbersome its networking capabilities is. Maxine’s fraud investigation at this point immerses into the electronic and virtual world of online financing. The antagonist she is after, Gabriel Ice, specializes in fraud cover-websites through which he launders illegal transactions to the Middle-East, while at the same time gaining increasing leverage in the optic-fiber cable business, which is the essential firmware market for data transactions.
Pynchon’s elaboration of the cyberspace is based on the stratification of the World Wide Web: there exists a surface level characterized by appropriated domains and websites in the possession of corporations, which yields an electronic interface to the everyday consumer who shops, socializes, publishes, and surfs on the Internet. In contrast, the deep level (Pynchon’s “deep space”) of the web can be best described as a free and uncolonized territory, appearing only to professional hackers in forms of codes, open source links, non-visual signs, requiring the user to “process” his or her way through this virtual jungle. DeepArcher is the tool whereby deep space is rendered visual. It is also designed in such a way that it resembles video games designed in the early 2000s: it features a first-person character, disguised by an avatar. At first, Maxine is confused whether DeepArcher is actually a video game: “‘Should warn you, I’m not too good at these things, drives my kids crazy, we play Super Mario and the little goombas jump up and stomp on me,’” (Pynchon 71) she says, to which Lucas abruptly replies, “‘It’s not a game.’” (71). While it is not a game, per se, it does require the abilities attributed to professional video gamers: the ability to apprehend the rules of the game and take advantage of them. In this case, the nature of the game is to discover and follow relevant links. Maxine’s choice to follow the visual path of DeepArcher or to move beyond the graphic façades of the application affects her access to different parts of deep web, and consequentially, her potential new perspectives of the events unfolding around her.
ii.) Maxine, Horst, and the “technologically saturated world”
Maxine’s own work as a fraud examiner runs parallel to how Lucas and Justin approach the world in that it remains within the virtual and the purely informational. Pynchon presents instances of Maxine’s experience in scattered anecdotic snippets of flashbacks into her previous cases and also through short allusions by occasional characters conversing with her. Pynchon also employs various puns to highlight her conflicting attitude to being a detective in a world where traditionally physical clues are relegated to the obscure realms of cyberspace, and in which news and reports become ambiguous. For instance, she concludes that recent news on the destruction of the two Buddha-statues in Afghanistan have invoked in her the notion that “Islam” and “I slam” is only a space-bar hit away (Pynchon 31), and that President George W. Bush’s meddling with the Middle East is but “shooting fish in an (oil)barrel” (48). She also sees the emerging phenomenon on pop-up windows on Java-driven websites to be the “Goombas of Web-design,” referring to the popular video game Super Mario, in which “Goombas” are the animated, mushroom-shaped enemy figures (45). In her work, however, Maxine is strictly methodological, often relying abstract calculations rather than doing fieldwork. The reader learns that one way of easily identifying fraud activities, such as embezzlement or money laundering, is by looking at a company’s officially disclosed finance sheets and applying “Benford’s Law” to them, thus detecting whether selected variables in statistics are too consistent or straight (41-2). As I mentioned before, by implying that statistics which are too neat or logical to be true are clear signs of (illegal) human intervention, Pynchon playfully invokes one of his frequently employed topoi, “entropy.” Without further elaborating the idea here again, it is important to recapitulate that the implied concept of “entropy” in Bleeding Edge classifies the flows of human interaction—whether these occur in the form of virtual transactions, virtual messages, or video footages—as inherently natural and prone to an ever increasing level of disorder. As I will come to examine other manifestations of order and disorder in the information society as described by Pynchon, I will tie these exemplary instances into the discussion on the nature-culture debate by way of presenting how Bleeding Edge argues in favor of considering technology (pertaining to the domain of culture) as the new nature.
Beyond Maxine’s methodology of her profession, her ex-husband, Horst Loeffler, and her two sons, Ziggy and Otis, are all affiliated with some form of technological activity. Horst is a financial broker who possesses an unusual instinct to foresee stock prices rise or fall. He is a former worker of the Chicago Stock Exchange, and regularly visits the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. It is through his view that Pynchon repeatedly hints at the emerging event of 9/11 (93-4, 293, 315-6), since Horst also predicts the abnormal price drop of the stocks of the two airline companies that will ultimately lose their aircrafts in the terrorist assault on the WTC towers. However, while Maxine bases her methodology of investigation on mathematical rules and other clues, Horst’s capacity is ironic in the sense that it merits from an unexplained and irrational source of power, which enables him to bypass the struggling search for clues and resources within the information society. Nonetheless, Pynchon ascribes him the similarly ironic role of the anachronistic party-man in his mid-thirties: “a fourth generation product of the U.S. Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator […] struggling to remain true to some oath he apparently took at thirty, to spend it as fast as it comes in and keep partying for as long as he can hold out” (21).
Maxine maintains an ambivalent relationship with her ex-husband; furthermore, she allows him to introduce their sons to the decaying culture of arcade games, popular in the nineties, which later proves to be essential in the two boy’s socialization as well as in their approach to their virtualized vision of the world. Horst only narrowly escapes 9/11, and in general avoids his ex-wife’s criminal investigation into Gabriel Ice, interpreting it as yet another low-impact case. The duo of Maxine and Horst thus represent two satirized roles of adults acquainting themselves with a new ecology of information distribution far too late in their lives.
The novel introduces the new generation in the characters of Ziggy and Otis in Chapter 4 as they are beta-testing Lucas’s latest computer game, a “Mom-approved first-person shooter” (Pynchon 33-4), an application set in New York in which contestants are required to detect and counter unusual or criminal activity in the city; these include middle-aged and middle class women stealing from a fruit stand; a young mother leaving her child unattended; an adult male shouting at a crying child. Shooters must eliminate these targets to gather points, but must avoid pets, old people, and the homeless (“We’re out after yup, basically” ). The “mom-approved” qualification of the game stems from its “splatter-free” option, which pixelates the spasms of blood resulting from shooting the targets. Ziggy and Otis’s engagement with computer games recurs in Chapter 27, where they travel to Chicago with Horst and play “Time Crisis 2” in an arcade hall, a game similarly set in New York City, but this time with a post-apocalyptic theme: the town is flooded due to rising sea levels. In both cases, Ziggy and Otis excel in playing the games and achieving points. In the Chicago hall, local children approach them and ask whether they are “nerds” (291). By “nerds” they mean those who are visibly capable of navigating along the rules and traps of a specific game. Ziggy and Otis recognize these rules as “real” by employing an algorithmic way of thinking, an approach based on choosing a specific option from a set of choices. Here, the boys undergo a specific ritual of socialization whereby they treat the algorithmic and user-oriented approach to decision-making as inherently natural and which they automatically impose on their “real” life. In the NY-based first person shooter game, Pynchon vaguely alludes to the reevaluated and increasingly rigorous security measures in town after 9/11. Not only did the NYPD or the Port Authority implement a tighter grip on public security during the fall of 2001, but new campaigns, public signs, and extracurricular school classes appeared in New York and throughout the United States to educate citizens on counterterrorism. One effect of such widespread campaigns was the reconfigured attention devoted to and the altered perception focusing on incidents that seemed “out of the ordinary.” Ziggy and Otis follow a similar path of appropriating a normalizing perception, in which the pick-and-choose algorithm engenders the constitution of perceived order. Referring back to Scott Lash’s argument, namely, that in the information society everything is information, and that a critical position most frequently becomes obsolete, we can say that Ziggy and Otis embody in their emerging generation the shift from epistemological criticism to a user-based ontology.
One later example to this in the novel is that as soon as they return to New York, they ask Maxine if they could relocate to a higher apartment, which would not fall prey to a possible flood. For Ziggy and Otis, the virtual world and the real become conflated due to both the realistic imagery as well as to the trend in which the thematic elements of video games feed off reality. More importantly, however, the way Ziggy and Otis treat the physical reality and their virtual presence in cyberspace as practically equivalent informs us that the two domains do not necessarily differ instrumentally. Another instance in which Pynchon depicts the intertwined nature of artificial graphics, cyberspace, and reality is in the very last chapter of the book, where he coins the city name “Zigotisopolis,” (476), referring to a virtually established fantasy city enacted by Ziggy and Otis’s perception of New York. Previously, while Maxine visits DeepArcher for the last time after 9/11—when deep web opens up to governmental surveillance mechanisms, online stores, and amateur tourists—, she catches her sons wandering around in a pre-9/11 version of New York, a graphic scenery which the boys had created after finding a graphic software extension that allowed them to visually render the videogame model of the city into their desired form of graphic manifestation (428-9). In the last scene, Maxine catches a glimpse of the sunrise reflected into her eyes from a skyscraper window, and reflects that this “precarious light” (476) reminds her of the color emitted by the “old school graphic light generator” (428), which the boys used to illuminate Zigotisopolis. Pynchon’s conclusion of the plot resonates with an affirmative attitude of acknowledgment, which perceives Zigotisopolis a creation and a reality just as relevant as real-life New York itself.
2.) Interactions embodied and virtual
i.) Shared nature
I have come across in some of my examples instances of transactions, such as information distributed by hackers and cyberspace professionals in deep web. Pynchon features a variety of such transactions in his plot, where money, information, and conversations travel in their disembodied, virtual form. The novel, however, does not present a fully immaterialized world; instead, parallels and analogies between virtual and physical transactions highlight common features of real-life human interactions, data encryption, data flow, and various forms of media structures. I view these analogies as implied arguments for the shared nature of “meat space” and “deep space,” using Pynchon’s satirical expression for the distinction between the physical and the virtual.
The novel elaborates the ways through which the two domains overlap. These overlaps sometimes result in a clash, such as in situations where a person’s life or death remains uncertain or when visual sensations in both domains resemble the counter-domain; in the majority of the instances, however, they amplify the similarities between the two realms. Below, I will focus on examples which foreground such analogies.
One prevalent feature of the plot is the aforementioned DeepArcher, which yields access to the visually structured world of the code-based deep web. I have described Maxine’s first encounter with the application—which occurs in Chapter 7—, but the heroine returns to the deep web in chapters 22, 36, and 38, as well, and keeps contact with Eric, a self-referred “geek” and hacker (Pynchon 145), who’s passion for Maxine keeps him working to unearth important and classified material obtained from cyberspace. The visual representation of strings of codes and hypertextual communication is often presented as analogous to the way a city-dweller lives her life. As I have described Ziggy and Otis’s epistemological unification of the arcade-game rendition of post-apocalyptic New York and the millennial form of the physical city, it is recurring feature of the novel to highlight similar instances. In the tenth chapter of the book, Maxine experiences an unusual sensation when she stares at the undulating crowd of pedestrians near a subway entrance: “The traffic noise gets liquefied. Reflections from the street into the windows of city buses fill the bus interiors with unreadable 3-D images, as surface unaccountably transforms to volume.” (102). Maxine witnesses visual rendition in action, the same way she had previously seen the process of pixilation during her travels with DeepArcher, at times when the graphic generator lagged to keep up with her pace: “a splash screen comes on, in shadow-modulated 256-color daylight […] The rest of the screen is claimed by the abyss—far from an absence, it is a darkness pulsing with whatever light was before light was invented” (74-5).In a similar example, Maxine’s conversation partner leans out of the window of an office building while Maxine envisions a DeepArcher image of late night New York City: “looking, sighting, down fifty stories into New York, down into that specific abyss, with an intensity she recognizes from the DeepArcher splash screen” (285). Finally, Pynchon exploits the idea that pixels function as atomic particles of the visually rendered code-reality, and equates pixilation to the destruction of the twin towers and its victims: “it was never a Beloved American Landmark, but it was pure geometry. Points for that. And then they blew it to pixels” (446).
In one of the later chapters, when Maxine ever more frequently reenters deep space after 9/11, the main body of graphics is in the form of a desert, as if to resemble the total desolation of Ground Zero and the substitution of downtown Manhattan with a clichéd version of a Middle-Eastern landscape. At this point in the novel, dialogues between characters and the narrator’s short interludes often refer to Afghanistan, the destruction of the two Buddha statues (“Twin Buddha’s, twin towers, interesting coincidence” ), and the cash-flow of the new boom in oil business originating from local Arabic countries. The description of DeepArcher’s new design passes without elaboration (354), and the virtual sky is described as “blacker than anything seen on a screen before” (355). Maxine needs to remind herself that everything is “only code” and that the stars—each featured by a single pixel—can lead to lucky links (355-6). In this example, DeepArcher represents a rendition of a post-9/11 world, in which the desolation of Ground Zero, the frequent emergence of the Middle-Eastern region in media during the “War on Terror” campaign, and a general atmosphere of mourning, transform into deep web’s desert-image. Maxine, furthermore, realizes that tourists and “cyberflaneurs” increase in number; millions of photos of those who deceased on 11 September float around; and GIF-candles (“cyclical as karma” ) occupy much of the space; she concludes that cyberspace has become a sanctuary for the dead, and serves as a space for the embodiment of memories—the same way Ground Zero will become a space of embodied memories in form of its memorial park and yearly rituals of remembrance (cf. Laura Tanner).
Finally, a third example of the overlap between cyberspace and “meat space” is when Maxine experiences the reversed version of the sanctuary witnessed in deep space: she sees the image of a dead character on the streets of New York (199). The deceased, Lester Traipse, was a former employee of Gabriel Ice, but after finding out about the obscure financial transactions connecting Ice’s company “hashslingrz” and Middle-Eastern companies, he decides to tap into the money flow. Consequently, he is murdered; incidentally, the murder takes place shortly after his first encounter with Maxine. The chronology of Lester’s apparition contradicts the forensic report of Lester’s corpse: Lester’s body is found in a building a day after Maxine sees him on the street (205), but the decay of the body indicates a death older than one day.
So far, I have focused on examples where the two domains, “deep space” and “meat space” interacted in blurring sensations. Much of the confusion in these scenes is due to the disembodied nature of visual sensations and death. These constitute one form of presenting the dichotomy of nature and culture as a potentially unified domain. Through apparitions, image-replicas, and ways of visual rendition, Pynchon equates the epistemologies of deep space and meat space. In other instances, Pynchon foregrounds the physicality of technological development through highlighting the analogies between pre-technological human structures and modern—cyberspace-based—interactions.
Such foregrounding mechanism is the network of “hawaladars” (81), a system of cash transaction, which originates from Arabic countries. Customers can send money home from abroad by giving cash to a hawaladar representative, who then calls and asks another representative in the target country to disburse the same amount of cash to the asset’s recipient. Pynchon describes this process as something “[w]esterners can’t seem to do” (81), although such mechanism structurally copies the rules constituting DeepArcher. During Maxine’s first ascent into deep web, Lucas explains the idea behind the application: “What remailers do is pass data packets on from one node to the next with only enough information to tell each link in the chain where the next one is, no more” (78). In DeepArcher’s rendition of the deep web, links monitor each other separately and immediately disappear once their established connection has been used to make contact. When Maxine asks how she might retrace her path if it became necessary, Lucas replies with a World-of-Oz reference: “Click your heels three times […] and… no wait, that’s something else…” (79).
ii.) Disembodied clues
After examining a set of scenes in which the boundaries of cyberspace and physical reality became blurred, I now want to investigate how such blurs, as well as the mediated nature of perception, affect the plot and, more specifically, Maxine’s investigation. My previous elaborations reflected on the fact that much of Maxine’s clues and traces emerge from deep web, which is a code-based virtual reality; furthermore, her own original methodology of fraud examination is also exclusively dependent on statistical tools and certain assumptions about the entropic nature of financial development. Invoking Lash’s thesis, in which critical judgment is deemed impossible in the information society due to the lack of distance between subject and object of criticism, we find that detective work in general, and Maxine’s investigation in particular, becomes and impossible effort. I will elaborate on the structural impossibility of this effort in the next section of the paper; for now, I intend to examine a couple of examples in which disembodied (that is, image-based) clues both help and hinder the heroine’s quest.
In Chapter 16 and 25, Maxine receives a videocassette (Pynchon 176) and a DVD disc (265), respectively, both posted by an unknown sender. The cassette showcases a homemade porn scene in a Long Island family house, which turns out to be a property owned by Gabriel Ice. Once Maxine heads out of New York to investigate (187), she only finds burned rubbles in place of the building. Similarly, the DVD disc contains a short footage showing a small group of scarfed men standing on a Manhattan rooftop, aiming rocket launchers at airplanes arriving to New York from the south. In short, the disc contains the reified version of a possible scenario behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a narrative which emerged as one example of a multitude of conspiracy theories following the 11 September incident. When Maxine finally locates the rooftop (271), she finds a shrapnel from a military missile that confirms the terrorists’ presence at that particular location. With regards to its evidence-value, however, the video footage leads Maxine nowhere—except in the case of the disc, through which she locates Igor, and ex-freedom fighter of Chechnya, who may have supplied the weapons to American terrorists, but who also seems to be siding against Ice. The particularity of these footages is that both are devoid of metadata that would hint at their origin or intended purpose. Maxine is unable decide whether these clues are helpful or not; nonetheless, she shares the DVD with a friend, March Kelleher, who she knows would release the footage on her popular blog. When Kelleher does so, incurring a huge wave of Internet visitors, the only effect of the video is to add yet another layer of conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11.
The way these “clues” displace investigation is through deferment. As Maxine approaches these traces, the only thing she can verify is an extra scenario or narrative to the case formed by previous hints. Without the clues being rooted into firm spatial and temporal coordinates, however, their displaced and virtual nature defies concrete reference. Pynchon thus displaces the epistemological activity of the detective, and as a result, the “private-eye” detective is forced to merely follow a private eye: in the form of lonesome theorizing, which is unable to root its clues into a referential framework, and must choose from a pre-given set of data and information.
i.) Avatars, sanctuaries
Many of our examples up to this point have hinted—albeit circumferentially—at the problem of missing presences, both in the form of physically or temporally displaced bodies. In this section, I will now more closely examine how Pynchon’s cyberspace doubles reality by mirroring social stratification as well as in what way this mirroring is presented by the avatars in DeepArcher.Such mirroring in turn will highlight a key problem of the crushed duality of immediacy and distance; avatars, as virtual extensions of the body, do accelerate information distribution, as well as liberate the senses, but at the same time generate an oppositional drive to re-embody the personality of the avatar. The term “sanctuary” has also emerged in this paper along with the character of Lester Traipse; below, I will take the example of another deceased character, Windust.
I have referred to the levels of “deep space” and surface space and the fear that deep space will eventually be colonized and commodified in the same way, for instance, as Times Square in Manhattan is “Disneyfied” (Pynchon 51). Avatars function as extensions, and their visual presentations are molded after the physical actors who use them. For instance, one Maxine hacker friends’, Eric’s avatar is in the form of the generalized representation of the “geek” (145). While in terms of code-reading and code-generating, visual appearance is redundant for all participators of DeepArcher, avatars are used for the sake of self-identification. However, as with other immaterial entities in cyberspace, this mask—constituted by the avatar—can be faked and altered in different ways. In Chapter 33, when Maxine travels through DeepArcher with its new desert-design, she meets a mysterious, hooded figure, whom she identifies as either the Archer or an obscure hacker who coordinates the majority of deep web’s traffic. The figure denies revealing its identity and instead leads Maxine to Windust’s avatar. Windust is another mysterious figure, whose secret agent identity is only gradually revealed by Maxine’s investigation in deep space. She obtains encrypted and undisclosed government files on Windust, who turns out to be anybody working for the FBI or the CIA: a performer of coup d’états in third world countries, marine of the U.S. Navy, and double agent. Pynchon humorously presents Windust’s secret agent identity in the form of a “Facemask”-profile, which is an electronic file constantly re-edited by mysterious actors in cyberspace, in a way that resembles commenting on the pages of students in a college yearbook (108). Pynchon’s allusion to Facebook highlights the process of constructing a virtual personality online, which may or may not represent a true identity of a person. In the case of Windust, his avatar in the desert turns out to be fake after Maxine finds his corpse which is, similarly to Lester’s, older than what the elapsed time between their cyberspace-encounter and Maxine’s discovery of the body would suggest. Consequentially, Maxine is shocked by the fact that her travels in cyberspace can be so easily manipulated. She suspects the mysterious figure of the Archer, but is unable to identify the owner of the avatar. The reader at this point realizes that the algorithmic construction of the cybernetic voyage is malleable to the extent that the agency of the user becomes compromised. Pynchon’s plays this out in the scene where Maxine is still under the spell of the authenticity of Windust’s avatar: “I didn’t come looking for you. You clicked on me” (407), says Windust, although it is evident from the circumstances that given Maxine’s viewpoint it was Windust who approached her first.
ii.) Traces—Media and the city
In the theoretical part of this paper on presence I briefly elaborated the way clues and traces lose their referential quality. Traces, instead, turn into patterns of investigation, where the reader remains unsure as to whether Maxine is following a trail or only making one up. The open-endedness of the plot seems to confirm the latter. Gabriel Ice cannot be caught or indicted, and the theories of 9/11 remain unsolved—and eventually yield to the grand, national narrative of the War on Terror. I also have defined Maxine’s urban milieu as an information society. In the followings, I want to conclude the discussion on presence by examining how the city of New York—beyond the 9/11 thread—contributes to the plot in terms of its spatiality. In particular, I want to borrow Scott McQuire’s concept of the “media city,” which I view as the concretized elaboration of Lash’s information society.
Before discussing “media city,” I wish to quote the motto preceding the first chapter of Bleeding Edge: “New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.—Donald E. Westlake.” In Pynchon’s story, New York serves as the basis for the information society and provides its unique microcosm. And it is through the reproduction of the 9/11 events that Pynchon is able to lock New York’s role in the novel as the “media city.” As Laura Tanner explains, 9/11 was a war of icons and images (71). Pynchon plays out the iconicity engendered by the televised news of the event when he describes Ziggy and Otis watching the events unfolding in downtown Manhattan from their bedroom: “the boys stay in their room watching the single constant telephoto shot of the smoking towers, already too distant” (Pynchon 317). New York is not simply America’s hub of media, but in itself enacts the role of protagonist by being an iconic backdrop to fictional or “real” events. I bracket “real” in quotation marks because, as I have argued, mediated content loses its representational quality and becomes the presented thing. Tanner in her essay notes that during the breaking news hours of 9/11, real-life bystanders could not believe their eyes and consequentially thought that what they saw was part of film production (73). The “distance” quoted in Pynchon’s line can be interpreted as the followings: while the image of the televised scene of the twin towers is right there in Ziggy and Otis’s bedroom, producing the same sense of its presence as if being in any other place on Earth for those watching the news in real life, it is still distant due to the conflated sensation of distance and immediacy.
Conceptualizing the media city, McQuire writes: “this new conjunction of media and architecture has been variously described as ‘augmented reality,’ ‘mixed reality,’ […] descriptions which all seek to emphasize the heterogeneous spatial regimes of what I call the media city” (21). By regimes, McQuire refers to the rapid production of forms and means of communication, and the way communication can serve a multitude of things such as capital transfer or, for instance, class representation through fashion codes; but most importantly, through its connectedness the media city produces a reflexivity which the “subject cannot refuse to choose”—and cannot escape (22). According to this line of thought, media city is an architectural and image-based hybrid space where referentiality cannot function due to the lost immediacy connecting the reference and the referent. In short, New York cannot escape its own meaning.
In Bleeding Edge, Maxine travels through Manhattan the same way she navigates in DeepArcher, unsure of the control she can impose on the directions she takes. The traces she follows are unstable in their temporal logic: often these clues reverse causality and precede the thing they should lead to after an event. The same way Windust’s avatar seemingly knows before Maxine what she wants (Pynchon 406), Maxine commutes on the streets of Manhattan unsure whether her random encounters with people, family members, and friends occur along her own algorithmic logic of selection, or if it is the intrinsic nature of her investigation that it seeks “a search result with no instructions on how to look for it” (312). She might as well conclude—along with the mysterious dialogue-box, which pops up in DeepArcher, and assures her to continue her journey—that “it’s part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost” (76).
In my analysis, I have assessed Pynchon’s detective story along the lines of a two-tiered discourse. My chosen focal points were embodiment and presence, by which I claimed that the characters of the novel function as nodes of information distribution in a technologically saturated social milieu. Following Lash, I described this milieu as the information society. In Bleeding Edge, I explored the manifestations of the information society through the various levels of mediation that affected the detective protagonist’s investigation, such as the television and the Internet (cyberspace), and argued that the destabilized quality of material or immaterial bodies and traces was the key catalyst of the story’s development. Taking Hansen’s argument, I transferred the discourse on embodiment from the epistemologically driven approach, which focused on the body as a platform for social inscriptions, to the ontological approach, where I argued that technology is the natural extension of the body and the body schema, and where the two connect through an interface. The interface is not fixed, however, and may move from below the skin (biological prostheses) to disembodied virtual extensions (cybernetic avatars). These virtual extensions, in turn, motivated me to debate the problem of presence, as articulated by the collapsed dichotomy of immediacy and distance. In the information society, where information structures eliminate the representationalist forms of media, there remains no vantage point for a critical stance as well as no culture which criticism could address.
This conclusion helped me discuss Maxine’s maze through contradictory evidence and clues, much of which she accessed through cyberspace and in the form of mediatory artifacts. The micro-stories of her technology-imbued family provided instances where physical and virtual reality have become blurred, as in the imaginary New York of Ziggy and Otis, but also in the figures of Lester and Windust, whose existence was sustained by the sanctuary of deep space. The immateriality of the clues and traces offered an alternative way of approaching them: I argued that their selection as meaningful signs was, in fact, Maxine’s construction during her investigation. I defined New York as the “media city,” where the tragedy of 9/11 produced disembodied victims as well as traces which preceded their reference.
In sum, I interpreted Bleeding Edge as the narrative of a thematically exposed critical inquiry which found its catalysts and obstacles in the mediatory complex of the information society, where technological extensions proved to be the new natural environment for the body.
- Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture. London: Athlone, 2000. Print.
- Hansen, Mark B. Bodies in Code—Interfaces with Digital Media. London: Routledge, 2006.
- ——-. Embodying Technesis—Technology Beyond Writing. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 2000.
- Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The Haraway Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. P. O’Donnell and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1989.
- Lash, Scott. Critique of Information. London: Sage, 2002.
- Latour, Bruno. We Have Never been Modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
- Lupton, Deborah. “The embodied computer/user.” Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies Vol. 4. Ed. David Bell. London: Routledge, 2004.
- Madsen, Deborah L. The Postmodernist Allegories of Thomas Pynchon. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1991.
- Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge, 2002.
- Mindell, David A. Between Human and Machine. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2002.
- Moore, Thomas. The Style of Connectedness – Thomas Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Columbia: U of Missouri Press, 1987.
- McQuire, Scott. The Media City. London: Sage, 2008.
- Palatinus, Dávid Levente. “From the Pictorial Turn to the Embodiment of Vision.” American & British Studies Annual. Vol. 3. Pardubice: UP of Pardubice, 2010.
- Patell, Cyrus R. K. Negative Liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the problem of liberal ideology. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
- Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. New York: Penguin, 2013.
- Schilling, Chris. The Body in Culture, Technology & Society. London: Sage, 2005.
- Smith, Shawn. Pynchon and History –Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Forms in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon. London: Routledge, 2005.
- Taipale, Joona. Phenomenology of Embodiment – Husserl and the Constitution of Subjectivity. Chicago: Northwestern UP, 2014.
- Tanner, Laura E. “Holding on to 9/11: The Shifting Grounds of Materiality.” PMLA. 127.1 (2012): 58-76.
- Tomlinson, John. The Culture of Speed—The Coming of Immediacy. London: Sage, 2007.