VORTEX TO VIRUS, MYTH TO MEME: THE LITERARY EVOLUTION OF NIHILISM AND CHAOS IN MODERNISM AND POSTMODERNISM
Humanities Scholar at Miami Dade College
The emergence of nihilism and chaos in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries offers us a case study in how memes work. Memes are bundles of cultural information that display viral properties, sowing the seeds of reality in the individual minds that make up a culture, sub-culture, or counterculture. In the case of nihilism and chaos, the ongoing epistemological and ontological revolution initiated by the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the collapse of myth as a totalizing source of meaning, and the transition from a Newtonian, deterministic worldview to a quantum-relativistic, chaotic worldview transformed the Western cultural landscape, paving the way for the “viral” spread of nihilism and chaos to different intellectual and cultural strata.
The matrix model used in this dissertation provides a fruitful way of approaching cultural dynamics and morphogenesis in general, and the evolution of nihilism and chaos in particular. According to the model, culture evolves when memes (viral bundles of cultural information) flow from the sociocultural matrix (the evolving aggregate of paradigms and epistemes that define a culture) to individual agents (authors and subjects, in this case). Authors and subjects function according to the chaotic model of the self described in chapter one, which defines the self as a radically intersubjective entity that evolves through feedback, renormalization, and “locking in” to a battery of attractor symbols in cognitive phase space. These agents assimilate the memetic material, modify and recombine it with other memes, and incorporate the memetic innovations in the work of art/cultural artifact. The work of art/cultural artifact flows back into the sociocultural matrix and changes it, adding the novel memetic material to the body of cultural codes that make up the matrix.
James Joyce’s Ulysses, Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow serve as focal points in this study because each work represents a critical juncture in the memetic evolution of nihilism and chaos during the modernist and postmodernist periods. Joyce’s novel embodies the “lapidary” modernist aspiration to create the great, totalizing work of art which serves as an antidote to the turbulence and anomie of the early twentieth century. Beckett’s work occupies that liminal space where late modernism and early postmodernism meet; his preoccupations in Three Novels focus on the insurmountable problems posed by language in representing the subject and the futility of our epistemological quest to understand the self amidst the “spray of phenomena” that surrounds us. Pynchon’s sprawling Gravity’s Rainbow captures that historical moment in time (the end of World War II) when the modernist impulse toward totalizing systems of order and meaning is eclipsed by the postmodern embrace of chaos and semiotic free play.
When we discuss 1904 Dublin, the haunting abode of “The Unnamable,” and Pynchon’s “Zone,” we examine three distinct matrices in which modern and postmodern subjects struggle to find meaning in a world where the totalizing rationality of the Enlightenment and the redemptive power of classical and Judeo-Christian myth have failed. Lacking a firm epistemological-ontological-moral foundation, modernist and postmodernist subjects prove vulnerable to the encroachment of nihilism and chaos as cultural contagia that mold and shape the evolution of a distinctive stream of consciousness.
Chapter one is devoted to presenting the matrix model. The matrix model holds that the sociocultural matrix and the author matrix interact via the work of art/cultural artifact. The sociocultural matrix refers to the dynamic nexus of institutions, technologies, and discursive practices that construct and define “reality” for a culture of individuals during a period of time. Paradigms and epistemes serve as the foundation upon which these institutions, technologies, and discursive practices are established. The sociocultural matrix concept overlaps semantically with Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony (egemonia). Antonio Gramsci coined the term "hegemony" to refer to the pervasive system of assumptions, meanings, and values, the web of ideologies that shapes the way things look, what they mean, and therefore what reality is for the majority of people within a culture. A culture's web of ideologies presents the dominant ideas and values as de facto reality, often preventing individuals from seeing how society actually functions. To Gramsci, reality is perceived and knowledge acquired, through moral, cultural, and ideological “prisms” and “filters” by means of which society acquires form and meaning.
The author matrix designates the locus where the creation of new texts and cultural artifacts takes place. By author I am referring to creative agents of all kinds, from poets, novelists, and other writers to creative agents in the other arts and sciences. From a functional point of view, the concept of complex adaptive systems (CAS) helps us understand the basis for the author matrix. In complexity theory, the operation of complex adaptive systems is used to explain a broad array of natural and man-made processes, from the inner workings of the mammalian immune system to the dynamics of human cultural evolution. As a CAS embedded within the larger culture, the author matrix represents that locus of convergence where the sensory experience of everyday life’s random events and the internal nexus of unconscious drives, instincts, and “potential” X-factors (archetypes, epigenetic rules) test the cultural schemata internalized by the author over time. As an adaptive entity, the author may perpetuate the status quo, act as a catalyst for change, or generate some combination of new and old cultural codes that make an impact on the evolution of the culture. Memes, the chunks of culturally-coded information that comprise the building blocks of a society’s myths, traditions, customs, et al., serve as the raw materials from which authors synthesize new aggregates that feed their way back into the larger cultural CAS via the work of art (literary text, musical composition, painting, architectural structure, or other such cultural artifact).
Viewing authors as CAS necessitates a paradigm shift in the way we look at the self. The chaotic model of the self presented here owes a considerable debt to the ideas presented in the work of Alexander Argyros (A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos) and Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern). In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter theorizes that the human brain stores information about objects in the world in multineuronal networks called symbols. Symbols may be simple, such as those representing a physical object, or they may be complex, such as those representing abstract concepts. In any event, a large constellation of lower level neuronal communication is chunked into a symbol. Chunking is Hofstadter’s term for the act of encoding a summary of lower level processes into an upper level language. Argyros posits that ideas are dynamical confederacies of symbols that exist in mental phase space. Any concept is thus a chunked society of other idea societies, which in turn are chunked societies of other societies, and so forth. Viewed as a complex adaptive system, the self is a dynamical process, not a static entity, constituted by the never-ending flux of feedback information streaming in from external stimuli and the equally constant communication taking place via strange loops connecting the internal levels that make up our conceptual constitution. Amidst the chaotic activity, the self’s sense of relative stability comes from the process of locking-in, whereby a system such as the self uses iteration and feedback to find its most stable configuration at any point in time.
Out of this delicate equipoise of chaos and order, literary texts (and other cultural artifacts) surge into existence, offering culture “both a remarkable data bank in which to store and transmit cultural knowledge and a flexible, turbulent laboratory in which to invent new knowledge” (Argyros 319). As "tissues of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture" (Barthes’s Image-Music-Text 146), literary texts crystallize the unique memetic structures that emerge from the interplay of the sociocultural and author matrices.
In Chapters two through four, the matrix model will be used to explore the memetic evolution of nihilism and chaos in the sociocultural matrices that spawned literary modernism and postmodernism. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the radical transformation of the western sociocultural matrix precipitated a paradigm shift in our relationship to myth. Chapter two explores how our modern conception of nihilism began evolving in the nineteenth century, crystallizing out of the cultural flux that characterized western European intellectual circles. Politically-oriented anarchism in Russia, Schopenhauer’s exploration of the “Will,” and Nietzsche’s rejections of the Western metaphysical tradition and Judeo-Christian ethics and morality all figured prominently in the embryonic development of nineteenth-century nihilism.
The strain of nihilism that emerged in nineteenth-century Russia has been generally understood as a repudiation of German idealism and Romanticism in favor of materialism. Russian nihilism was characterized by a longing for the Promethean, for a new kind of human being who rises above the level of humanity in search of autonomy. This nihilistic vision of a new superhumanity beyond all gods represents a deeper, more radical permutation of the idea of absolute will espoused by Fichte and the German Romantics. Bazarov, the protagonist of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, embodies Russian nihilism, epitomizing this vision of the Promethean nihilist and foreshadowing the appearance of Nietzsche's ubermensch. Like the Romantics, Schopenhauer radically contradicted the Enlightenment worldview, which glorified reason, by emphasizing the fundamental irrationality at the heart of all existence. Unlike the Romantics, Schopenhauer's “Will” has no goal and is in fact little more than a blind drive. According to Schopenhauer, what drives the human subject is an ongoing perpetual striving that surges and pushes humanity forward, oblivious to the dictates of reason. Through its blind and aimless activity, the will makes this world into a hell. According to Schopenhauer, human happiness is an impossibility. Where Schopenhauer thought that the tragic quality of life can give no satisfaction and that man was ultimately condemned to resignation, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy asserted that a life-affirming, Dionysian will can transform man's suffering into joy through the power of music. Dionysus is the deification of the will in its strength, a source of rapture and ecstasy rather than resignation. Subsequent to The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche further developed his concept of the Dionysian, a process that yielded the will to power, one of the signature concepts in a philosophy that demolishes western metaphysics by revealing its inherent emptiness. From the Greeks onward, the firm belief that we exist in a world of stable "beings" and fixed origins served as the foundation for western metaphysics. Nietzsche railed against this claim, asserting that everything is in a state of flux, a perpetual becoming, driven by the will to power. Nothing is stable, permanent, or transcendent. In this world of radical contingency, nihilism reigns.
The development and maturation of nihilism and chaos in the postmodernist sociocultural matrix is the main thrust of chapter three. Where modernism had witnessed the embryonic stages of contemporary nihilism and chaos (the crux of chapter two), the postmodern period gave rise to a metastasis of evolving, memetic trajectories (Barthes’s “death of the author,” Baudrillard’s “implosion of meaning,” Derridean deconstruction, et al.). As a result, language is an exercise in the endless play of signifiers. In the postmodern world of Deleuze and Guattari, there are no antennae of the race, but rather schizophrenic nomad-subjects fueled by libidinal flows. Beginning in the late 1960s, Jacques Derrida took up where Nietzsche had left off, mounting a critique of philosophy and language that proved to be fatal to totalizing, logocentric systems. Derrida broke with structuralism and Saussurean linguistics, rejecting the possibility of arriving at general laws that govern all discourses or formal universals that reflect the nature of human knowledge. According to Derrida, the history of metaphysical thought records the futile attempt to link a "transcendental signifier" with a secure, stable "transcendental signified" (i.e., a logos), yielding fixed, universal meaning in the process. The futility stems from the différance, traces, and supplements that destabilize language and delocalize meaning. A contemporary of Derrida, Baudrillard maintains that we have entered an unprecedented historical period where signifiers obliterate signifieds and are wholly self-referential. According to Baudrillard, postmodernity is characterized by the proliferation of models and codes that have lost touch with their referential origins and foundations. The depreciation of the value of myths and the subversion of philosophical foundations that characterized the twentieth century represent a phase transition toward a more dynamic, turbulent cultural system. Writers like Joyce, Beckett, and Pynchon all explore the dramatic, philosophical ramifications of the move toward nihilism and chaos that helped define the culture of the last century. In chapters five through seven, I apply the theoretical framework developed in the first four chapters to the modernist (Ulysses), late modernist (Beckett’s Three Novels) and postmodernist (Gravity's Rainbow) novels chosen for this dissertation.
Chapter five focuses on Joyce's modernist tour de force. Ulysses epitomizes the thoroughly "recombinant" novel, a work which splices together allusive memetic fragments from Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and a myriad of other cultural, historical references. It blurs the distinction between high and low culture, finding memes in the cultural minutiae of 1904 Dublin. With these cultural fragments, Bloom, as twentieth century Everyman, and Stephen Dedalus, as the aspiring artist, piece together a makeshift, foundational bricolage with which to sustain themselves. No longer nourished and energized by Europe's fractured cultural legacy and enervate mythic past, Bloom and Stephen endeavor to create a modernist ethos from the memetic shards available to them.
Chapter six addresses the ontological and epistemological issues raised in Beckett's Three Novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable). These dark, cryptic works probe the very core of western metaphysical thought, calling every cherished ontological and epistemological belief into question. Molloy and company serve as the reader's tour guides, a perverse twist on Dante's Virgil, only they are not guiding the reader through Hell, at least not any metaphysical Hell the reader may recognize. As readers, we can know nothing for certain, can glean no stable meanings from the characters, who know and understand even less. The characters primarily long for an end to everything, offering up a Godless petition for non-being, only to be willed to continue in true Schopenhauerian fashion on an ostensibly aimless, endless trek.
After Beckett's minimalist approach to metaphysical uncertainty, Thomas Pynchon treats this theme in a dramatically different way in Gravity’s Rainbow, the subject of chapter seven. Temperamentally as dark as Beckett's work, Pynchon's novel draws from an incredible wealth of cultural sources for its memetic material. As we follow Slothrop through his sexual escapades and political intrigues on a quest that leads him not to the Grail, but rather to self-dissolution, we encounter all manner of signs signaling death and sterility. The omnipresent V2 rocket, the slave labor camp at Dora, the perversions on the Anubis, and the menace of the "Empty Ones" all point to a world that has lost its moral compass and embraced a life of "mindless pleasures," the original working title for the novel. Entropy pervades the novel on both a structural and thematic level; while storylines unfold and fall apart with no sense of closure, characters face disorder and decay in the physical remnants of the war and the breakdown of myth and ritual. In the post-World War II “Zone,” Western civilization’s slim hopes rest on the postmodern subject’s ability to draw a “line of flight” and escape the oppressive codes imposed by the ascendant technocratic elite. By remaining open to the possibility of cultural negentropy, the postmodern subject is poised to create meaning from the new cultural forms emerging amidst the chaos of the post-war period.
In conclusion, this document serves as a launching pad for a series of more extensive investigations. I would like to follow up this project with a more detailed, comprehensive study of memes as cognitive phenomena: what transpires psychologically in people that makes certain ideas and images more “virulent” and “contagious” than others? Is their a biological foundation to this phenomenon? Secondly, this study presents the possibility of looking at the self as a chaotic, complex adaptive system; I would like to further explore the epistemological and ontological ramifications of that hypothesis. Finally, in the “Preface” to The Will to Power, Nietzsche wrote that he was relating “the history of the next two centuries” (3). He spoke of nihilism as something to be overcome and called for a revaluation of all values. Modernism and postmodernism represent Nietzsche’s first hundred-year phase in the reign of nihilism. Historically situated at the beginning of the second hundred years, I would like to explore what direction(s) nihilism might take in the century to come. Given Western civilization’s current state of affairs, I can think of no more pressing an issue than the future of nihilism.