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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 515-517

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Book Review

Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation


John Johnston. Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. x + 307 pp.

John Johnston's Information Multiplicity is an ambitious and worthwhile book on contemporary American fiction that creatively brings together the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari from Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus with cybernetics and information theory, and applies it to novels written by Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, William Gibson, and Pat Cadigan, all published between 1973 and 1991. Johnston offers this mix as a useful model for understanding both the cultural and literary changes in post-World War II America. Adapting Deleuze and Guattari, Johnston's analysis assumes that in American social space generally, and consequently in literature as well, consciousness and agency have fundamentally been de-centered since World War II because of a crucial set of changes in technology driven in turn by the ever more pervasive influence of capitalism. His general term for this reciprocating process of social change and literary production is "mediality," a concept that "refers to the technological conditions that make specific media possible within a delimited historical epoch and therefore to the cultural and communicational 'setting' within which literature can appear and assume a specific shape and functioning." His analysis is in this sense historical and leads directly into his idea of "information multiplicity." [End Page 515]

Within the horizon of postwar mediality, as applied to literature, information multiplicity is similar to but distinct from the more familiar idea of information overload: on the one hand, Johnston notes the rise of cybernetic systems (feedback controlled) and information theory in postwar America as part of a greater capacity and desire for bureaucratic command and control; but on the other hand, he also points up the inherently "viral" nature of information, in which "the process of abstraction/production/circulation of information within a capitalist economy necessarily and at the same time releases more information in a generalized decoding of flows" and hence leads to a notion of multiplicity. With this as a foundation, he leads us to think of the novel of information multiplicity as "an assemblage produced by a writing machine" focused on "the nature and limits of the culture's instruments of data processing" that inquires "into what kinds of information are produced, how this information is addressed and stored, through what circuits it is routed, and what effects it has on the subjects it also produces."

Johnston distinguishes these novels of information multiplicity from earlier modernist works that in the main are "dramas of a self-reflective consciousness." Rather than shopworn and unpersuasive dramas of self-identity, the novel of information multiplicity in various ways chronicles the demise of this previous modernist subjectivity. It instead enacts the rise of a social space in which "information proliferates in excess of consciousness" and the old drama of self-identity is replaced with narratives that make explicit the multiple and de-centered modes of subjectivity constructed through contemporary processes of decoding and recoding of information flows. Johnston reads Pynchon's character Oedipa Maas from The Crying of Lot 49, for instance, as a link in a sort of viral information flow; she never gains a transcendent or dialectical subject position from which to view her "self" objectively, and so "each self that she might affirm is only a patterned response or feedback effect in a cybernetic system." Gravity's Rainbow, too, registers "a multiplicity in which no signifying system or regime of signs attains dominance and no expressive or discursive unity can take hold." The central dynamic of Gaddis's JR, moreover, "is to render everything as part of a generalized flow: the flux of crowds, the flux of money, the flux of subjects and objects." And Johnston leads us to see DeLillo's overall literary production as focused on various modes of deterritorialized subjectivity. [End Page 516]

In these and other readings in Information...


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