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Henry James, in euphemistic but ever so precise language, once described a prostitute as "a woman who was not so good as she might have been." Part of that description seems particularly apropos to Professor Hayles' The Cosmic Web, for it is a book that is not so good as it might have been. I make this statement in some irritation, for the book ought to have been very good, at least according to my own criteria for a good book. It is written by a scholar whose interdisciplinary background gives her a fascinating command of two seemingly divergent fields; its purpose is to integrate knowledge at a time when such integration seems ever more necessary for both literature and criticism; and its subject is a metaphor central to twentieth-century experience. However, the book ultimately fails to be so good as it might have been for reasons that are both stylistic and philosophical.
Professor Hayles takes field theory as a central metaphor of the twentieth century, explaining it in terms of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. In a dense but understandable chapter, she outlines the major theoretical concepts of field theory, summarizing them when she points out that "the thrust of quantum mechanics . . . is to render indeterminacy inherent, while the thrust of relativity theory is to extend the determinacy of Newtonian physics into the progressively larger unifications made possible by Einstein's assumptions of invariance." After pointing out how these divergent concepts are reconciled by the work of such theorists as David Bohm, she then suggests that the problem of articulation inherent there is similar to the problem of the novelist who is trying "to capture [End Page 852] the idea of a holistic field in an articulated medium."
To this point, Hayles' book is every bit as good as it might have been, even though the discussions of Einstein's Special and General Theories, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Relation, and Bohr's linguistic concept of subject and object are fairly rough going for the nonscientist. The book continues to be good even through its first literary chapter, a discussion of Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The application of field theory to explain the position of the novel's author/narrator yields impressive results, for it provides a means by which to unify the contradictory elements of structure, theme, and symbolism. It also explains convincingly the reasons for the generally unsatisfactory ending: "Hence the synthesis that allows formal closure also sabotages the text's rhetorical strategy of making the hidden Phaedrus the rhetorical analogue to the unspeakable Quality."
From this point, however, Hayles forgets her audience completely. In increasingly murky language she discusses Lawrence in terms of Evelyn Keller's "Cognitive Repression in Contemporary Physics," Nabokov in terms of CPT symmetry and Martin Gardner's The Ambidextrous Universe, Borges in terms of Cantor's set theory, and Pynchon in terms of a deconstructing dynamic. Her discussion of Lawrence, instead of clarifying, clouds any possible understanding of the whole sought by the characters in The Rainbow. Her discussions of Nabokov and Borges produce elaborate considerations of CPT symmetry and set theory that are far too technical for the humanist, far too simple for the scientist, and far too divorced from any real insight for the student of literature and/or philosophy.
But the climax comes in the discussion of Pynchon, whom Hayles sees as successfully employing the field theory in every way. In discussing the difference between those who find Gravity's Rainbow to be unstructured chaos and those who find in it pervasive patterning, she says:
The difference in perspective arises because in Gravity's Rainbow meaning arrives as a gestalt, precipitating into awareness; either one sees the whole design...