"The Transformations in the Understanding of Temporality in Postmodern Literature" by Lovorka Gruić-Grmuša
Lovorka Gruić Grmuša is currently assistant professor at the English Department of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Rijeka, Croatia, where she teaches American Literature, Postmodern Literature, Science Fiction, Media Culture and The Interpretation of the Novel. She has published numerous articles and book chapters, edited Space and Time in Language and Literature (with M. Brala, 2009), and is finishing a monograph entitled Kurt Vonnegut’s Legacy. Her fields of interest are contemporary literature, postmodern theory and all aspects of temporality (including history, physics, philosophy), as well as digital culture, cinematography and intermediation. Email:
Due to its interdisciplinary nature the subject of time exercises a universal fascination. The analysis of temporality implies the investigation of temporal experience within various fields, such as physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, and other social sciences. Each discipline, science, and art can develop its own interpretation and take up a position in comprehending the discourses of time. This stresses the multiplicity and incompleteness of numerous theories that keep each other off balance for the observations that are made regarding temporality cannot be unified, undermining the formation of a Grand Theory of time. But, to recognize temporality as a challenging phenomenon does not entail giving up our endeavors to explain it.
This article attempts to combine the views of natural and social sciences on temporality, focusing on the changes that occurred in the Western culture since the 1960s and the analysis of postmodern literature in particular, regarding the transformations of the notions of time represented in the texts written by John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. These transformations are crucial to the understanding of postmodern aesthetics in literature since time is one of the most fundamental parameters through which narrative as a genre is organized and understood (Ricoeur, 1984; Bakhtin, 1981; Genette, 1980; Meyerhoff, 1955).
The analysis that follows tries to illustrate and problematize the postmodern aesthetic of temporality as it emerges variously in the chosen contemporary novels, showing different facets of it while analysing these texts in light of their different expressions of a similar view of reality, and more specificaly of temporality (as relative, discontinuous, and contingent). Displacing Newton’s absolute space and coherent, causal time with an energized, dynamic, and interrelated field of time, space, matter, and energy, theorized by Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck, Bohr, and Prigogine, postmodern literature subverts the conventions of realism and denies any claim of absoluteness in critical discourse (for we cannot apprehend or master nature with language), but without renouncing reality. As Brian McHale claims, in a rather radical statement even for postmodern rhetorics, contemporary fiction: “turns out to be mimetic after all, but this imitation of reality is accomplished not so much at the level of its content, which is often manifestly un- or anti-realistic, as at the level of form […which imitates] the pluralistic and anarchistic ontological landscape of advanced industrial cultures” (38). This is why inquiry into literature of this period, particularly regarding temporality, needs examination of external reality, of social, philosophical, and scientific changes that have occured and represent such reality.
One of the key elements in this paper is the interference of physics and fiction since time phenomenon draws its definitions and terminology mostly from modern physics, and these concepts, although never final or absolute, facilitate descriptions (or even fabulations for terminology that reflects on already indefinite reality is made of words!) of temporality and its representations. What we call reality (the external world) consists of highly intricate and interconnected structures (however fragmented, incoherent, and uncertain), and both physics and literature relate to it as a world in flux, in which values are relative and process-dependent, which is why the two fields share the idea that the very nature of reality is indeterminate. The complexity of this fluid, accidental, and discontinuous reality is constantly examined by both disciplines, reflecting richness of our world, striking new developments and their possible meanings, while acknowledging the observer’s subjective consciousness and problematic nature of representation.
Since physics is one of the most objective parameters through which reality (and thus time phenomenon) can be investigated, the theorethical framework for the analysis of temporality and the transformations thereof in this paper is provided mostly through the lens of modern physics, but it also hinges on postmodern theory. The most revolutionary changes that took place in the twentieth-century, according to James Gleick and other passionate advocates of the new science are “relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos [theory]” because these premises abandoned Newton’s absolute space and time, eliminated controllable and finite measurement processes, and invalidated deterministic predictability respectively (5-6). These developments in science concur with the ideas explored and presented by many postmodern novelists whose texts examine the very actuality of our reality, its transformations and unfoldings that can be grasped within their works in both form and content. Through inter/active processes of observation of external reality (stressing referential grounds) and the inevitable artistic interpretation, construction, and reinforcement of the perceived phenomena, probing the limits of fictional forms (stressing representation), these authors reveal that postmodern reality renders time phenomenon as accelerated, non-linear, fragmented, open-ended, instabile, instantaneous, disposable, displaying each moment split into multiple versions of itself, demonstrating perdition of temporal/historical continuity and emboding continuos present inhernt in our postmodern reality. These changes condition how we perceive and conduct our daily lives in postmodern space-time. The complexity, non-linearity, discontinuity, fracture, speed, and the flowing irreversibility of time within contemporary literature serve as a driving force that helps make up our postmodern “world of broken symmetry and ‘time-fullness’” (Adam, 1994:64), pertaining to the flow of larger changes in the scientific and social domain of reality. In this context, both science and literature contribute to the development of a culture of accelerated temporality, pervasive change, movement, and contingency where temporal horizons are drastically shortened. They are reinforced by the installation in computer technology and culture, imersed in a continuous present that does not seem to enhance knowledge and understanding of the world as a whole or to grant historical perspectives, but presents current affairs in fragmented, never-ending bits of episodic information.
What should be kept in mind is that changes in our understanding of the world (including temporality) involve alterations in all aspects of reality, and that various fields’ influences (physics, phylosophy, arts) occurred simultaneously, connecting literary texts and their advanced narrative structures to material changes, and confirming the idea that literature (as well as science) has its role in forming cultural values and the way we experience and view reality. While literature was articulating itself some authors and critics kept exploring natural sciences and renovating their work accordingly. But the idea that literature with its progressive imaginative ideas (specifically science fiction) occasionally precedes modern physics, reflecting certain (incoherent, fluctuating, unpredictable) realities even before a new physical theory that explains this reality is introduced, should be embraced as well. As Katherine Hayles states, “literary theories appeared simultaneously with, or slightly before, cognate formations in science” (Hayles, 1990:17). This is possible because both literature and science share the same creative inventiveness, acknowledged specifically when dealing with the micro-world where even physicists have to use their imagination in order not to change the system they are watching/analyzing. James Cushing is even more radical in his views, claiming that philosophy and social context stimulate the development of analogous theories in physics (Cushing in Auyang, 1999:51). The conclusion is that revolutions in all aspects of life appear more or less simultaneously, with natural sciences that influence our understanding of reality, the social sciences’ theories coaching us about the functioning of the world, and with literature as one of the progressive forces that frame our culture.
The term space-time is used throughout this paper to accommodate both physical reality and the realm of literature, apprehended in terms of a moving, dynamic space-time of becoming (Whitehead, 1929), and of difference as well as repetition (Deleuze, 1968), shortly: of multiple rhythms and temporalities in action that can include virtual into the experience of space, which means that different forms can emerge. Thus, space is not simply a container of an action, nor is time just a category of mind which facilitates our organization of events and other phenomena in the world, but both entities merge into fertile fields of fecundity. Hence, space-time is not a closed system, but can be envisioned as a realm of emergent potentialities, offering the possibility of multiplicity (Massey, 1998:26) of the moment “here and now.” Breaking up with Cartesian notion of time, Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905) shattered the Newtonian world of absolute and separate time and space in which events simply unfold over time and extend in space, without relation to anything external. Rather, the passage of time, measurements of speed and simultaneity itself are relative to the observer’s frame of reference. Consequently, space and time became unified in a relative and four-dimensional space-time continuum. Furthermore, with the general theory of relativity (1916), Einstein extended his argument to gravity which curves the space-time continuum, where time, space, and matter interact and can be understood only in terms of relational, interdependent phenomena. What quantum mechanics added to this fluid dynamic ontology is the idea of discontinuity, where atomic electrons could not be located in space and time when they leaped from one orbit to another, and it could not be predicted when such leaps would occur (Kevles, 1997:162), moreover, quantum particles appear to be “smearing” space-time, they seem to be in many places and times at once (Vitale). In addition, chaos theory charged the dynamics of space-time with yet another revolutionary notion, and that is that our world is packed with highly complex data, revealing patterned motion of apparently random systems, and inaugurating a new world of possibilities and potentialities while producing self-organizing structures. Chaos theory in a way befriended the two opposed theories, and because it reveals a variety of complex, interwoven structures that fluctuate, change, and grow, is considered to bring even microscopic fluctuations up to the macroscopic level, providing sort of a missing link between the microscopic (quantum physics) and macroscopic world (Einstein’s physics). As Hayles explains, it “makes quantum fluctuations relevant to macroscopic experience, […] it highlights the importance of stochastic events at every level, from the molecular to the global” (Hayles, 1991:12).
As far as literature is concerned, the expression space-time relates to both our understanding of the outside world as of pluralized and eventful temporalised spaces, as well as of our inner worlds of imagination and creativity that follow their own intrinsic multiple rhythms, making up abstractions of our experiences that comprise manifold places activated with different temporalities. They can be referred to as “real” and fictive space-times/worlds, and in literature in particular they intermingle, eroding the boundary between fact and fiction, the text and its readers. A manifestation of space-time in literature can also be expressed through embedding of stories within stories and linked to Bakhtinian chronotope, a space-time re/created “of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature,” “the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied” (Bakhtin, 1994:84;250). Literary chronotopes are highly sensitive to historical change: different societies and periods result in different chronotopes both inside and outside literary texts. Specific chronotopes shape themselves in some kind of relation to the exterior conditions in which they arise, implying a unique correlation between a particular, historical intra-textual world and an equally particularized extra-textual world. Thus, space-time in literature refers to activated fields where different temporalities come into friction, celebrating art’s inventive role in making alternative realms, while holding together the fragmented and virtual diversity of reality that is not dominated by static representations of the past, present, or future but is vibrant, fluid, and pluralized, and is a fertile ground upon which the authors’ worlds are fashioned. As already said, the very nature of reality is indeterminate, which in literary texts gets even more complicated with the complexity and richness of possible meanings bestowed by language. Thus, the concept of space-time in this article is used to describe the variety of worlds, realms and domains both of the physical world as well as of fiction, having in mind the modern physics’ relative, event-space that is process-dependent and does not treat space and time as separate but intermingled entities. Since postmodern world does not belong to absolute Newtonian space, and the frontier between reality and virtuality is hard to distinct, the idea of space-time as an eventful domain is more than appropriate, hosting fractured, non-linear, and virtual plurality of various temporalities of our world in process.
How we perceive and experience time has changed dramatically through human evolution. It is impossible to separate scientific images of time from the cultural background that pervaded in societies and eras throughout the centuries, but we have to keep in mind that scientific theories can serve as temporary expedients: they change in time. Thus, in ancient cultures, contact with eternity was kept alive by cyclical temporality, a belief in “a periodical return to the mythical time of the beginning of things, to the ‘Great Time’” (Eliade, 1959:ix). In contrast to the pervasive notion of time as cyclic, the Jewish believed in the historical process, thus supplying the Western concept of time as linear, where the universe unfolds according to a definite temporal sequence.
During the Renaissance, views on temporality and reality in general started to change. European culture has been strongly influenced by the Greek philosophers who prescribed that the world is ordered and rational. In the late seventeenth century Isac Newton claimed that the cosmos is a gigantic clockwork mechanism, predictable in its every detail, for “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external” (Newton, 1962:7). This universal time theory endured for two centuries in the West, while challenged by Eastern thought and alien to the aborigines of Australia, Africa, and America. In the nineteenth century, when physicists discovered the laws of thermodynamics, claiming that total entropy in a closed system can never decrease and proceeds toward a state of total disorder; it was assumed that the universe is slowly dying. Shortly after this discouraging discovery, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published, introducing evolution as a progressive process producing order: “A natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (Darwin, 1860:486). This progressive philosophy was embraced and elaborated by philosophers Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead.
When Einstein’s theories of relativity appeared in 1905 they turned everything upside down, for time was not universal any more, but relative, depending on how we are moving, “mutable and malleable,” although still “blind to the distinction between past and future,” with no arrow (Davies, 1995:16;17). With the turn of the century scientific discoveries in all fields started to develop fast, changing human perspectives on temporality. To name just a few: Ludwig Boltzmann and Henri Poincare were trying to prove that decreases in entropy are possible as a result of statistical fluctuations, which means that a resurrection was possible (Davies, 1995:37). German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche concluded that cosmic recurrences robbed human life of any purpose, implying “nihilism” (Nietzsche, 1910). Max Planck started to change the way people thought about the continuity of nature, and Niels Bohr showed that electrons, then considered one of nature’s elementary particles, jumped discontinuously from one orbit or level of energy to another (Pearce, 1981:6-7). When Werner Heisenberg introduced the principle of indeterminacy (1927), with subatomic particles being extremely small and fast, he demonstrated that the experiment would disturb the accuracy of measure for: “What we observe is not nature, but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (Heisenberg, 1958:58). What additionally complicates the situation is “the absence of mathematical tools with which to analyze a vital realm that lies beyond experimental accessibility” (Greene, 2004:15), so that scientists often, and specifically when dealing with subatomic phenomena, have to rely simply on their imagination. This furthermore substantiates the idea that even natural scientists are indebted to fantasy, as is fiction. Moreover, both literary authors and scientists have preferences and inclinations which often dictate the kinds of theories or stories they have formulated or invented.
The ideas/roots of the postmodern society can be found already in Einstein’s special relativity theories, breaking up with Newton and Cartesian notion of time, which furthermore expands with quantum mechanics, calling attention to discontinuities and ruptures of temporality, underlying unpredictability, and also revealing quantum effects in electronics. But, even though these ideas appeared so early in the twentieth century, it took some time for the changes to take place within society. Economic and cultural conditions fostered by these scientific notions surfaced by mid-century, when these theories/abstract phenomena became part of everyday reality, which is transparent in the works of postmodern authors such as Pynchon, DeLillo, Vonnegut, Barth, Barthelme, Gaddis and Coover. As Coover notes:
Essentially, both the new scientific and the new aesthetic concepts emerge because the old ones, having rigidified in forms that have lost contact with the on-goingness of the world, have become impotent. (Coover in Gado, 1973:153)
For centuries, Western society maintained the image of reality as of an actual presence, where a person inhabited a certain space-time, and when s/he was not present, s/he was not there. This sustained the idea that reality was fixed, stable, and complete. It revealed a linear and closure–oriented space-time trajectory within restricted spatial figurations, that anticipated an arrowlike, teleological temporality progressively moving towards completion, from life to death or, in accordance with religious views, from mortality to eternity (Brala Vukanovic & Gruic Grmusa, 2009:11). Today we live in a completely different social environment where we do not have to be present physically in order to participate in reality happening at a specific time, we simply program our computers to record transmissions in our absence. The contemporary television viewer in an action of changing channels, or a computer user that immerses her/his attention to a rapid succession of microevents on the screen (engrossed in a “hyper-present” of sorts), juxtapose radically disjunct times and spaces in visual simultaneity, mixing geographical spaces, events, and historical periods. The usual “here and now” has been dislocated, and a whole new world behind the mass media screens has opened up, presenting virtual space-time.
As a result of these changes, postmodern authors mix genres, discourses, and voices in highly implosive texts that radiate presentations of entropy, chaos, indeterminacy, and contingency, thus taking on principal themes of postmodern science and social theory. Undercutting classical discourses of truth and linear narrative, their texts even when presenting history (one of the landmarks of temporality), view it as just another story, as DeLillo’s novel Libra and Coover’s The Public Burning reveal, or as a culture of death, haunted by paranoia, conspiracy, aggression, and destruction, as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow discloses. They show how “objective reality” has been spoiled in the postmodern society by propaganda, advertising, media, and publicity and how hard it is to illuminate past and present (which sometimes seem to have been hallucinated).
The fragmented plots of many postmodern naratives mirror the accelerated temporal rhythms of late-capitalist mode of production and consumption, revealing inconsistency, fracture, and discontinuity, of both time, space, and its subjects, which makes long-term developments impossible to anticipate. The new technological time focuses individuals on the specifically understood present—a narrowly defined time period disconnected from past causes and future effects. But it is equally valid to say that fractured narrative plots together with theories about the demise of master narratives tend to shape our perception of the world, anticipating a consumption-oriented society and economy that grants commodity, instantaneity, and disposability, thus obstructing long-term constructions of time. Additionally, we live in an intensive space-time of high-tech machines where events take place in nanoseconds and operate in infinitely short times, far beyond the human temporal perception and consciousness (Virilio in Sans, 2001:113-114), thereby making it more difficult to envision even the short-term past or future. Therefore, it seems that both economic and aesthetic practices contribute to the emergence of a culture of time (or speed-space in Virilio’s terms) which concentrates “on drastically shortened temporal horizons at the expense of long-term planning,” and while these practices ought to be understood to have some impact upon each other, neither is dependent on the other (Heise, 1997:6).
Still, we are exposed to both an extensive time consisting of histories of long, slow and large time scales, and intensive time consisting of the new technologies, the inconceivably fast, and small, and short temporal strata. That is also how posmodern literature projects reality, mixing historical data with fleeting memories, manipulating space-time, fracturing it, and revealing general cultural interest in speed and short time spans.
The discussion of temporality within literary texts also demands a closer look into narrative. Postmodernist texts transform some of the most important modernist narrative techniques, creating a very different sense of time in accord with a whole range of other, non-literary practices and discourses and insisting on discontinuity and fragmentation of time into multiple temporal itineraries and clashes of different time scales. Although modernist texts did eliminate Newton’s linear, predictable developments and results in favor of juxtaposing simultaneity, opting for aesthetic perfectioning of imagination, the modernist author still held the position of absolute authority, offering artist’s absolute frame of reference, where nothing is left to chance. Referring to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Bergson’s philosophy of durėe, they demonstrated the ways in which psychological temporality deviates from the linearity of mechanical and industrial time. In postmodernism, conventional models of narrative and causation are seriously challenged with the shortening of temporal horizons and public awareness of the co-existence of radically different time scales: from billions of years of contemporary cosmology to the nanoseconds of the computer age. Aside from individual and psychological temporality, which was the counter-model to official history and public time in the high-modernist novel, where the narrator’s goal was to explore how human perception and memory shape or distort time, and how individual temporalities are related to each other and to “objective,” social time; it seems that in the postmodern novel there is no narrative voice that holds up the story (Heise, 1997:53). The narrator and characters disintegrate, scattering across different temporal universes (and not just psychological worlds) that can no longer be reconciled with one another. Heise furthermore notes that postmodern novels also present different versions of the events they describe, but the accounts or flashbacks are not linked to the voice of the narrator, and they tell event sequences in contradictory and mutually exclusive versions so that the reader cannot determine which scenes form a part of the narrated reality and which are just fragments of the narrator’s imagination or simple experiments with style (53). It should also be added that:
The anti-linear structures of the novels almost insure that no reader will read the same text in similar fashion, each in pursuit of his or her own point of view, focusing on some elegant fragment that purports to reveal the secret of the entire fiction, the key that unlocks the code. (Coale, 2005:135)
There is also another bizarre shift: it seems that the anxiety about what awaits us in the future, of some kind of apocalyptic annihilation, has been replaced by the fear that both the past and the future might be obliterated by the flowing immediacy of the present, which continues to oppress and contaminate the other two, making itself omnipresent. This withdrawal of history implies the retreat of knowledge, of memory, and of the lessons that we learn through time. Although it feels less painful to live in an eternal present, its flaws are yet to be seen in the decades to come with an obvious consequence: diminishing interest in ethical and political ideals, the industrialization of forgetting, of disposability, and getting everything instantly.
This focusing on the moment of the narrative present at the expense of larger temporal developments is a very specific characteristic of the postmodern novel. As Ursula Heise reveals, “the moment is not envisioned as a self-identical instant of presence, but as partaking of or leading to an indefinite number of different, alternative, and sometimes mutually exclusive temporalities,” that “can be understood as a projection of the temporal mode of the future into the past and present” (Heise, 64). She furthermore explains that the juxtaposition of alternative plot developments, featuring various versions of the same event, and the metaleptic crossing of boundaries among diegetic levels leads to a double symmetrization of time and causation (Heise, 64). Consequently, the temporal ordering of events becomes less important, and the hierarchical logic of the relationship between narrator and narrated becomes prone to inversion, so that characters can access and modify the world of the narrator. Heise concludes that postmodernist narrative time is detached from any specific observer, and at times represents only the temporality pertaining to the sole text.
Many postmodern novels, including Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, and V., Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, Gerald’s Party, Ghost Town, and John’s Wife, Gaddis’s J R, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Barthelme’s Paradise and Snow White are perfect examples of postmodern fracturing and fragmentation, within the “eternal” present, featuring unrecognizable and unstable characters that are not just disintegrating, but on the verge of disappearance/annihilation, which reflects on the fragmented narrative. As McHoul and Willis argue: “The narrative refuses to be stitched together as whole cloth out of the wefts and warps of the characters” (McHoul, 1990:32). It is not clear whether the dissolution of characters causes time to fracture, or the fragmentation of time brings about the disintegration of characters. What is transparent is that both individual and social times experience the same transformations: both are dislocated, fragmented, and prone to the dissolution of their own identity. This weakening of individual as well as social and historical time as parameters for organizing narrative is one of the most conspicuous problems the postmodern novel reveals.
Perdition of historical continuity: meaningless motion toward stasis and manipulations with the past
We live in a world where postindustrial capitalism and large corporations quickly relocate people and investments. The workplace is a place of rapid alterations and uncertainty where workers are captured by the in/stability of markets and “rapid shifts in consumption practices,” and the new, more flexible labor processes demand their “geographical mobility” (Harvey, 1989:124). As Joseph Francese reveals, the alienated, migrating worker of modernity has metamorphosed into her/his postmodern counterpart, who is taking along her/his family, fragmented by the loss of a sense of place and community (3). Workers are now faced with the dissolution of the traditional support system formerly provided by the extended family. The weakening of the sense of belonging to a place and its people and temporal scales, constantly on the move, has made the individual spatially disoriented and temporally accelerated.
Thus, the “defining characteristic of our condition of postmodernity is the shortening of commonsense perceptions of time,” where “[t]he long pasts and futures of our ancestors have collapsed” because of the weight of tradition and of the electronic speed with which meaningful decisions must be made (Francese, 1997:3). The perdition of temporal continuity has created new generations who are now made to live more exclusively in the present. Future expectations are reduced by conscious or unconscious fears of a future that will be used up before it arrives, involving atomic and alike weaponry, or simply being inflicted by the pollution with which humans daily contaminate the environment, claiming the entropic pull. This collapse of future expectations and the loss of a sense of participating in a historical continuum define the continuous present rooted in postmodern society.
All the postmodern authors subvert narrative conventions, displaying the world and its structure as unintelligible, and mostly rendering temporality as a continuous present. Particularly evasive of the narrative consciousness, underlining endless and gapless temporality (as opposed to a narrativized kind of time which enables a recovery of the past, and which begins and stops with the beginning and ending of each event in the narrative), is Gaddis’s work filled with noise, disruption, endless flux and disconnections. His J R abounds in excessive, banal, and wasteful language (recalling Barthelme), as for example with Whiteback’s repeatedly used filler “ahm,” and with digressions and conversations that are meaningless and do not advance the characterization or the action. Such are Whiteback’s conversations with the teachers and the dialogues of the Bast sisters which do not appear to make any sense, the only sense the reader can make is that the author deliberatelly sabotaged the linearity of narrative, impending causality and the plot from evolving, implying stasis. The multiplicity of voices, their overlapping, and constant interruptions of various characters that speak in fragments, together with the use of gerund which draws attention to the on-going, non-finite process of time; prevent attaining meaning into a graspable form and also expose the limits of individual subjectivity, asserting the constructed nature of shared reality.
What characters in J R talk about has nothing to do with ideas or emotions, they just talk about money and how to invest, steal, spend, or borrow money for they think that material goods will grant them safety and stability, that they will protect them from the imminent entropic pull. The protagonists hoard a variety of useless objects to feel whole and safe. Hence, Eigen saves bits and pieces of his son’s broken toys and piles up newspapers, Gibbs preserves paper bags, and Davidoff gathers cuff links, but none of these objects give their keepers any satisfaction. Apart from hoarding things, some characters try to preserve them, so that Bast constantly fixes things for his aunts and uses the same teabag to make tea for three times. These compulsive accumulations and reparations ironically reflect how obsessed humans are with the material world, how much the Western society invests in materialism, and how much we want to control entropic forces. The characters’ cultivation of objects is in tune with their inability to change mentally, to embrace the passing of time, fluctuations of life, and the imminence of change and death. Their anger is with time and entropy.
The subject of postmodernity is stripped of a traditional sense of place and time. In his Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut presents a character who lost control of his whereabouts: “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next” (17). Thomas Pynchon’s character Slothrop is “stripped. Scattered all over the Zone. It is doubtful if he can ever be ‘found’ again, in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained’” (Gravity’s Rainbow, 712). Robert Coover’s heroine John’s wife is unknowable at all times, as her townsfolk argue: “She sort of was there, like always, and she sort of wasn’t” with a “tendency to come and go without really coming and going” (John’s Wife, 207). Refuting Cartesian dichotomization, Coover’s main protagonist Henry in his novel The Universal Baseball Association makes his fictional world alive, believing in the literal existence of the fictive players of his table-top baseball game, and eventually loosing track of reality because constant switches from the “real world” space-time, to the fictional world space-time cause Henry’s psychic fragmentation.
Many postmodern texts describe the human weakness of appropriating self-generated fictions as reality, where characters (as Coover’s Henry) create worlds that accommodate their needs, succumbing to their enticing creations, not being able to release themselves from these fictive worlds. In the form of “nested” texts or as representations, such as novels, photographs, games, movies or TV programs, their texts demonstrate interconnections of fictional and “real” space-time, blurring their borderlines, and collapsing into one another. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland are teeming with various embeddings, introducing mediums, visions, dreams and hallucinations which give access to other worlds. Recursive embedding in Vineland occurs when Darryl Louise’s story, which is embedded in the main narrator’s story about narration, embeds the story of the “towaway teammates,” which in turn embeds Weed Atman’s story, in which the story about Frenesi’s crime is enclosed (VL, 177-188). John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse is exemplary in this respect, giving a new meaning to what we call “experimenting with form,” as the story of “Menelaiad” transmutes our vision of storytelling for it offers seven voices featuring seven layers of nested structures while Menelaus, the hero, relates the story of Troy and his reminiscence of Helen.
One of the reasons why characters create and try to escape into alternate, fictive worlds is because they are unable to control their own reality. The military-industrial complex and the acceleration of temporality are the core of the postmodern society according to Virilio, with time moving so fast that he calls it “speed,” featuring technology in its center, whose forces reshape our world, coordinating the transformations implemented by electronic communications, long-range atomic weapons systems, cybernetics, media such as television, film, newspapers, and so on (Virilio, 2000). As Pynchon puts it, “Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft” have taken man’s place, dictating and ruling the world and demanding “food” to keep running: “dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more” (Gravity’s Rainbow, 521). The protagonists of postmodern novels (as many people) feel as puppets, thinking they might regulate, supervise, and direct their own forgeries (until these fake worlds become real and vice versa).
Furthermore, what we call the “culture of information” has caused gradual but persistent fragmentation of individual consciousness, diminishing the role of the subject as the organizing agent of time and space. The distinct result of this change became the loss of historical consciousness, but it also affected our ability to distinguish the real from the fictive. The speed of the sophisticated weaponry is so accelerated that the response time is now so short, the decisions seem left to a computer. The hyperspeed of these decisions makes humans seem impotent, depriving us of the time necessary for reflection. Facing nuclear deterrence on a daily basis, it seems that the inanimate has taken over the role of the animate, as computers “decide” whether to fire, while humans/characters have a sense of imprisonment, are full of resignation and let themselves be controlled and directed by the incomprehensible forces of corporations and bureaucracies that seem to govern this particular space-time. Margherita Generi discloses: “The loss of historical consciousness is a direct result of the difficulty with which the new spatial and temporal relations are to be negotiated” (Ganeri, 1997:232).
Therefore, it is not surprising that the inanimate has taken over the role of the animate. In Pynchon’s V. this is shown plastically when the self-directing will that Benny loses apparently transfers to the subway train, which “disgorged passengers, took more on, shut up its doors and shrieked away down the tunnel” (V., 29). On the other hand, the passengers themselves seem inanimate: “vertical corpses, eyes with no life, crowded loins, buttocks and hip-points together […]. All wordless. Was it the Dance of Death brought up to date?” (V., 282).
A similar atmosphere is described in Don DeLillo’s 9/11 novel Falling Man, where the hero, Keith finds himself,
going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, […] only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience. Or he stands and looks. (66)
After the tragedy, Kieth’s perception of the world changed completely, he is more of an observer than a participant in life. He used to be a lawyer who worked in the World Trade Center, dynamic, adulterous, and keen on sports. Now he has lost interest in his work and eventually took on playing poker professionally, mostly away from his family in distant cities. This routine of card-playing as a way of life implies stasis in its core for it detaches Kieth completely from reality, while he concentrates on a repetitive structure of the game: “The game mattered, the stacking of chips, the eye count, the play and dance of hand and eye. He was identical with these things” (228). His inertia towards life is evident in all of his in/actions, and could be summarized in one quote: “Days fade, nights drag on, check-and-raise, wake-and-sleep. […] He moved only marginally, room to room” (226-227). Kieth’s disinclination to move progressively is also stressed in his continuous workout routine on the rowing machine: “He always used the rowing machine. […] wondering only once why this was a thing he had to do” (229), for he is moving but not gettting anywhere. The symbolism of the two Morandi paintings of still life, their stasis, deploys throughout the entire text, so that the two towers collapsed, leaving only “a time and space of falling ash” (3); the Alzeimer patients feel their “world was receding, […] not lost so much as falling, growing fainter” (93-94); Kieth’s emotional collapse, his free fall is mirrored in the fall of the performance artist named Falling Man who re-enacts the fall until his death. Eventually, Kieth “wandered if he was becoming a self-operating mechanism, like a humanoid robot that understands two hundred voice commands, far-seeing, touch-sensitive but totally, rigidly controllable” (226).
Both Pynchon and DeLillo reveal how meaningless motion degrades one to the condition of being neither dead nor really alive. Benny and Kieth divorce themselves from purposeful self-direction and become more like automations, or at least appendages to machines. Benny “yo-yos,” as Stencil pursues V., and Kieth plays cards to keep some sense of being alive, but in doing so each is subject to entropic forces, proving ironically that the means used to escape a condition merely reinforce the condition. This agrees, in a way, with Virilio’s philosophy of speed. The theorist notes that gaining absolute speed implies absolute stasis for humankind at least from the perspective here on earth (Virilio in Armitage, 2001:31).
In this world/space-time of pervasive change in the material conditions of everyday life, caused by the development of information technology and increasing economic globalization that speed up the tempo of current existence, a Western intellectual feels as if s/he was an appendix to a machine. Entrapped within the technological apparatus, s/he experiences weakness, fragmentation, and dismemberment. Just as characters in Vonnegut’s Player Piano, in DeLillo’s Falling Man and in Pynchon’s V. and Gravity’s Rainbow are subject to the whims of large corporations and their technologies, individual’s single and collective inability to keep pace with or influence the course of the future has made her/him feel anxious and loose direction. This is how Pynchon narrates it:
It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted … secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology … by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques. (Gravity’s Rainbow, 521)
Individuals may suffer, but the aggregate “They,” represented by the companies and by the higher technologies, dictate, divide, multiply, and operate across national boundaries and even battlefields, shuffling patents and agreements, but never losing their real power. As Hume emphasizes: “Far from being hurt by the war, they thrive on it” (Hume, 1987:58). This re-location of the centering position that humans used to have, has brought about a shift in the subject-object relations and dynamics.
Heisenberg’s famous principle of indeterminacy, the fact that the results of an observation depend upon the motives and the perspective of the observer, showed that even in the physical sciences the classical distinction between subject and object was not plausible any longer. Instead of such a partition that was taken for granted in classical physics, the new science became aware of a high degree of connectedness and even interdependence between subject and object, because it is clearly evident that the act of observing actually influences the result of the observation. John Barth speaks through one of his characters in LETTERS:
Thus has chronicling transformed the chronicler, and I see that neither Werner Heisenberg nor your character Jacob Horner went far enough: not only is there no ‘non-disturbing observation’; there is no non-disturbing historiography. Take warning, sir: to put things into words works changes, not only upon the events narrated, but upon their narrator. (80)
With its inclinations towards indeterminancy, its inconclusive and fragmented points of view, augmented by constant breaches in the continuity of time, and blatant exposure of authorial subjectivity, LETTERS presents the dynamic transformations that inform the postmodern society. This new view of the natural sciences, the thought that the selective nature of the observation had already interpretative qualities, could easily be transferred to the humanities in general and to history in particular. Thus, it finally became clear that, “when the expert and acknowledged historian engages in the actual shaping of a history, such a historian will unavoidably bring in his or her way of interpreting and thus authorizing history” (Portales, 1987:465).
Apart from the historical relativists who negate the possibility of independently existing historical facts, and quantum physicists who eliminated hopes for any form of scientific objectivity, various critics also challenged the form in which historical findings were, and still are, presented. For Hayden White, who is one of the most distinguished theorists in the history of consciousness, presentation plays one of the most important roles: for as human beings,
we may seek to give our lives a meaning of some specific kind by telling now one and now another kind of story […]. But this is a work of construction rather than of discovery—and so it is with groups, nations, and whole classes of people who wish to regard themselves as parts of organic entities capable of living storylike lives. (White, 1986:487)
Thus, White identifies the story as the most important, the most basic human instrument for endowing the individual existence and meaning. At the same time, however, he also discloses the artificiality of this form of sense-making because he acknowledges the inventive impulse that has created all stories and its fictitious nature. According to White, it is precisely this fictitious nature of various kinds of stories which has been the very essence of historical thought from its earliest beginnings:
Since its invention by Herodotus, traditional historiography has featured predominantly the belief that history itself consists of a congeries of lived stories, individual and collective, and that the principal task of historians is to uncover these stories and to retell them in a narrative, the truth of which would reside in the correspondence of the story told to the story lived by real people in the past. (White, 1987:ixf)
Neither history nor space-time is a container for prior experiences or images of the past for time is a process, an experience of flow which cannot be dominated by static representations secured in a sequence. As postmodern authors show, narrating some recognizable section of the past, reviving historical legacy and also capturing their own space-times, their texts are in a way the guardians of the past temporality, preserved in the present as the legacy of certain forever gone space-times. However, their “emplotments” do not link with some grand, universal plot. The history (with a lower-case h) as treated by these authors is not represented as a process of chronological evolution, or a succession of causes and effects culminating in the present. Rather, their micro-histories include un/forgotten events whose latent presence is acknowledged as part of a constantly changing present. They purposely recover forgotten or challenging “fragments,” placing them in juxtaposition, recuperating and valorizing in the present those un/mis-textualized traces of past reality that survive in conscious and unconscious memory and in orally transmitted knowledge.
Postmodern authors experiment with forms, mixing absurd and grotesque with the real, fabricating evidence, incorporating historical figures, public testimony, newspaper quotes, dates and other real data, confronted with historical facts and its falsifications, revealing an entropic condition of postmodern history. In their view, nonverbal experience can only be described and not reproduced, even when history is in question. They believe history gets highly distorted through language, which is why historical testaments must be regarded with certain skepticism. Historical perspective is thus just a narrative, often based on political or social bias, a presentation of ideals, heroes and villains, but also providing moral and exemplified behavior for future generations.
The notion that Western societies in the late twentieth century have entered a stage of “posthistory” or a crisis of historicity seems to align with a whole set of concepts such as postmodernism, postindustrialism, posthumanism, or poststructuralism, whose usage in cultural theory and literary criticism indicates some type of ending. This is how Molly Hite applies it to Pynchon’s work:
Both V. and Gravity’s Rainbow play explicitly on the notion that the climax has already occurred, and that at some retrospective point on the time-line, history took an irreversible downward turn. In both of these books, the plunge toward annihilation was precipitated by a rising technology, which grew like Frankenstein’s creature to dominate its creators. (Hite, 1983:19-20)
But posthistory does not indicate a closure of the historical process in the conventional sense. Rather it means fragmenting the perspective and speeding up the temporal experience that tends to erase historical differences, “leaving clusters of contiguous episodes with no connective momentum […] the malaise of post-history” (Grgas, 1988:216). Yet it opens the present up to a multitude of historical moments: “only the millions of last moments … no more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments” (Gravity’s Rainbow, 149).
The most conspicuous feature of any past event is its apparent unreality for it does not exist in the “now.” It has passed away and is not present any longer. Although genuine past anterior to the present moment seems beyond our reach, it appears that past events exist in our memory. Even though their status is less definite and dimmer than present ones, they seem to have a kind of existence. As William James put it: “The feeling of the past is a present feeling” (James, 1950:627), implying that the past survives only symbolically, as recollections, dormant until reactivated, which is very plastically shown in Coover’s Gerald’s Party and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
Both James and Bergson upheld the immortality of the mental past, while Whitehead insisted on the indestructibility of the past in general: “The past moment is fadeless in the lapse of time” (Whitehead, 1978:513-14), keeping in mind that immortality is different from static immutability. Its indestructibility is not of static, immutable, becomingless nature. It is a living, dynamic immortality of past events modified by their changing relations to the perpetually emerging novelties of present moments.
A narrative strategy that revelas the manipulation with the past in particular, can be observed in Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, where Oedipa, the main character plays the part of the private eye and tries to sort out her ex-lover’s mysterious legacy, but each time she has the feeling she is about to discover the truth, the past that she had known so far changes, shaped by a newly found “present” data. Apart from historical texts and memories of different characters that lead Oedipa to miscellaneous assumptions regarding the Tristero and the history of the postal system, she also finds signs, lines, drawings, rhymes and other traces of the past that she relates to her quest and that change her view of the “truth.” As Schaub notes, “reaching the real message […] is blocked by the transformations of time: variant texts, pirated copies, faulty memory and questionable interpretation” (Schaub, 1981:62). The past of each event is continuously changing and being modified with respect to the present. As Čapek reveals:
Past events remain indestructible, though not immutable; they will forever remain past, but the degree of their pastness is continuously changing; they are continuously perishing, but never completely dead. (Čapek, 1991:39)
This is characteristic of the text in question. It reveals alteration without complete destruction for change is an incessant process that although apparently “mutilates” past events, at the same time keeps them “alive” and accessible. It is even possible that the systems (postal systems, various editions of the same text) Oedipa desperately tries to unravel exist only because she is keeping them “alive” by her sorting (she is the “demon”1), which points to the importance of language, history, memory, and communication. Oedipa constantly finds different clues in her search for the truth, depending on the time lapse and the perspective and space-time from which a certain past event/clue is being considered.
Another text that features faulty memories and manipulations of the past, accompanied by the enormous speed with which events pile up (for they do not evolve), is Coover’s Gerald’s Party. The information is proliferating too rapidly to give the main character, Gerald time to make any sense of it (as was the case with Oedipa). The uncontrollable speed with which this text flows, without providing tentative answers—but giving bits and pieces of events that occur, mixed with memories and various simultaneous conversations that go on, generate fragmentation. The narrative vaguely unifies a succession of actions, incidents, conversations and violent set pieces, additionally adding to fracture and accelerating temporality, hence resulting in the blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality, and remodeling history. Gerald recounts simultaneous conversations and incidents, sometimes delivering just a line and then moving on to the next one, frequently returning to some previous occurrence or topic as if to be more accurate, to adjust it by rationalization. Many times memories of another space-time surface, mainly reminiscences of his love-life. With this narrative strategy, Coover exposes the fragmentary and consumerist character of contemporary culture, but also a changed status of arts and life in general in the age of new sensibility influenced by speed, mass media, new technologies, and virtual reality.
Rhythms: different p(l)aces for different events/temporal scales and the irreversibility of time
The idea that time exists “like beads on a string,” moving from one moment to another in a sequence of self-contained and isolated instants/events is outdated and favours a spatial model of time. The linking of moments, events, and actions need not be in a straight line (spatialized clock time) for they are often symultaneous and fundamentally multiplicitous, never the same, and partening to different temporal scales. However, this is not to say that space and time do not inter-relate for it always takes time to cover an expanse of space, and something that takes up time seems to also occupy space (Vitale). In the natural universe this bonding of space and time is visible in the diurnal cycle and rhythms of the seasons and our bodies. What comes to mind in this respect is Deleuze’s view of rhythm as a crucial operator that links space and time, actualized in a multiplicity of spaces marked by complex rhythms of times (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). This is also in tune with Lefebvre’s reasoning about multiplicity of different events moving at different speeds, where multiple temporalities collide (as the rhythms of the city):
Every rhythm implies the relation of a time with a space, a localised time, or if one wishes, a temporalised place. Rhythm is always linked to such and such a place, to its place, whether it be to the heart, the fluttering of the eyelids, the movement of the street, or the tempo of the waltz. This does not prevent it from being a time, that is an aspect of a movement and a becoming. (Lefebvre, 1996:230)
The rhythms of everyday life are multiple and characterised through patterns of the pulsing movements of multiplicity of temporalities, some short term, some long run, some rare or frequent, personal or collective, and so forth, marking multiple beats and rituals of the life course.
The postmodern novelists’ attempt to explore the simultaneous rather than the sequential structure of time as a means of organizing narrative exposes human time as just one among a multiplicity of temporal scales, one that can no longer be considered the measure and standard of continuity. The events which may be perfectly continuous and coherent in one time scale may not appear so in the other. Hence, their works portray the multiplication of divergent time scales within predominantly Western spaces, displaying temporal discontinuity in the individual and social domains, and underlying the uncertainty regarding any relevant description of past and future. That is why characters in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow experience time as literally falling apart into different time scales, which have a simultaneous reality and yet cannot be contemplated simultaneously. An example is Pökler and his daughter who live very different temporalities, although experiencing them at the same time. Furthermore, Pökler’s own time scales collapse because he is not sure which reality is he living and whether the daughter he gets once a year is really his. When Ilse makes her annual visits she appears so different each time that he speculates whether it is her or an actress playing the part on the ferris wheel at Zwölfkinder. The reality that emerges in this and other posmodern novels, along with acceleration, offers a growing awareness of living a multiplicity of times and of moving at different speeds. At the same time, the postmodern society abounds in technological advancements, so that the developments in transport and communication technologies render the world both more extensive and considerably “smaller” at the same time.
History itself, the past and the future, appear to be a “landscape of events that God alone can contemplate” (Virilio, 2000:16), emerging together in simultaneity. This ironic outlook, resembling the views of God who in His omnipotence sees the world and all its eternity as co-present, is characterized by Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians who claim that “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past […]. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will” (Slaughterhouse-Five, 19-20). Billy, the main character uses these ideas as a coping mechanism in the war and post-war situations. As Vees-Gulani indicates: “With the help of his Tralfamadorian fantasy and his idea of time travel, Billy conquers his trauma in a way that enables him to function” (Vees-Gulani, 2003:180). Apart from controlling Billy’s anxiety and fears, this fatalistic attitude behind Tralfarmadorian philosophy endorses the inevitability of events, and this quasi a-temporal perspective of coexistence grants no sequence. Nothing follows anything else and nothing ever ends. Yet it gives us a notion of simultaneity and repetition in an eternal present.
Recursive patterns are noticeable in many postmodern novels, where the ending recalls the beginning, so that there is a symbolic closure. A typical spatial pattern of circularity could be observed in The Crying of Lot 49 and Oedipa’s circular motion after leaving Nefastis’s house, when she takes a twenty-four-hour series of circular bus rides around Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley, ending up in front of Nefastis’s house. She accumulates overwhelming information that she comes across within a recursive pattern, for she is again at the beginning. In Dana Medoro’s words: “cyclical time reproduces the eternal movement between chaos and creation” (Medoro, 2003:78). During her ride she meets: “drunks, bums, pedestrians, pederasts, hookers, walking psychotic” (LOT, 129), following subversive distribution of letters W.A.S.T.E., commuting with “alternative,” “underground” (just like the postal system) and marginalized representatives of the American society. The readers get to see plural rhythms and the movement of social life that colonizes the dark: night workers, criminals and other public demons that chart and thrive on rhythms of the night. Thus, Oedipa encounters the Chinese herbalist, the Mexican anarchist, blacks on their way to graveyard shifts, the drunken sailor with delirium tremens, etc. Some of her “valuable” traces disappear, many are inconclusive and misunderstood, and characters that have come forward to reveal some truths vanish, recede, or die, manifesting the entropic pull. New data emerges, and Oedipa continues to search in what seems an empty senseless loop. But, all this movement keeps the system operative for as much as disintegrates appears through other sources of energy, new information creates/looms with time just because time is irreversible.
Time’s arrow moves unidirectionally toward the future. Time is irreversible, in both its pessimistic or optimistic form, in its entropy and evolution. Thermodynamics presents a negative time of decay and dissolution. Evolution is the positive, life-giving aspect of time—irreversibility that has a constructive role. Our past consists of multiple bifurcation points; at each point a flux occurred in which many futures existed, but as the system iterated and amplified, one future was chosen and the other possibilities disappeared forever, proving that “our bifurcation points constitute a map of the irreversibility of time” (Briggs, 1989:144). The entropic pull gets compensated by the positive life-sustaining powers for humans have found a positive theory regarding time. A revolutionary change in grasping of temporality came from the complex dynamics of chaos theory, which in the last forty years made an impact on culture on a par with relativity, evolution, and quantum physics. With its emergence, postmodern physics seems to reveal in practice, pressing the notion of scientific objectivity out of existence, re-including subjective experience and the dynamics of local theories (as opposed to a deterministic global theory), moving from being to becoming (reminiscent of Whitehead), and stressing the essence of a ceaseless process of time. Breaking its association with disorder, chaos theory has become a positive concept, conceptualized as extremely complex with infinite information rather than lack of order and with dissipative structures that bifurcate and self-organize, “locally contradict[ing] the second law of thermodynamics” (Porush, 1991:57), and envisioning a universe that has a capacity to renew itself rather than run down (as the nineteenth-century thermodynamicists thought).
All the postmodern texts include some sort of fracture, irregularity, randomness, and fragmentation, with hints of self-organization, thus assimilating nonlinear patterns characteristic of chaos theory. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 in particular, but also Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, Gerald’s Party and Ghost Town incorporate repetition across scales and infinite nesting of pattern within pattern, mocking the idea of completeness and yet paradoxically revealing a whole. They dismiss the causality principle as it was grounded in classical physics (although there is causality intermixed with unpredictability and randomness), and point to the complexities and juxtapositions the system acquires with time.
For example, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the main character Slothrop constantly fears death, which is reinforced by his personal “paranoia […] that everything is connected” (703). On the map of London, he pastes paper stars with the names of his latest lovers, “boobishly conscientious” of the dates and the places he has been with them in order to “save a moment here or there” (23). The projections of his conquests symbolize his craving to save memories, order, and meaning “among the sudden demolitions from the sky” (23). But there is another way of looking at Slothrop’s map, which from Pointsman’s (one of the characters) perspective serves as a document that Slothrop attracts bombs falling on London. The map of his sexual conquests coincides with the raids on London: rockets hit the spots Slothrop marked on the map as his love-making terrain. People around Slothrop, with Pointsman and his behaviorist philosophy leading the way, jump to a conclusion that these patterns are not random, but related to a particular cause, namely that something mechanical or biological within Slothrop makes him an attractor to the rockets, advocating causality as the reduction of all processes to the sequence of stimulus and response (Heise, 1997:185).
The other interpretation of this phenomenon comes from Roger Mexico, another character in the novel, who symbolizes postmodern science informed by Boltzmann, Poincare, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory, that is based on statistical regularities and probabilities, and not on certainties or the causality principle. This idea of statistical probabilities has profoundly changed our views on temporality. Hence, Mexico claims that cause and effect have become obsolete, while science relies on probability. A variety of characters give their opinions on the topic. Thus, “Rollo Groast thinks” of this advent/occurrence as “precognition,” Edwin Treacle ponders it is “psychokinesis” (85), or maybe, Slothrop is “in love, in sexual love, with his, and his race’s death” (738). Although Pointsman tries to prove this from his Newtonian, causal domain: “No effect without cause, and a clear train of linkages” (89); the phenomenon introduces nonlinearity, chaos theory, and “strange attractors.” Katherine Hayles explains: “An attractor is simply any point within an orbit that seems to attract the system to it”—which could be a fixed-point (pendulum) or a predictable cycle, such as a heart rhythm, or an “odd combination of randomness and order [that] conveys the flavor of a strange attractor” (Hayles, 1990:147;150).
Slothrop’s localities corresponding to that of German V-2 detonations in London, and his dates, preceding the strikes sometimes by a few hours and sometimes up to ten days, form a strange interaction which cannot be explained, except in terms of far from equilibrium, turbulent, nonlinear systems that fluctuate and bifurcate, producing self-organizing structures (chaos theory). What is even more interesting, Slothrop later reveals that his map is partly based on fiction for he invented some of his dates. As the 1977 Nobel laureate chemist, Ilya Prigogine revealed, these nonlinear systems and their structures can release order out of chaos—which is why he calls them “dissipative structures” (Prigogine, 1997:73)—underlining the irreversibility of time, and testifying that time has an arrow facing the future which is not as negative as thermodynamic entropy predicts, but consists of positive life-sustaining powers that compensate for the negative, unquestionable entropic pull. It is also curious that chaos theory developed during the second part of the seventies while Pynchon published Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973. Sustaining the idea that literature has its role in forming cultural values and the way we experience and view reality, stands the fact that literature has a longer history dealing with the unpredictability and complexity of nonlinear systems than chaos theory. As Thomas Weissert states: “Jorge Luis Borges discovered the essence of bifurcation theory thirty years before chaos scientists mathematically formalized it,” “discovering” scientific truth long before the scientists did (Weissert, 1991:223).
Consequences of accelerated temporality: fragmentation, open-endedness, instantaneity, disposability, trendiness, each moment split into versions of itself, and abiding in continuous present
Together with natural sciences, the emerging form of global capitalism based on new technologies and controlled by military-industrial domain, evolves and takes the center. The emergent cultural technologies, the internet, cyberculture, digital technologies, and the entertainment and information industries have generated possibilities of interaction, proliferating in cable channels and web-pages, displaying virtual reality, producing highly original domains that alter existing notions of space, time, reality, embodiment, and identity (Best, 2001:3). Individuals are bombarded by a spectrum of technologies that are reconstructing every aspect of experience which is especially striking in the United States, the epicenter of global capital, focusing people on surviving and succeeding in a rapidly shifting present. Peter Dicken explains this global economic, industrial, and geographical change:
Change occurs within an existing context but it also transforms that context […]. What does seem certain is that the tendency towards an increasingly highly interconnected and interdependent global economy will intensify. The fortunes of nations, regions, cities, neighbourhoods, families and individuals will continue to be strongly influenced by their position in the global network. In a rapidly shrinking and interconnected world there is no hiding place. (Dicken, 1992:460)
What is frightening is that in this culture of speed and technology, temporality accelerates, gaining too much speed so that humans experience it as fragmented and disintegrated in a universe saturated with random events, which is so well depicted by postmodern authors, especially by Pynchon, Barthelme, Gaddis, DeLillo, and Coover who marked these transits within the society in their texts.
Following this logic, the posmodern authors stress the instability and complexity of the world and its representations, applying it to the text, the form, and language itself, and augmenting fragmentation with divisions, subdivisions and micro-narratives. Postmodern narrative time frequently concentrates on the moment of the narrative present and opposes larger temporal developments (Heise, 1997:64). In Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, a collection of short stories, the moment is not perceived as an autonomous instant of presence, but as engaged in an indeterminate number of contrasting, and sometimes mutually incompatible temporalities. These temporalities fracture and fragment the text and its protagonists, the time seeming a series of slices corresponding to each other. An example is Coover’s short story “The Elevator” which consists of nothing other than variations of the same scene where the main character takes the elevator in the building where he works: “Every morning without exception and without so much as reflecting upon it, Martin takes the self-service elevator to the fourteenth floor, where he works” (125). Coover has symbolically represented the elevator as a micro-universe of a variety of space-times, alluding to many possibilities; as McCaffery suggests: “the elevator as a social microcosm; the elevator as a phallic symbol; the elevator as a coffin; the elevator as a jail” (McCaffery, 1982:76). Temporal patterns within this text are difficult to grasp for there are a variety of sequences that oppose one another, and no causal relations among them, which means they can be replaced in a different order without changing the meaning (very much like electronic literature). Additionally, each moment appears split into manifold versions of itself, embedded in complex and sometimes even absurd recurring structures. Consequently, the postmodern texts characterize unrecognizable, and fluctuating protagonists who strive for autonomy in a world in which various systems thwart their identities, uncovering the fluidity and apparent shapelessness of reality with its unpredictable, oscillating, and random nature, thus obstructing the individual’s ability to control or direct the processes that surround her/him. They are lacking authenticity, presence, compactness, and a vision for the future, and are on the verge of disappearance, as Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow and John’s wife in Coover’s novel John’s Wife, which reflects on already fragmented narrative, constituting a universe that disintegrates, and is overflowing with random events.
Coover pushes it to the extreme in “The Magic Poker” and “The Babysitter,” telling several versions of an event at once, and by doing so speculating on the nature of narration. This abundance of scenes and moments split into various versions of themselves does not appear to be there for the sake of wider and richer plot possibilities, on the contrary, it seems to underline obsessive repetition of a rather limited inventory of events. Within flourishing novels that nurture volumnious and networked plots, such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, splitting of events into alternative and incompatible versions of themselves serves as an additional tool which represents the characters’ loss of understanding of their space-time, as well as an ominous prophecy regarding the future.
Such postmodern narrative strategies are especially visible in “The Babysitter,” with events/moments fractured into a variety of configurations that are divided into 108 sections. Each section, as Patricia Waugh explains, forms a narrative unit, none of which “read consecutively (i.e. with the causal logic)” (Waugh, 1984:138). This kind of temporality does not allow for privileged instants of epiphany, aesthetic perfection or visions of coherence and logical sequence. The narrative organization appears almost as random and obstructs such privileging. Even if epiphany would be attained in one episode it might be cancelled out in the following episode that displays a different version of the same event. The events of a number of possible versions branch off in an arbitrary representation.
The scientific and aesthetic views that respond to the understanding of external reality have fundametally changed, focusing on indeterminacy, discontinuities, and the problematic status of representation that unravels our comprehension of the world. That is the reason why in his work Barthelme makes fun of “contemporary society by challenging conventional hierarchies of meaning, philosophic systems of thought, and psychoanalytic notions of subjectivity” (Sloboda, 1997:109). Characters in his Snow White are frustrated by worn-out vocabulary, negating the assumption that language can fix and name reality, while dwelling in a world oversaturated with teleological discourses and participating in the author’s seemingly random leaps of style, undermining systematized thought that has become “a model of the trash phenomenon” (97-98).
Barthelme’s protagonists view the world as unstable, fragmented, and nonchronological, resisting the inherited certainties of classical sciences, its orderliness and the idea that reality is material and graspable. His early story, “See the Moon?” projects postmodern criticism of the scientific methods and classical discourses of truth and linear narrative, as its narrator invents two fictional sciences (cardinology and lunar hostility studies), measuring, testing, and taking notes (but mostly just observing), all in vain, thus reflecting the inability of Western scientific endeavors to provide the certainty of meaning at every level. The narrator’s artistic methods of study are to some extent informed by his object of study: the moon, which stands for the ludic values of imagination, intuition, and irrationality, relying on “lunatic” playfullness rather than on reason. Just as the narrator’s randomly scattered souvenirs on the wall are informative of his artistic views, tied to his estrangement from materialism, but still an attempt to connect his past, present, and future, for he hopes they will someday merge into something meaningful; so is his research, even though rather passive, light-minded and even whimsical, an attempt to apply meaning to juxtaposed fragments of provisional knowledge and possibilities, suggesting openness. The famous sentence from this story, “[f]ragments are the only form I trust” (Unspeakable Practices, 1968:153) is indicative of the fragmentation and openness of Barthelme’s narratives, reflecting the author’s views of contemporary existence as disjunct and ambiguous.
Thus, another exemplary characteristic of postmodern literature is fragmentation and open-endedness, tied to the absence of resolution for there is no progress and no chronology in these texts, lacking definitive beginning and ending, and traditional structures of closure; which means that the absolute meaning is always deferred, even as each of the postmodern novels end. Their authors treat events inconclusively, often embracing anticlimactic ellipses, as does Barthelme in his novel Paradise, displaying the lack of chronology, with glimpses of the main character’s conversations and memories that cannot be allocated to a particular time, offering dramatic and complicated treatment of time. The juxtaposition of the preterit and present tenses aids the disruption of linear time and the historical view of events. The novel begins when the three women had left Simon and describes his moods in the past tense (of his actual present). Then it shifts to the women’s arrival, narrated in the present, assuming paradise-like, endless qualities, but which is actually Simon’s finite past, and cannot be brought back. Simon’s conversations with them and the doctor, and the meaning of these conversations and their mutual interactions augment the fluidity, irresoluteness, and meaninglessness of his life. Through these random glimpses of his existence and identity, and ironically of human experience in general for most of Barthelme’s characters reveal no purpose or direction in life; the reader gets the impression that everything is futile, useless, and open-ended. Simon has no goals as far as his career is concerned, he “thought of no new projects” (41), and no sense of direction towards the future. In relations with his housemates, he enjoys all of them, and they share his attention, body, and money equally, with no desire for a meaningful completion of these relationships, which for a classic reader would be Simon’s possible choice of one woman for marriage. What he does is just “frolic” with the women (164), read, and let his mind “[w]ander” (188). The fragmentation and openness of this and other postmodern texts are in turn suggestive of how scientific theories operate, change and evolve with time.
Furthermore, the enormous speed-up in the existential rhythm of people as well as societies over the last four decades has forced large numbers of people to live in an economic, technological and social culture alien to them because they are unable to keep up with its pace of change, faced with, as Alvin Toffler argues: “future shock [which] is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society” (Toffler, 1970:13). The Western economy from 1945, but particularly since the 1970s, has progressively surmounted spatial barriers and inaugurated new markets in the entire globe, hence accelerating the turnover time of capital. Progress in the sciences and technology throughout the twentieth century has provoked some very dramatic changes in the organization of capitalism, which is so well depicted in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. As Robert Coover remarks:
Our basic assumptions about the universe have been altered, and so change has occurred in the broad base of metaphor through which the universe is comprehended. (Coover in Gado, 1973:142)
The last sixty years have marked a really spectacular development in the electronics industry. The first step in creating the modern electronics industry was the development of the transistor in the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the U.S. in 1948, which made possible the development of a microelectronics industry (Dicken, 1992:309). The continuing expansion of telecom networks “allows for the concept of ‘any information, at any time, anywhere, and any way I want to look at it’ is increasingly economically feasible” (Scott Morton, 1991:13). As Francese notes, advancements “in information technology have made possible the switch in the basic production mode from the fixed, Fordist assembly line to one of flexible accumulation, the disarticulation and displacement of capital and production” to places all over the globe (2). The globalization and economic reconfigurations have instigated adjustments in real living conditions and prompted people to change their understanding and appreciation of both space and time. Consequently, postmodernity refers to the dramatic acceleration of temporality, following human engagement with the natural and technological world, enveloping social and cultural changes, and concerning the advances of our means and methods of appropriating reality.
In the sphere of commodity production, the primary result of the accelerated temporal rhythms has been to emphasize the values of instantaneity (fast foods and other minute-made satisfactions) and of disposability (napkins, cups, plates, etc.) which in the long run turned out to be more than just throwing away produced goods; it meant throwing away values, lifestyles, relationships (Harvey, 1989:285-286). The consumer culture, comfort and convenience are firmly fixed phenomena in the West, and are spreading to other parts of the world. Under these circumstances, long-term planning diminishes in importance, while fashions, trends, and phases become crucial. This is transparent in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland and Inherent Vice which take place in California. As the vast majority of Southern California’s urban space has been constructed since World War II, it can be argued that postmodern era specifically frames this locality. If postmodernism is, as Jameson suggests, an effect of post-industrial capitalism, then Southern California is a perfect example of postmodern social space-time, with its a-historical condition of widespread commodity fetishism and trendiness, as well as the historical dislocation and lack of planning that are manifested in typically Southern Californian phenomena. This space-time flourishes with randomly scattered stores, restaurants, auto dealers, and stucco strip malls. All are mashing in an urban crowd, one located by another, with expensive shops facing or sharing the same building with the cheap no-name garments and a couple-dollar meals.
The cult of Hollywood, plastic surgery, and “Los Angelization” seem to be the motor that keeps this space-time running. Pynchon describes this phenomenon mostly through spatial perspective of urban American localities. In the sixties and seventies, but less in the eighties, plastic surgery was not as daring and common as nowadays, but he predicts the widespread outcome and effects on human beings of the rapidly changing trendiness of demolishing and rebuilding. One of the characters in Pynchon’s V. is a plastic surgeon named Shale Shoenmaker (sounds like German “schön” which means pretty) who remakes what nature made and transforms it to generalized taste that has been conditioned by popular trends and spread widely in movies, magazines, ads. This preoccupation with trends and their meaninglessness fits nicely with the protagonists’ tendency to move aimlessly in circles without meaning, figuratively forming an empty loop. Moreover, as Jameson has written, our lives are no longer governed by the cycles of nature, but by the perpetual change of fashion conjured up by media, “accompanying the multifarious penetration of its omnipresent images” and making our seasons post-natural, almost as artificial designs of commercial convenience (Jameson, 1994:17). Remodeling unique faces according to a popular norm, the surgeon deprives human beings of their individuality, eradicating natural differences, and imposing uniformity (a sign of entropy), which he visualizes as “cultural harmony” (V., 91)—the same phenomena that hit the American city and is prevailing through technological mega-corporations in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.
Moreover, as Harvey has demonstrated, the revolution in telecommunications has had a profound influence on the social and cultural organization of the industrialized West. Merging of telecommunications and computers has foregrounded mainly two temporal values: simultaneity and instantaneity. As Steven Dandaneau nicely puts it, the young generation “is more wired together than actually together” (Dandaneau, 2001:129). The focus on the present moment is spread through contemporary media and consumer culture and it seems to gain control over more and more realms of human existence, with its relentless emphasis on the present as the only time phase available for planning, gratification, and control: “where the present is all there is (the world of the schizophrenic)” (Harvey, 1989:240).
One of the areas where continuous present is overwhelmingly conspicuous is media with its characteristic distortion of the temporal depth of lived experience. The daily papers, often lacking connection between news items, prevent the reader from assimilating the information they supply. Events of major importance are separated from their historical context and their causes and consequences, and are offered as consumable commodities to be quickly used and forgotten, replaced by new interesting information twenty-four hours a day. Also, newspapers are not mere narrators of history, rather they seem to produce it, and people are eagerly waiting for the new number to come out. In Coover’s The Public Burning “The New York Times […] commune[s] with the latest transactions of the Spirit of History as made manifest in all the words and deeds of living and dying men fit to print” (188), seving as “a political force-field maker” (191). Shuffling quotes and quasi-quotes from historical figures and contriving patterns from random but “suitable” data, the newspapers in this novel “reconstruct with words and iconography each fleeting day in the hope of discovering some pattern, some coherence, some meaningful dialogue with time” (191). In the same manner, the novel exposes another news magazine: Time as “also a prophet of religious truth, the recreator of deep tribal realities, committed ‘desperately, whimsically, absurdly, cockeyedly, whole-souledly’ to Revelation” (328). Additionally, the news seems to exist independently of the idividual and historical situations of both reporter and the public, which makes it almost unreal, just a sequence of stories that are there to satisfy the needs of the readers/viewers. Even though television news makes social, economic, and cultural realities much more transparent than ever before, it does not mean they are more comprehensible. Understanding of the historical development and its realms is hidden by the news’ presentation as trends, which Coover delineates in his story “The Babysitter,” DeLillo in his recordings of the crime and it subsequent broadcasts in “Videotape,” and Pynchon in his novel Vineland, where media contents mix with reality.
To conclude, postmodern authors as Vonnegut, Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Coover have marked miscellaneous and amazing changes of the postmodern world—its shifts in science, technology, society, and reality in general—from which a variety of unbelievable perspectives of temporality stem: visions that coexist and juxtapose one another, mirroring the spectra of micro and macro scales of the postmodern reality. Together with historically accurate details, they use self-reflexivity, embedding, and a variety of other interactive strategies, such as stream of consciousness and cinematographic techniques, constantly moving between concerns, fragmenting the narrative by startling juxtaposition and rapid cutting, thus conveying complex, simultaneous phenomena. The narrative of postmodern texts is highly destabilized, with fleeting images of characters and conversations that emerge and then recede, offering fragmentary and nonlinear glimpses of unplaced communications and memories, abruptly shifting from topic to topic without mapping relations among disconnected events, resulting in random collages of actions and discourses that occur and reoccur. The narrative vaguely unifies a succession of actions, memories, and conversations, additionally adding to fracture and accelerating temporality, hence resulting in the blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality, and reconstructing history. Apart from making it more complex, these techniques accelerate the space-time domain. The slow pace of revelation of things is lost and with it the stability, but a new sense of speedy reality is acquired, the one that is shifting and gliding away all the time.
The three concepts that have been examined within the texts of the chosen authors—perdition of historical continuity, rhythms of different p(l)aces for different events, consequences of accelerated temporality—are only approximate markings of the contents of each section (reminiscent of “strange attractors”) for they envelop a variety of other notions of temporality that are immensely complex and entangled amongst them; and not just that: the sections intertwine among themselves, blurring their borderlines and collapsing into one another. To exemplify, one of the consequences of accelerated temporal rhythms is also the perdition of historical consciousness and continuity, while the looping principle of the same novel is discussed in terms of the meaningless motion and stasis in one section, as well as a recursive pattern that dissipates old and inaugurates new sources of energy and information in the other. Although this might appear conflicting and even invalid, it is precisely what postmodern space-time, as well as postmodern literature is about. The very nature of literature analyzed in this article discredits any claim of absoluteness in critical discourse, and the concepts, terms, and subtitles used to describe the transformations of temporality vaguely hold together the variety of temporal phenomena that proliferate within these texts, informed by the new reality that is relative, energetic, discontinuous, and uncertain itself. Thus, the subtitles are, to quote Barth’s view of categories, “more or less useful and necessary fictions: roughly approximate maps, more likely to lead us to something like a destination if we don’t confuse them with what they’re meant to be maps of” (Barth, 1988:17)
What all the analyzed postmodern texts underline is their characters’ de-centered position within the military-industrial complex and the culture of information that rule our postmodern space-time, which has affected human identity, reconfiguring it and rendering it fluctuating and vulnerable, blurring the subject/object binary, as well as real/fictive dichotomy. Scientists reinforced these views of interdependence between subject and object, revealing utmost indeterminacy in any observation, so that history itself gets highly distorted through narrative, its rewritings and simulations, with layers of the past that overlap, intersect, and accumulate, displaying proliferating visions of themselves, and undercutting classical discourses of truth. Since postmodern characters are exposed to accelerated temporal rhythms and bombardment of signs and information to the point of overload, they are forced to live more exclusively in the present. Humans have consequently lost the sense of historical consciousness and of temporal continuity in general, divorcing themselves from purposeful self-direction and resembling automations, no longer being the organizing agents of space and time. The postmodern protagonists’ meaningless motion, yo-yoing, looping pursuit for the truth, habitual playing of table-top games, hoarding of material things, their escape to fictive worlds or any other sort of repetitive pattern that keeps the routine alive implies exitlessness and stasis for it underlines their unproductiveness and detaches them from reality. However, this apparently empty loop of movements (as far as meaning is concerned), keeps the system working: as much as dissipates appears through other sources of energy, new information forms with time. The system is somehow operative, and it needs to be added that it works just because time is irreversible.
All the chosen texts include some sort of irregularity, contingency, and fragmentation, conceptualized as extremely complex with infinite information that speed up and with dissipative structures that self-organize, thus assimilating nonlinear patterns characteristic of chaos theory. They dismiss the causality principle as it was grounded in classical physics and focus more on simultaneity, revealing a variety of rhythms that link space and time and connect past and future, binding them in the present instant. These rhythms are characterized through patterns of pulsing beats of multiple temporalities where different forms can emerge, and they can be said to unite the fragmented and virtual diversity of space-time. In this way, postmodern authors expose human time as divided into multiplicity of scales, pointing to the emergence of structures that keep progressing to a higher order of complexity, pertaining to divergent times moving at different speeds, displaying temporal discontinuity and the discrepancy of singular moments split into different versions of themselves. What they demonstrate is that time is irreversible for both open and closed systems are facing entropy, but “correspondence” with the surroundings gives them new possibilities, with the open systems being in a better position for they can evolve with the arrow of time facing forward.
As elaborated in this paper, the shift in the understanding of temporality has resulted because of the vast changes in all aspects of life, and the speed with which events evolve, transform, and perish constantly augmenting, associated with an ever increasing pace of life. The past has paradoxically become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries and thus, “temporal boundaries have weakened just as the experiential dimension of space has shrunk as a result of modern means of transportation and communication” (Huyssen, 2003:1). Postmodern authors have demonstrated how the passage of the past is not just introduced by thoughts, but by nature itself. The pastness of each event is continuously changing and being modified with respect to the present. This aspect of the universal becoming is accompanied by the emergence of new events, which makes our reality complex and interesting. As the new present surfaces with each moment, pushing the past aside as well as transforming it, the idea that time is a process of interactions between past and present, recurring, but also bifurcating and producing new, never experienced events, is clarified.
This article traces these views of time that emanate from the works designed by the authors in question, locating them within postmodern culture. Speed, instantaneity, nonlinearity, fragmentation, posthistory, recurrence, consumerism, irreversibility, and many other aspects closely related to time ornate their fiction, revealing dissipative but fertile ground upon which their worlds are fashioned, generating ever new forms from their bifurcating patterns.
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1 The term “demon” or “sensitive” refers to a device (invented by James Clerk Maxwell) that would sort out data so that the system functions as a perpetuum mobile, evading the entropic pull, “violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” and apparently existing in the“ Nefastis’s Machine” (The Crying of Lot 49: 86). ↩