By Anindita Dutta
April 9, 1995
In The Crying of Lot 49, a scientific approach to the plot, through the exploration of entropy in thermodynamics and information theory, helps to clarify the ambiguous relationship that Oedipa Maas, Maxwell's Demon and the Tristero system have with one another. Through a convoluted, chaotic adventure that eventually ends up in disorder, Oedipa searches for the truth about Tristero, hoping it will save her from her tower of imprisonment. Pynchon dangles this elusive message over Oedipa's and the readers' heads, until the end of the novel, when we hope to find out Tristero's true identity. However, the interference of thermodynamic and information theory entropy prevents the message from ever being transmitted to the receiver.
Thermodynamics is the science of the relations between heat and other forms of energy. It deals with the changes that occur in a system if the energy distribution is unbalanced, therefore it "can be regarded as governing the direction of all physical changes taking place in the universe. With time, the energy within a system will inevitably tend to become distributed in the most probable pattern, which consists of all the individual particles of the system engaging in random, disordered motion"(OED). Thermodynamic entropy is the measure of this disorganization in the universe. In a closed, isolated system, the total quantity of energy remains the same, but irreversible transformations or chemical reactions within this system cause a loss in the grade or quality of the energy. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas realizes that she is within "the confinement of [a] tower"(pg.20), similar to the closed system in which entropy thrives. If she does not open her system, her energy will slowly degrade, till she is nothing more than a body of random disorder. Towards the end of the first chapter, Oedipa goes into the bathroom, and "[tries] to find her image in the mirror and couldn't. She had a moment of nearly pure terror"(pg.41). An image is created when light or other radiation falls upon an object of different densities, causing light scattering that is reflected in the mirror. If there were no differences in density, and only random, disordered motion, there would not be a projected image to project. Luckily, or rather unluckily, the mirror was broken, but Pynchon foreshadows Oedipa's fate under the degradation of thermodynamic entropy.
Mechanical or electrical energy is an example of high grade energy, and heat a low grade energy, thus as entropy increases, negentropy, or the quality of energy, degrades into heat-- "a form of energy arising from the random motion of molecules"(OED). When a closed system possesses an unstable distribution of densities, and gas molecules are ordered into different areas, there exists a lower probability, and thus a higher potential to do mechanical work. The "heat-death" that Callisto refers to in Entropy expresses the second law of thermodynamics, when a closed system moves from "the least to the most probable, from differentiation to sameness, from ordered individuality to a kind of chaos," because "each point in it would ultiimately have the same quantity of energy"(pg.88-89): Entropy, then, functions at the stagnant maximum of thermodynamic entropy, when energy and ideas cannot be transferred because the universe is at the point of equal temperature, which in this story is 37 degrees farenheit-- the body temperature of humans on the celcius scale. Oedipa suffers to an extent this heat-death, because her embodiment of thermodynamic entropy is an obstacle to her understanding of the message. It is "As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken"(pg.25). The rate of oscillation or vibration that these words are being spoken at are unintelligible to Oedipa, coming at her like a "confused, tumultuous process"(OED) of the exchange of heat from a hot to a cold system in exchange for usable energy. Thus Oedipa is incapable of receiving the information whirling around her; she is trapped within the thermodynamic entropy of her system.
Information theory is the mathematical theory of communication that is used to find out the speed and quantity of information transmission. It uses statistical concepts like probability to compute the extra information (redundancy) necessary to counteract the distortion and losses that may occur during transmission from one information source to another. Aside from the semantics of information, or the meaning contained in messages, the developer of this theory, Claude Shannon, asserts that :
the significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. A system with certain physical or conceptual entities must be designed to operate for each possible selection, not just the one which will actually be chosen since this is unknown at the time of design. If the number of messages in the set is finite then this number can be regarded as a measure of the information produced when one message is chosen from the set, all choices being equally likely. (3)
From Shannon's point of view, information becomes a mathematically defined quantity that represents the degree of choice exercised in forming one particular message or symbol sequence out of a number of possible ones, and entropy becomes the "measure of the rate of transfer of information in [that] message"(OED). Oedipa identifys the "Tristero System" as the system that will bring to an "end her encapsulation in her tower"(pg.44) of thermodynamic entropy. Oedipa has a set of possible messages which she can choose from-- as to the identity of The Tristero, and the Tristero System is operative for eachpossible selection, each option being equally likely throughout the novel. Halfway through the story, Pynchon gives a paragraph summary of some of these choices(pg.109), all of which are equally probable.
In statistical terms, information theory entropy measures the probability of a system arriving at its present state, thus the higher the entropy, the higher the probability. Because the second law of thermodynamics is also statistical in nature and deals with probability, it is necessary to discuss the semantics of communication, and the element of uncertainty present in both theories. We can measure a certain amount of macroscopic, large-scale values about a system, namely the quantities of composition, volume, pressure, and temperature-- as perceived by our senses. This sensory information allows for a more accurate description of the structure of a system, and helps to decrease the uncertainties, and the probability and entropy of the system that our message will enter into. Up to this point, "information" has implied "knowledge" rather than "meaning." Thus, "any additional piece of information increases the negentropy of the system," or the quality or meaning of information in a message, because our knowledge is more complete. (Brillouin, pg.11). However, there exist factors which work against this gain in negentropy: Over time, an unstable structure naturally decays towards a more probable and stable structure of less negentropy, so the additional information progressively loses its value, and we are constantly spending negentropy in our quest for more information (Brillouin, pg.11). Oedipa expends most of her mechanical energy running around California, trying to gather information about Tristero, the unstable structure. This system has been in a state of degradation since the eighteenth century, and after over two hundred years, the information Oedipa has gathered by page 109 has lost its value-- in relation to the amount of energy Oedipa has wasted on it.
As Klapp asserts: "matter and energy degrade to more probable, less informative states. The larger the amounts of information processed or diffused, the more likely it is that information will degrade toward meaningless variety, like noise or information overload, or sterile uniformity"(pg.2-3). Thus for Oedipa, the more information that she gains about Trystero, the more confused and disorderly are her thoughts, pushing her to the point where reality and fantasy butt heads. This paradox of information, in which knowledge and meaning clash, is held in limbo by redundancy: Repetition is helpful so long as it serves as a reinforcement, and establishes recognition. Otherwise, signals would push a variety that borders randomness and noise. Conversely, monotonous redundancy in messages can also reach a point of banality and stagnation. Thus, every repetition of the same message decreases the meaning it could potentially relay-- and increases the entropy in the system of communication. There are "thousands of unheard messages" in "brute repetition"(pg.180) that Oedipa is not hearing, and with each repetition the message is becoming weaker.
However, if degradation is a natural tendency of information, than reprocessing will not necessarily improve the quality of a message either:
"On the contrary, the more information is repeated and duplicated, the larger the scale of diffusion, the greater the speed of processing, the more opinion leaders and gatekeepers and networks, the more filtering of messages, the more kinds of media through which information is passed, the more decoding and encoding, and so on-- the more degraded information might be"(Klapp, pg.126).
The high noise levels and distortions of signals that Klapp refers to seem to be embodied in Pynchon's earlier novel V. In this enormously encoded story, information is lost, distorted, buried in noise, irrelevant, ambiguous, complicated, cluttered, and overloaded: V. functions at the maximum level of information entropy. The Crying of Lot 49 flirts with the entropy suicide that words have committed in V.. Entropy and V. are the extremes in the spectrum of information theory and thermodynamic entropy, and The Crying of Lot 49 is the "excluded middle" that Oedipa is attempting to discover.
It is difficult not to draw parallels between the two theories, especially the way Nefastis does through Maxwell's demon. This tendency arises because the equations for thermodynamic entropy and a quantitative measure of information appear to be mathematically equivalent: "The equation for one, back in the 30's, had looked very like the equation for the other. It was a coincidence. The two fields were entirely unconnected, except at one point: Maxwell's demon"(Crying, pg.105). Although Shannon had not yet published his studies in information theory in the 1930's, other scientists like G.N. Lewis and R.A. Millikan were already making similar generalizations at this time: "Thermodynamics gives no support to the assumption that the universe is running down. Gain in entropy means loss of information and nothing more"(Allen and Maxwell, pg.815). "Information" in this context refers to the data that the Demon collects on the "untold billions of molecules" in Nefastis' box: "As the demon sat and sorted his molecules into hot and cold, the system was said to lose entropy. But somehow the loss was offset by the information the Demon gained about what molecules were where"(pg.105). The Demon has the power to "somehow" reverse thermodynamic entropy, by producing a "staggering set of energies" through the destruction of a "massive complex of information." His actions would violate the second law of thermodynamics, because entropy is an irreversible transformation. In this situation, the human intervention of a "sensitive" supplies the information that the Demon needs to convert heat energy into usable energy. As Brillouin concludes, "every type of experiment represents a transformation of negentropy into information"(pg.12). In order for the demon to separate the gas molecules, he must be able to see them, so he expends a high negentropy like radiation or light in order to see the different densities of the gas. However, the quantity of negentropy produced from this information will overcompensate for the loss in the first step.
According to Nefastis' explanation, the "sensitive" appears to be doing all the grunt work for the demon, supplying the information by visually concentrating on Maxwell's picture on the box. The demon, however, participates "at some deep, psychic level," which might expend energy, but certainly not in a measurable, tangible way as Oedipa does. Perhaps the Demon-- which is "magic, anonymous and malignant"(pg.21), is what traps Oedipa within her tower. Nefastis tells Oedipa to "Leave [her] mind open, receptive to the Demon's message"(pg.106). Oedipa admits to Nefastis that he is not reaching her, so Nefastis repeats the message (redundancy), yet Oedipa asks the same thing that she thinks a few pages later amonst the "freeway madness" (pg.108): She cannot see that the connection Nefastis derives is more than the objective coincidence of the two equations. She tried for many minutes, "waiting for the demon to communicate"(pg.106), amongst the noise from the "High-pitched, comic voices issued from the TV set," but she only receives a "misfired nerve cell"(pg.107).
The unheard message is like "a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate," but the "revelation trembled just past the threshhold of [Oedipa's] understanding"(pg.24). And Maxwell's Demon may be the "metaphor" (pg.106) that connects thermodynamics to information flow, but "The act of metaphor then [i]s a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost"(pg.129). The Demon becomes the channel which carries the message from the transmitter to the receiver. Whatever information is contained within the channel will be accurate and truthful, but what information leaks out during the transmission will be lost. In its place may be a lie, the lie that Oedipa may have based her life around. "Oedipa wondered whether...she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly"(pg.95). The light the Demon uses when he acts as "gateskeeper" to identify the molecules is too bright for Oedipa's system. And truth, like the entropy of information theory, irreversibly destroys the meaning of its own message, just as the Demon destroys the knowledge that the sensitive passes on to it in order to create power. In this paradoxical state, Oedipa's quest for the truth about Tristero, and her subsequent attempt to escape from her tower of thermodynamic entropy are useless, because they bring her back to the same quantity of heat energy. Oedipa is stuck in a "cycle" of wasting energy trying to find out information that loses its value over time, and ending up in the highly probable state of uncertainty over Tristero. Even if she did find out the central truth, or the excluded middle that has leaked out of the plot of this novel, its generated power would destroy the message that Pynchon leaves ambiguous even at the end of the novel. This adheres to the scientific perspective because the highly entropic information level by the end of the story implies high probability and uncertainty; Pynchon would have violated the theory of information had he revealed the encoded message.
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Brillouin, Leon. Scientific Uncertainty, and Information. Academic Press, New York: 1964.
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Klapp, Orrin. Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society. Greenwood Press, New York: 1986.
Shannon, Claude. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. The University of Illinois Press, Urbana: 1959.
Zemansky, Mark. Heat and Thermodynamics. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York: 1943.