A Retinal Twitch, a Misfired Nerve Cell: The Neurocybernetics of The Crying of Lot 49 Open Access

Schellenberg, Dylan (Spring 2020)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/1z40kt89p?locale=en


This thesis investigates the neuroscience present in Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 postmodern novel The Crying of Lot 49 and its connections to cybernetics. Primarily, this thesis analyzes the cybernetic neuronal action potential that undergirds Lot 49's entire meaning. In 1948, Norbert Wiener established the science of cybernetics. Pynchon took a great interest in cybernetics, subsequently imbuing Lot 49 with Wiener’s ideas. Cybernetics’ main principle revolves around decreasing entropy through the process of feedback, something that also greatly impacted neuroscience. This concept of decreasing entropy implicates Maxwell’s Demon, which attempts to violate the second law of thermodynamics with its molecular sorting. However, Maxwell’s Demon cannot violate the second law because of the parallels between thermodynamic and informatic entropy. Critical analysis of Lot 49 to date has focused on protagonist Oedipa acting as Maxwell’s Demon, attempting but failing to decrease entropy through sorting methods.

My new reading of The Crying of Lot 49 draws on the fact that mid-20th century neuroscience influenced Pynchon as greatly as cybernetics did. In 1952, English physiologists Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley quantitatively elucidated the cybernetics-influenced neuronal action potential. This discovery by Hodgkin and Huxley led to neuroscience becoming a real discipline and exploding in cultural significance in the 1960’s. Because neuroscience was a culturally and scientifically significant new field influenced by cybernetics, Thomas Pynchon incorporated its concepts into Lot 49. Primarily, the action potential is reflected in Lot 49, as it concerns cybernetically decreasing entropy through feedback loops to correctly transmit information. Lot 49 exemplifies what happens when the action potential breaks down. As Oedipa’s sorting methods fail and entropy rises in Lot 49’s universe, her neural feedback loops break and cause her to suffer seizures, which increase entropy neurologically.

Much neuroscience independent of cybernetics also saturates Lot 49, further illustrating that neuroscience was an important subject for the general populace and, consequently, Pynchon. The Crying of Lot 49 accurately displays how neuroscience was viewed during its breakthrough genesis in the mid-20th century. Lot 49 is therefore a postmodern reflection of neuroscience’s philosophical and scientific notions, functioning as an important artistic document to the history of neuroscience.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Retinal Twitch, a Misfired Nerve Cell... 1

Chapter One: Thermodynamics, Information Theory, and Maxwell’s Demon... 7

Thermodynamics... 7

Information Theory... 13

Maxwell’s Demon... 17

Chapter Two: Cybernetics... 23

Chapter Three: Mid-20th Century Neuroscience... 36

Chapter Four: Thomas Pynchon and “Entropy”... 42

Chapter Five: The Crying of Lot 49 and Current Scholarship... 57

Chapter Six: Neuroscience in The Crying of Lot 49... 69

Alcohol... 70

Seizures and the Word... 79

Conclusion: Hodgkin and Huxley’s Lot 49... 96

Works Cited... 101

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