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  • Messenger BugIshmael Reed’s Media Virus
  • Madeleine Monson-Rosen (bio)

Published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo arrived in the midst of what science historian Lily E. Kay describes as a “gestalt switch to information thinking” (xv). Just as the application of Claude Shannon’s “Mathematical Theory of Communication” to digital systems resulted in networked computer communication, so the application of Shannon’s theory to biological systems resulted in a theory of genetics as information science: “It is within this information discourse that the genetic code was constituted as an object of study and a scriptural technology, and the genome textualized as a latter-day Book of Life” (Kay, 3). Richard Dawkins, whose 1976 The Selfish Gene is representative of Kay’s gestalt switch, explains genetics both in terms of print and in terms of computer programming, and coins the term “meme” to describe a media virus. For Dawkins, viruses reveal something essential about genetics and about evolution. Indeed, the distinction between gene and virus is somewhat arbitrary: “We are gigantic colonies of symbiotic genes,” not single unified organisms. Viruses, Dawkins suggests, “have evolved from ‘rebel’ genes who escaped, and now travel from body to body directly through the air, rather than via the more conventional vehicles—sperms and eggs. If this is true, we might just as well regard ourselves as colonies of viruses!” (182).

Mumbo Jumbo centers on Jes Grew, a “psychic epidemic” (Reed, 5) whose rebel genes travel from human body to human body, and a media virus that “tied up the tubes,” that is, the vacuum tubes of 1920s radios (154). Reed develops what Dawkins implies, making the viral rebel genes of Jes Grew into a contagious form of social rebellion, the jazz music and dancing that emerge from African American culture: “If the Jazz Age is year for year the Essences and Symptoms of the times, then Jes Grew is the germ” (20).1 [End Page 28]

Readings of Mumbo Jumbo, most notably by Henry Louis Gates and Madhu Dubey, have tended to highlight the novel’s postmodernism, arguing that Reed’s emphasis on text, writing, print, and communication offers a revisionist history of the African American literary tradition. In The Signifying Monkey, Gates argues that Reed signifies on the canonical literature of the Harlem Renaissance: “Mumbo Jumbo seems to be concerned to critique and to revise the modes of representation fundamental to the canonical texts that comprise the tradition of the Afro-American novel” (217). For Dubey, the search for Jes Grew’s missing text enables an authentic, if absent, site of origin for black American literature, distinguished from the economics of print culture that vitiate the Western literary tradition (53). These readings have produced a large body of scholarship on the novel, most of which investigates the ways in which Mumbo Jumbo incorporates and resignifies literature, including the canonical literature of the Harlem Renaissance, the detective novel, and science fiction.

Yet Reed’s allusive text, I argue, has a hitherto unrecognized referential palette. Although Reed’s incorporation of both canonical and generic literary forms is undeniable, Mumbo Jumbo’s emphasis on textuality and print, on codes and cyphers, on communications networks, and on a media virus that spreads through human social networks and the technologies that connect them reveals, in the novel, an unmistakable intervention into the potent, historically current discourse of information science—including both genetic science and computer technology. The key themes of Reed’s text: viral contagion, media networks, and linguistic and alphabetic codes, are also the key themes of the discourse of information technoscience through the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period of Mumbo Jumbo’s composition and publication.

Kay identifies a historically specific “poetics of technoscience” (152), emerging after the publication of the Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948 and the discovery of DNA in 1953. In Who Wrote the Book of Life? she describes a “large-scale scientific and cultural shift in representation—the information discourse” (16). This shift characterized “communication technoscience (cybernetics, information, and computers)” (xv) as “scriptural,” that is, fundamentally determined by a history of print and writing. In the 1960s the genome becomes, according to Kay’s history, a “Book...


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