Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Crying of Lot 49 and C. S. Peirce's Theory of Self-Organization

Academic journal article Pynchon Notes

The Crying of Lot 49 and C. S. Peirce's Theory of Self-Organization

Article excerpt

The possible relevance of the unusual names Oedipa, Thum and Taxis, and Pierce Inverarity to themes in The Crying of Lot 49 has intrigued Pynchon critics since the novel's publication. Oedipa's name, many agree, points to her role as a solver of riddles, after Oedipus, who answered the riddle of the Sphinx. The historical postal family Thum and Taxis has been investigated, but nothing particularly significant about the name itself has been found. Regarding a Pierce/Peirce link, in "a novel so concerned with signs and the processes of signification," John Johnston observes, "Pierce's name evokes the name of the American founder of semiotics, C. S. Peirce" (52, 56). In fact, evidence suggests that all three names are linked to one another through C. S. Peirce (1839-1914)--not necessarily his semiotics, but his less well-known theory of self-organization. The way each name functions can be understood in relation to what I consider the main question of the novel: What is responsible for organization that emerges out of an essentially anarchic world, a world without a centralized source of direction?

Self-Organization and Teleology

Self-organization has received much critical attention in the sciences and in philosophy since the early nineties when the study of nonlinear dynamics entered the mainstream under the name "complexity sciences." C. S. Peirce's theory can be considered a predecessor of these newer theories, (2) which provide simple models with which we can more easily recognize the Peircean elements in Lot 49. The sciences of complexity define self-organizing phenomena as systems composed of stochastically interacting parts that spontaneously produce structurally complex wholes. Due to nonlinear relations in the interaction of the parts, the whole is more than the sum of the parts: it cannot be described reductively. The complex outcome of low-level mechanistic behavior seems to require additional guidance. Weather systems, such as tornadoes, are self-organizing, as are economic systems in free-trade environments, but self-organization is a property generally associated with biological organisms. As Kant writes,

   [E]very part [of an organism] is thought as owing its presence to
   the agency of all the remaining parts, and also as existing for the
   sake of the others and of the whole, that is as an instrument, or
   organ.... [T]he part must be an organ producing the other
   parts--each, consequently, reciprocally producing the others....
   Only under these conditions and upon these terms can such a product
   be an organized and self-organized being, and, as such, be called a
   physical end. ([section] 65)

Kant argues that, since the interactions of parts of a complex system are stochastic (individually determined but not directly correlated as a group), they must owe their self-organization to telos, the universal laws that govern the functional relations among parts and wholes. Any discussion of self-organization inevitably entails teleology, the study of the appearance of inherent design. As James P. Crutchfield notes, even contemporary descriptions of the phenomenon continue to use the term self-organization, attributing a teleological "self," a consciously directing self, to a system that simply, albeit surprisingly, "organizes" according to the underlying dynamical constraints operating in a nonlinear system (480).

Teleological behavior is commonly misunderstood today as a linear phenomenon. J. Hillis Miller claims that a linear narrative "tends to organize itself or to be organized in a causal chain" and follows an "inevitable sequence" according to a "telos, arche, or ground" (18). Derrida critiques the notion of telic order insofar as it derives from "a linked chain of determinations from the center" (960). He equates the center with both arche and telos. Given that the understanding of teleology as linear contradicts the way teleologists have thought of their own work and the way self-organization is understood today in physics, some clarification is needed to avoid confusion about my use of this concept. …

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