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  • The Novel: Awash in Media Flows
  • Rebecca Rauve
Review of: John Johnston, Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of Media Saturation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

The discovery of electronic means to code and transfer information. An increasingly machinic understanding of consciousness, brought about by advances in neurobiology and genetics. The creation of a media system so extensive and effective that it can actually shape events as it reports—not to mention the audience to whom it reports. These developments have ramifications so profound that we are only beginning to understand how they may change us.

Information Multiplicity, a Deleuzian study of contemporary American fiction, maps the mutating forms of human subjectivity as it simultaneously effects and is affected by these developments, particularly in the field of the media. The book identifies a category of fiction that John Johnston, a professor of English at Emory University, has dubbed the “novel of information multiplicity.” Beginning with Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and ending with Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991), the study traces a trajectory that began when TV and computers became household items, and ends as the Net wraps the globe.

Johnston is by no means the first to analyze the relationship of information technology and fiction. Joseph Tabbi’s Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk looks at literary treatments of the machine, taking into account several of the same authors that Johnston chooses to discuss. As early as 1985, Charles Newman described the postmodern novel as in part an attempt to undercut the complacency of a reading audience “saturated” by electronic information. “The overwhelming sense not merely of the relativity of ideas, but of the sheer quantity and incoherence of information, a culture of inextricable cross-currents and energies—such is the primary sensation of our time,” he wrote in the preface to The Post-Modern Aura (9). But Johnston shows us what happens when not only the audience, but the fiction itself, is media-saturated. He documents with precision the link between media proliferation and the dissolution of intellectual authority at the heart of postmodernism. And he is perhaps the first to take advantage of how well-suited Deleuzian terms are to a discussion of the effects of technology on literature.

Information, which, according to Johnston, is neither a language nor a medium, is above all heterogeneous. It refers to multiple orders of events and it is not hierarchical. Instead, it is viral, proliferating beyond specified goals and uses. (For instance, Johnston’s book and this review are viral responses to the novels that bred them.) Finally, information is corrosive, corrupting and/or destroying older cultural forms even as it creates new ones.

This description is entirely compatible with a Deleuzian universe, where everything can be understood either as partial object or desire-fueled flow. “In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage,” Deleuze and Guattari write in the opening pages of A Thousand Plateaus (4–5).

They further define the literary assemblage in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, explaining how it overturns the novel’s traditional tripartite structure of world-representation-subjectivity to propose a new kind of response: not a book produced by an author, but rather a conglomeration of texts put together by a (desiring) writing machine. A literary assemblage is what results when a desiring body hooks up with different aspects of contemporary reality in configurations that allow desire to flow. This in turn produces additional configurations and extended opportunities for flow (and breakdown).

Unlike an “author,” the writing machine is cognizant of its cog-like role within a larger assemblage, and conscious of the fact that writing is merely one desiring-flow among a host of others: “A writer isn’t a writer-man, he is a machine-man, an experimental man” (7). Instead of depicting human beings who face challenges and make choices, the...

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