Total Systems and Dense Instances
By Cary Wolfe
Self. Complexity. Contingency…. Do these terms not point us in opposite directions, toward very different sorts of theoretical frames, vocabularies, and debts? The first would seem to reach back beyond even the concept of the “subject”—about which first structuralism and then post-structuralism warned us (as in Michel Foucault’s famous admonition that the critical concept of “ideology” had to be abandoned because it “presupposes something on the order of the subject”). “Complexity” and “contingency,” on the other hand, would appear to gesture toward a quite different theoretical apparatus, one centered not so much on the concept of structure, but that far more dynamic and contemporary thing, systematicity (as in theories of second-order cybernetics, autopoiesis, and the like). There, it is safe to say that the concept of “subject” (much less the “self”) has typically been of little or no moment; indeed, it has been subjected to radical decomposition, as in the theory of “exclusion” in the work of systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, whereby the concrete individual can participate in any social system—as voter, as pupil, as litigant—only by virtue of the fact that she is excluded from being a constitutive element of society “as such” or “as a whole.” She may be provisionally included in a particular system only because she is fundamentally excluded from all of them.
Place alongside this first tension (or whatever we wish to call it; it is not entirely sufficient any longer, for reasons this book makes clear, to use dialectical language and call it a “contradiction”) a second one, and you have some inkling of the scope and ambition of this study. I have in mind what is perhaps the fundamental metatheoretical problem of postmodern theory, and indeed, perhaps (this is another arguments) of modernity itself since Kant: what is often characterized as the dilemma of transcendence versus immanence (though it has recently gone by other names, such as the problem of “postmodern relativism”). Here, we are offered two opposing and equally untenable options: either step outside the system (upon pain of indulging epistemological idealism) and mount a critique from the vantage of some presumed (untainted) alternative, or remain with the system and its logic (the only thing you can do in epistemological good conscience) and admit that all such spaces, even imaginary ones, are fatefully constituted by the system itself—in which case (so the story goes) we surrender any claim to truly critical intervention.
For more than three decades, this problem had slowly been decomposing and reordering the fundamental terms of the (post)Marxist problematic which certainly forms part of the theoretical and methodological backdrop of this study—most notably, perhaps, in the work of Louis Althusser on “structural causality,” on ideology as a “second-order relation,” and the final and fateful chapter Althusser contributed to Marxist attempts to secure its “science” from ideology (Marxism’s own most well-known version of the transcendence versus immanence problem). Those failures, if one wants to put it that way, cleared a space for the sort of study we have before us now, and I mention them because in Atopian Limits, there is, to be sure, a commitment to “science” of a sort. We find here, to be sure, an insistence that there is a “total system” of late, multinational capitalism and that it is constituted by certain actually existing logics, dynamics, and processes to which correspond certain narrative practices and forms in the larger emergence of the novel as a genre. This is, after all, what it means to talk about “postmodern American narrative” and “the capitalist ‘order’ and its totalizing logic” in the same breath.
Having said all that, however, we must understand immediately that if there is something like a “science” of late capitalism and its narrative manifestations at work here, it is science of a very different sort that this study deploys, one not at all unlike the “paralogy” famously invoked by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, one that radicalizes and follows to its logical conclusions the dynamics of complexity and non-linearity only hinted at in Althusser’s ground-breaking work. This is a science not of homeostasis but catastrophe, not of negative feedback but the vicious cycle and runaway, not of linear relations of homology and mediation, but non-linear ones of hypercomplexity. Not the reduction of complexity through linear series but the increase of complexity through accelerated bifurcations. Not either/or but both/and. Not Althusser but Deleuze. Atopia, not Utopia.
As the author deftly demonstrates, the total system of late, multinational capitalism may want homeostasis, management, and adjustment, but since it depends upon expansion and the ever-accelerating generation of what Marx once called “new needs,” it cannot help but increase its own internal complexity—which is to say, the total possible number of relations between each element in the system and all the other elements. At that point, the system passes a threshold of hypercomplexity—call it “modernity,” with Luhmann and Foucault, “postmodernity,” with Lyotard—beyond which it becomes opaque to itself, incapable of responding to and managing the ever-increasing accretion, concentration, and concatenation of differences—the noise that the system wants to colonize and turn into signal—into dense points of accumulated differences. These “singularities,” as Deleuze and the sometimes Foucault called them, are every bit of the system (because they are produced by and indeed only cognizable by the system, for the system) but at the same time they are not reducible to it.
So much for the immanence versus transcendence problem. And so much, too, for “relativism,” which is now opposed to. . .what? Empiricism? For as the author notes in his discussion of Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless, empiricism taken seriously, as Deleuze had perhaps most compellingly argued in recent years, erupts into an unmappable universe of complexity and plurality—an understanding bodied forth very powerfully not only in American fiction but also in American poetry during the period studied here, most systematically (shall we say) in the work of A. R. Ammons. (Whether one would then want to indulge the additional Deleuzean—and Ammonsian—desire that “pluralism equals monism” is another question, and one, I believe, of considerable moment in both postmodern philosophy and literature.)
What this means, in ethico-political rather than epistemological terms, is that resistance is not outside the system—as in some imagined utopian, ruptural alternative, “come the revolution”—but inside it, like a virus or (to use Serres’s well-known figure) a parasite that the system can’t live with and can’t live without. In contrast to the ultra-logic of the system itself that drives the unforgiving consumerism of Buffalo Bill or the fetishism of Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs—in which the principles of late capitalist consumption are simply taken far more seriously than we were prepared for—resistance becomes not so much an-other logic as an infra-logic, a limit at which the logic of the system itself runs aground on the paradoxes of its own constitutive differences—as in (to use a Derridean formulation) the difference between law (historically contingent social institutions of justice) and Law (the non-contingent justice that those institutions supposedly uphold), across which we can map the ethical stand of a Clarice Starling and her attempt to remove her “sisters under the skin” from the ravages of the general equivalence and the machine of seriality, a removal more profound and more consuming than the institutions and directives of the FBI can imagine.
Here too we may return to that curious term with which we began—the “self”—and understand it now in terms of the theoretical offspring of the absolute unavoidability of contingency. The “self” conceived in this light must now be thought of in terms of the density of its singularity, the “verticality” of its difference, the fact that for each subject the specific, contingent, accretion of instances (of class, race, gender, geography, education, and the like) are at bottom absolutely different, in different combinations—a fact which the modern polis promptly represses as its constitutive principle. But—and this is why the language of “subject position” is not entirely satisfactory—this concatenation of differences is itself temporalized in at least two different ways that generate even more complexity. First, for any subject, that combination changes over time; some instances drop out and others enter, in a process of condensation and decomposition—a “whirling proliferation of ‘they,’ ” to use the Kristevan formulation brought to bear in the analysis of Paul Auster’s Moon Palace. And second, that combination itself changes over time vis-a-vis its positionality in relation to the historical movement of the social totality, however that totality is conceived; the same combination of differences does not signify or function in the same way at different historical junctures.
All of this is very abstract, of course, which is why it is so important that the author attends to the density and particularity of each instance, rather than simply putting in place a theoretical machine and then setting it running to churn out its results. He is everywhere careful to work through the limits of a particular theoretical approach (I think here of the use of psychoanalysis in the chapters on The Silence of the Lambs and Acker’s Empire of the Senseless, but the same could be said of the deployment of Marxism—in the book’s invocation and elaboration of Adornian “negative dialectics” at key moments, for example, or in the use of Castoriadis’ extension and modification of the Althusserian notion of “structural causality” in the analysis of Vidal’s Duluth).
A similar attention to difference and detail is brought to bear in the readings themselves, which elaborate what amounts to a theory of late capitalist culture across an extraordinary range of postmodern American novels. Here, we could scarcely do better than to consult the careful articulation of the difference between Bromden and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the fact that the former’s position as “dumb Indian” in relation to the total system establishes him in a position of “negative other”—“minor” in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense—for which McMurphy, the carnivalesque Irishman, only partly qualifies. Crucial here too is the “eco-logic” carried by Bromden’s Native American position in relation to “the land” (versus the totalizing “Combine” and the Foucaultian psychiatric ward-as-factory) which the author does not essentialize but instead historicizes in all its multiple determinations (as the discussion of Bromden’s father, the “little” Chief, makes clear). All of which may be set in instructive contrast with the psychosomatic economy of straight, white, upper-middle class Harry Angstrom in Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, which embodies on the most capillary level the workings of a political economy that makes Harry’s Florida—perhaps one should say “Florida”—the very Pink Flamingo-ized antithesis of Bromden’s “land.”
Indeed, the general equivalence of political and psychosomatic economies in Rabbit at Rest provides perhaps the book’s most graphic example of how the “total system” under investigation here paradoxically increases and accelerates its own complexity as a means to process the ever-growing and ever-destabilizing complexity that it itself necessarily generates as the very form of its existence. The world of Updike’s Rabbit finds its antithesis, no doubt, in Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless and its warp-speed imagination of “an alternative public sphere founded in the cross-fertilization between autonomous minorities”—as if the density of differential instances that marks Bromden has now been unfurled and fast-forwarded to a future not more “tolerant” of margins (as in the liberal assimilationist paradigm) but one where there is nothing but margins.
This in turn raises the question, of course, of whether the concept of “public sphere” is any longer adequate to thinking a pluralism that would seem everywhere to unmask the notion of “the public” for the Enlightenment fantasy that it always was. Is this good news? Is that where we are? Who are “we,” anyway? The fact that this book refuses to offer an easy answer to these questions is just one of its many virtues.