Rewiring Literary Criticism
By N. Katherine HaylesJune 15, 2013
Rewiring the Real by Mark C. Taylor
“THERE IS NO MARKET FOR BOOKS of literary criticism,” an editor at a respected university press confided to me recently. “We have quietly cut back on our list and now publish one such book a year, if that.” No doubt the editor overstated the case, but his comment made me wonder how Mark C. Taylor succeeded in publishing Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo with Columbia University Press. Among possible answers are his considerable reputation as a philosopher and media critic as well as the grace and clarity of his writing. More interesting, from my point of view, is the way this book constructs its audience through its mode of address. Books of literary criticism are typically written for other critics, extensively citing existing scholarship, signaling their awareness of contemporary critical debates, and locating arguments in relation to them. By contrast, Rewiring the Real virtually ignores other criticism, despite the extensive body of work on DeLillo’s Underworld, Powers’s Plowing the Dark, and Danielewski’s House of Leaves, three of the four major texts Taylor interrogates. Taylor acts as if he were Robinson Crusoe, surveying a trackless beach, when in fact there are critical footprints everywhere.
The absence of references to literary scholarship in Taylor’s book is all the more striking because of his wide-ranging evocations of difficult works in religion and philosophy. The presumed reader has perhaps heard of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Derrida, Kant, Fichte, and a host of others in these traditions, but may not know their philosophies in depth. Rewiring the Real dares to imagine the creature whose existence seems increasingly imperiled by web surfing, video games, and distracted attention: the general educated book reader. Significantly, Taylor does more than ignore literary criticism; he actively resists it, choosing to locate the payoff for his readings as contributions to a field that does not yet exist — literature and religion, or better still literature as secular theology — but that he strives to bring into being. As if following the mantra, “if you build it, they will come,” he aims to convince his readers not only to believe in, but also to imagine themselves inhabiting, this hypothetical field.
In addressing this general reader, Rewiring the Real modifies the kind of argumentation in which literary criticism typically engages. Devoting one chapter to each of the four authors whose names populate the subtitle, Rewiring the Real may appear on first reading to lack an overall thesis. Each chapter stands more or less alone as an in-depth reading of a literary text, with few explicit connections between chapters. Many books are constructed using this model, gathering into one volume essays previously published separately. Rewiring the Real, however, follows a more creative and devious strategy. The thematic connections are there, but they are not framed as explicit arguments. Rather, they work through subtle repetitions of tropes that gain resonance as they reappear in new contexts: the counterfeit, the uncanny, the virtual, the cave, and most importantly, the void, the nihilation, the nothing (no-thing). These repetitions function more like poetry than explication, gesturing toward something that cannot be named or grasped directly. The role of this elusive something, it turns out, is the book’s major thesis.
To see the thesis evolve, we can consider the four literary chapters individually. The first features William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which can lay claim to being the most unread masterwork of the 20th century. Unlike Taylor’s other examples, The Recognitions has inspired relatively little criticism, with notable exceptions like John Johnston’s Carnival of Repetition: Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Postmodern Theory, an entire book devoted to Gaddis’s text that Taylor ignores. This slight notwithstanding, Taylor’s explication is an important contribution to understanding and appreciating Gaddis’s remarkable achievement. An astute reader, he recognizes The Recognitions as aspiring to be “the last Christian novel,” and that theological references and subtexts are central to this massive and deceptive text. With admirable sensitivity to these themes, Taylor excavates the theological disputes that lead to two different interpretations of Christ: that he is like the Father, or that he is identical to the father. As Taylor explains, this seemingly minor difference produces major consequences:
If Christ does not become fully incarnate in a human body, life in this world is ultimately irredeemable, and believers must withdraw or flee from it. If, however, Christ does become fully incarnate, nature and history can be redeemed, and believers are drawn ever more deeply into worldly existence.
Taylor connects this theological question to the crisis of faith that Wyatt Gwyon, a sixth-generation Congregational minister, experiences following his wife’s death. After a sojourn in a Spanish monastery, Gwyon returns to his New England flock to preach disturbing and increasingly erratic sermons. He aims to insinuate into the staunchly narrow minds of his congregation the beliefs and rituals of the pagan sun worship that precede and, in a literal sense, underlie Christianity, since Christian churches were built over the caves where the pagan rituals were performed. The cave, in this sense, is the original (contra Plato’s cave, as Taylor observes), and the Christian rituals are the repetitions that transform but fail to eradicate it. The pattern echoes (or repeats) the controversy over Christ’s incarnation: is He a simulacrum of the Father, or the divine Original?
As Taylor recounts, Gwyon’s son Wyatt, the novel’s protagonist, repeats these themes in the context of visual art. Fascinated by a tabletop decorated with a purportedly original painting of Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins, Wyatt is scolded as a child by his straitlaced Aunt May for making his own original drawings. She regards human creative activity as usurping the Creator’s divine prerogative of fashioning originals, advising the child to create copies instead. In a dizzying series of repetitions, the tabletop that served to ignite the child’s artistic yearnings is revealed first as a fake, then as an original falsely alleged to be a fake by an unscrupulous art dealer, and then as a fake after all when Wyatt reveals that he copied the tabletop and secretly sold the original without his father’s knowledge. The confounding of fake and original reaches its apotheosis when Wyatt, sequestered in the same Spanish monastery that sheltered his father, repays his benefactors by using his painterly skills to restore their treasured El Grecos. In actuality, however, he is slowly replacing the original with his own interpolations, thereby creating original art that nevertheless passes itself off as a copy.
With admirable acuity, Taylor leads the reader through these convolutions, implicitly raising the question of whether his explications are merely summaries of Gaddis’s formidably complex text or original interpretations achieved by piecing together the fragments to form new compositions. This perennial question, endemic to literary criticism, takes on special relevance here, because the fragmentation of Gaddis’s text is so extreme that summary and interpretation become inextricably entwined to an unusual extent. The fake and the original thus remain indeterminable in both Gaddis’s text and Taylor’s critical interpretation.
The motif of the cave returns in the chapter on Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark, where it appears in two guises inversely related to each other: a high-tech virtual reality (VR) system usually called the CAVE (Computer-Assisted Virtual Environment), altered in Powers’s text to “Cavern”; and a dark pit somewhere in Lebanon where a kidnapped American languishes after being mistaken for a CIA agent and grabbed from the Beirut high school where he was teaching English. The sentiment Taylor repeats several times — “religion is most interesting where it is least obvious” — pays dividends here, for unlike those in The Recognitions, the theological implications of Plowing the Dark could easily be overlooked, forming only part of the mosaic design rather than dominating the text.
Some of the connections Taylor detects obscure more than they illuminate. For example, he picks up on a bit of dialogue suggesting that the universe is fundamentally computational in order to make this observation: “Codes and algorithms are nothing more than the latest version of Plato’s Forms and the early Christian apologists’ Logos. Philosophers, theologians, and VR researchers might be chasing the same holy grail.” The Computational Universe — advocated by theoretical physicist Edward Fredkin and mathematician Stephen Wolfram, among others — does not require a Logos, nor does it presuppose ideal Forms of which everyday objects are pale imitations. Instead, these theorists argue that everyday objects emerge from myriad independent agents (i.e., cellular automata), interacting with one another at a level below atoms and molecules, below even the Higgs boson. By conflating this hypothesis with Plato’s Forms and the Christian Logos, Taylor glosses over fundamental differences, allowing himself to be seduced by facile similarities.
Elsewhere, however, he correctly underscores the ways in which VR challenges conventional ideas of reality and virtuality: “The dream inspiring VR technology is to render the virtual real and the real virtual by erasing the interface separating mind and matter.” The virtual becomes real because it is experienced in the Cavern as a direct sensory phenomenon responsive to the movements and viewpoint of the interactor. Meanwhile, the real becomes virtual because it, too, is perceived as emerging from a fundamentally computational process. A passage Taylor quotes from Plowing the Dark makes the point succinctly: Stevie, one of the VR scientists, remarks to Adie, his friend and colleague, “Software is the final victory of description over thing.”
The complementary narrative of the kidnapping victim, Taimur (Tai) Martin, inverts the intense sensory environment of the Cavern to equally intense effect. Confined to a filthy hole with only intermittent glimpses of sunlight, and deprived of human company, Tai turns inward to narratives his mother told him as a child, then to the book his captors deign to give him, called Great Escapes. This pulp production would ordinarily be beneath his notice, but it now yields precious moments of pleasure as he measures out the paragraphs, forbidding himself to read more than a couple of sentences every other hour to make the book last as long as possible. When he pleads for another book, his captors give him the Qur’an, which he likewise rations into 10-verse sections, reading one section each day. As Taylor observes, the resonances with the cave multiply, for as Tai reads, his cell “is transformed into the Prophet’s cave.”
Deftly anticipating the following chapter on House of Leaves, Taylor proposes that the imagination is a place “bigger on the inside than it is on the outside,” and quotes a significant passage from Powers’s novel about VR “approaching the point of full symbolic liberation.” This underscores Taylor’s following remark, which serves to connect the two narratives in Plowing the Dark: “reality has never been large enough, because the body has never been large enough for the thing it hosted. Where else but in the imagination could such a kludge live?” As a whole, Taylor’s reading of Powers is both thorough and convincing, serving to advance his overall theme about how contraries — original/fake, real/virtual, confined/expansive, light/dark — engage and entwine with one another, only to evolve into something new that still contains the tension between the poles.
Taylor’s next chapter approaches Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves as a pedagogical journey that Taylor takes with his students. He makes a point of highlighting that his pedagogy goes both ways. His students share with him Millennial perspectives, while he enriches their knowledge with the kind of teacherly insights with which Rewiring the Real abounds. Pity, then, that he ignores the House of Leaves website (www.houseofleaves.com), where he would find literally thousands of posts, mostly from twentysomethings, decoding the myriad puzzles, allusions, encryptions, and connections that make House of Leaves a profound and inexhaustible text. But then, these posts can be considered literary criticism.
Expecting his students to be baffled by this enormously complex book, Taylor finds instead that they take to it as if it were written in their native idiom — which, he comes to believe, it is. (My own experience teaching House of Leaves is similar. Students find it fascinating and, indeed, some become obsessed with it. As one student remarked, “I don’t want to read any of the other stuff I’m supposed to do this term; I just want to keep reading this book over and over.”) Arguing that contemporary students do not just think different ideas but actually “think differently,” Taylor argues that their intense and pervasive engagements with the web have fundamentally changed their modes of interacting with the world. House of Leaves, with its dense intertextuality and myriad hypertextual links both internal and external, gives them reading experiences that mirror their worldview and, at the same time, connect it with profound philosophical and (Taylor emphasizes) theological issues.
The starting point for the text is an event both momentous and very small: Will Navidson, his partner Karen Green, and their two children return from an outing to their newly purchased suburban home to find, upon investigation, that the inside of the house is bigger than the outside by one quarter inch. This impossible situation is exacerbated when a mysterious door spontaneously appears in the living room, leading to a hallway that eventually proves to be older than the solar system and bigger than the earth’s diameter. The hallway is represented by many different tropes within the text, including a void and a manifestation of nothing. This is not “nothing” as absence, but as an intensely present nihilistic force that radically de-centers and deconstructs whomever enters it. It is also, as Taylor points out, a force we might call God. Playing on this idea, he remarks that “nothing is not the opposite of the thing; to the contrary, thing and nothing are inseparably interrelated — there can be no thing without nothing.” He thus interprets the House (both the building and the book) as a metaphor for the entwinement and co-evolution of opposites, a recurrent theme that reaches its climax in his final chapter.
Alert to the significance of House of Leaves’s graphic design, Taylor adroitly makes the connection between its labyrinthine narratives and its cover, which features a labyrinth depicted through glossy black overlaid on a black background, and the infamous Chapter IX, which has text running in many different directions on the page and so creates a maze of typefaces. He also comments on the novel’s complex narrative structure, which involves a scholarly treatise, written by Zampanò, about a film Navidson made about the House, along with footnotes by Johnny Truant, a wasted twentysomething who finds a trunk with Zampanò’s notes and edits them. Johnny tells us in his introduction that the Navidson film probably does not exist, notwithstanding Zampanò’s 500-plus-page explication of it, along with the hundreds of citations (some real, some fictional) that Zampanò marshals in the course of interrogating the film. Taylor misses, however, one significant feature of the narrative structure (which is addressed in the literary scholarship on this text): that the letters Pelafina writes to her son Johnny while institutionalized for mental illness, presented in an appendix, qualify her as another of the text’s major narrators. The book can therefore be read in three seemingly mutually exclusive ways: 1) Zampanò is the text’s creator and has made up Johnny out of his imagination; 2) Johnny is the creator and has made up Zampanò; 3) Pelafina has made up both Johnny and Zampanò and, despite her marginal position in the appendix, calls the shots throughout the entire text. The point, I take it, is not to resolve this three-way ambiguity but to use it as a device to keep in play all the possibilities at once, a narrative structure that fits well with Taylor’s thesis about co-evolving and co-producing terms, although he fails fully to exploit these interpretive possibilities in this chapter.
In Rewiring the Real’s penultimate chapter, Taylor approaches Don DeLillo’s Underworld through his own artwork, fictional and artistic, and his family history. The chapter begins with a fiction of Taylor’s own which reverses the climax of DeLillo’s Point Omega, intimating (without confirming) that Jessie Elster, on a visit to her father Richard Elster in a California desert, has been kidnapped and murdered with a knife, presumably by the stalker her Manhattan-based mother sent her to the desert to escape. Taylor’s story, by contrast, has Jessie faking her own kidnapping/murder and walking over the desert to Slab City, checking out the nearby Salvation Mountain, and then cajoling her way into Michael Heizer’s compound to see his massive desert sculpture City. Whereas DeLillo’s novel sees the Omega Point as the annihilation toward which contemporary society seems to be driving, Taylor’s fiction turns the void inside out, so to speak, to find it brimming full with significance and meaning. It takes considerable chutzpah to put one’s own writing up against DeLillo’s. Taylor’s wooden dialogue, however interesting thematically, pales in comparison to DeLillo’s mastery of the American idiom and his impeccable ear.
One thread connecting DeLillo’s and Taylor’s fictions is waste: the waste that seeps into virtually every page of Underworld, and the transport of radioactive waste over Heizer’s land, which would destabilize and ruin the sculpture he has spent years and millions to create. Another thread is the set piece that opens Underworld, the notorious “shot heard ’round the world” of October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit the ball over the outstretched glove of outfielder Andy Pafko to win the Pennant for the Giants. Underworld traces the ball’s history after it plummets into the stands and is grabbed by the fictional Cotter Martin, and links the baseball game with the Soviet’s first test of an atomic bomb, which occurred on the same day, announcing to the world that the nuclear arms race had begun and with it the Cold War. Taylor relates DeLillo’s account to his own fascination with baseball, his adoption of Andy Pafko as his childhood hero, and a baseball autographed by Pafko (real or fake) that he purchased as an adult.
After arguing that Underworld posits the Cold War period as actually more stable than what followed because of mutual deterrence, Taylor adroitly connects Underworld with capitalism’s imperative to expand by fueling excessive consumer desires, with the result that waste production becomes not only inevitable but also excessive. The crowning irony is the spectacle to which Nick Shay, the novel’s protagonist and a waste management consultant, is invited: a Russian firm has invented a new way to deal with nuclear waste, annihilating it by dropping a nuclear bomb on it. This paradoxical and recursive logic becomes, for Taylor, another manifestation of the self-reflexivity he finds in all his texts. He ends the chapter with a description of his own (literally) ground-breaking art, a large canvas he buries in the earth and digs up a year later, fascinated by its deterioration and the intricate forms its decay has created. Underground, the canvas is transformed from the mundane into the remarkable, which he implicitly offers as a commentary on DeLillo’s artistic strategies in Underworld.
The concluding chapter of Rewiring the Real abruptly changes tone, leaping into turbo-drive. Here, Taylor develops the deeper implications of the tropes he has been following and makes the book’s full design explicit. All recursive structures, he argues, although they seem to be closed like facing mirrors repeating each other to infinity, nevertheless “prove to be open because they presuppose as a condition of their possibility something, which might be nothing, that they can neither incorporate nor assimilate.” “Nothing” here, as in House of Leaves, denotes not a mere absence but a powerful presence that, in Heidegger’s neologism, “nihilates.” Nothing in this sense, Heidegger argues, marks the limits of the thinkable — a limit that serves as the condition of possibility for thinking anything at all. Taylor relates this limit to the constitution of self-consciousness, when “the subject turns back on itself by becoming an object to itself.” “As such, the structure of self-relation constitutive of self-conscious subjectivity presupposes the activity of self-representation,” and this in turn implies, as with all representations, a point where representation fails. This limit, according to the Heideggerian logic Taylor evokes, is also that which makes representation possible. All that can be said of it is that it consists of what cannot be represented, which is to say, the nothing. Since it cannot be grasped in itself, it can only be gestured toward, a condition that authorizes and underlies Taylor’s use of tropes rather than arguments to frame his literary readings.
As strongly condensed as Turkish coffee, this line of reasoning culminates in the idea that “all comprehension [...] emerges from and, therefore, returns to what remains incomprehensible,” which might be called the nothing or, Taylor finally suggests, God. “Negativity is affirmative insofar as it is the condition of the creative emergence of everything that exists,” he writes. In a passage that recalls from The Recognitions Aunt May’s injunction to Wyatt not to create original art because it mimics and therefore blasphemes God, Taylor writes, “Just as God creates freely ex nihilo, so the productive imagination creates freely out of nothing. This ‘is’ the nothing that nothings or nihilates by giving the gift of being itself.” Thus he joins theology, philosophy, and religion to literature, revealing what has been hinted at in his interpretations of the literary texts: at their centers resides a nihilating nexus that makes all forms of creativity and self-consciousness possible and that might as well be called God. This is the unresolvable nexus toward which all the binaries that co-evolve and co-produce each other have been tending, the creative/destructive force that affirms by negating.
Described on his book’s back cover as a “secular theologian,” Taylor makes clear that, for him, “God” is less an object of belief than a philosophical concept deeply related to issues of originality, creativity, and nothingness. His definition of religion — “an emergent, complex adaptive network of symbols, myths and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate and disfigure every stabilizing structure” — would likely not draw assent from many fundamentalist believers. This could well be taken as akin to a poststructuralist view of language. Poststructuralism, initiated by such philosophers as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Georges Bataille, among others, aims to unsettle philosophical foundations and myths of origin at the same time that it acknowledges such foundations have been instrumental to the formation of Western cultures. In this context, Taylor’s focus on complex literary texts makes sense, for they invariably complicate and unsettle whatever conclusions one might draw from them, a quality that makes them highly resistant to paraphrase or summary.
After this pyrotechnic conclusion, what remains to be said about literary criticism? Whatever flaws the preceding chapters may have, and whatever missed opportunities Taylor’s refusal to consult his critical peers may have engendered, I am tempted to think that the brilliant final chapter redeems all. Tempted, but not quite convinced. A generous interpretation of Rewiring the Real would suggest, as hinted earlier, that it inaugurates a new field of inquiry, literature and religion. This field could undoubtedly be related to many texts in philosophy and theology, although they may not have been understood as such until now. In this case, literature and religion would join the several subfields already in existence linking literature to other intellectual endeavors, such as literature and medicine, literature and science, and literature and philosophy. I suspect that Taylor would want to reverse the order, however, and define his field of play as religion and literature, since religion is for him the primary concern interrogated and illuminated by literary texts.
Maybe his position has a point, for one could argue that literary criticism has had trouble finding an audience (and a market) because it has become too in-bent, too removed, as Rita Felski has recently argued, from the everyday concerns that occupy most people and with which great literary texts have always connected. Still, there is much wisdom in the published criticism on literature, and to cancel it out as if it never happened would surely impoverish our understanding of the difficult and complex books we have been privileged to inherit. With this in mind, the best accolade I can give Rewiring the Real, even if Taylor would likely disagree, is that it is a provocative, engaging, significant, and resistant work of literary criticism.
N. Katherine Hayles is a literary critic and professor at Duke University. Her books include How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics (1999) and My Mother Was A Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (2005).
LARB Staff Recommendations
IT USED TO BE a terrific insult, to call someone or something “bourgeois,” but it doesn’t work so well these days, since nobody...
THE ELEGY HAS A HISTORY going back almost as far as poetry itself. Though it has come to mean a lyrical piece in which the writer contemplates...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!