Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo
by Mark C. Taylor.
Columbia University Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 344 pages, $26.
There is a phrase in Latin—“Laudator temporis acti,” which when translated into English becomes “praiser of the past.” As the modern world continues its downhill rush towards an uncertain future, fostered by the evermore uncertain line between man and machine, there grows within society a rift between those who would see Western civilization recover its traditions and its heritage, and those who would see them discarded unreservedly. Many praise the past, still many more praise the future.
It is under such conditions that Professor Mark C. Taylor presents Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. The book is an intellectual chore, not because the writing is poor or the quality lacking—both are of a very high order—but rather in the nature of the works under review and their efforts to reflect and interpret modern culture.
The premise of the book is drawn from the four novels that collectively make up the study: William Gaddis’s The Recognitions; Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark; Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves; and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. These four books share the common theme of technology fundamentally altering our understanding of real and fake, truth and falsehood. Taylor writes,
While Gaddis, Powers, Danielewski, and DeLillo are different writers, they all share a recognition of the ways in which new media, communications, and information technologies transformed life during the latter half of the twentieth century and continue to shape our world in predictable and unpredictable ways.… By recasting ancient questions in new language, Gaddis, Powers, Danielewski, and DeLillo reveal new gods and demons we ignore at our own peril.
Taylor contrasts the Platonic and Nietzschean views of truth to provide movement for the rest of the book. The Platonic holds that knowledge involves re-cognition, suggesting that truth is pre-existing and thus entirely other. Under such a view, truth is not discovered or determined, but rather in a sense remembered. This is contrasted against the Nietzschean, which asserts that human knowledge is a fabrication, that truth is a fiction and is thus not recognized, but determined. Reality, according to Nietzsche, is only that which can be seen, observed, or measured, while for Plato reality exists entirely outside of the empirical world, and all that we interpret as reality is in truth but an indistinct shadow of the ideal itself.
Taylor first explores Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which concerns itself with the question of originality. The story itself is littered with men and women whose names are fake, allusory, and occasionally even real. The book follows a man named Wyatt, a counterfeit artist, which is tosay an artist who makes copies of original works of art. The nature of Recognitions calls to mind the modern social quandary, which, at least in its present state, appears determined to divorce itself from all connections to preexisting cultural understandings and traditions. Taylor writes,
To be modern is to be of the present rather than the past (modernus, from modo, just now); the modern, therefore, is the new, and the new is original rather than derived. The mantra of the modern artist is: “Make it new!” The new, however, is always already old as soon as it appears and must, therefore, be repeatedly replaced. Far from preaching the gospel of modernism, Gaddis believes this obsession with the new is nothing less than a plague.
Modern culture’s insatiable desire for “the new” (what Russell Kirk often called modernity’s neoterism) cannot be satisfied for longer than a moment. Thus, modernism has one of two options—either to accept that it works against itself, or to continue at its evermore frenzied pace toward an impossible goal. In such a world where all that is valued is the next original, there is no permanence, and where there is no permanence, there is nothing. What is a man without a past? He is a ghost, and yet even a ghost has a past.
Perhaps the most interesting point made among Taylor’s four selections comes from Powers’s Plowing in the Dark. Concerned with the matter of virtual reality versus “actual” reality, Powers makes the point that all art, and indeed all creative human endeavor is virtual reality. The argument proceeds: all creative endeavors are attempts to direct the human mind elsewhere than the present, thereby making whatever destination at which they arrive a virtual reality, in that it is not one’s actual reality. All great works of Bachor Caravaggio, the great philosophers and theologians, and even the Paleolithic cave drawings of Lascaux and El Castillo are all attempts at virtual reality. Much as the VR headsets of our time simulate reality but cannot deliver a true experience, so too did all such examples offer exposure to reality while failing, ultimately, to offer the thing itself.
For those who profess a belief in the supernatural, such a suggestion begs the question about religious experience itself. The Christian blessed by a vision, prophecy, or some other supernatural experience will describe the experience as more real than life itself, but by Powers’s suggestion, reality is the present, and such experiences, however real, are virtual. But can the supernatural be somehow less a reality than the world it supersedes? One may ask if it is not the supernatural, but rather our own reality, which is the simulation.
Regardless, Powers concerns himself with the nature of reality in a world of increasing technological advantage. Through his narrative he suggests that virtual reality coincided with man’s ability to use tools, as it was this newfound ability that allowed for the creation of the earliest art-as-virtual reality. Further, he suggests that as human mastery over tools and the natural world increases, so too does our separation from reality increase. One need no examples of this in our own time, as the parallels are certainly obvious.
Taylor opens his chapter on House of Leaves with the following paragraph:
The text is about nothing—always about nothing. Nothing is what keeps the text in play by rendering it irreducibly open and in/finitely complex. The nothingness haunting the text marks its border by exceeding it. This excess is the siteless site where difference endlessly merges. The void that empties everything of itself is the incomprehensible gift that never stops giving. Art figures the unfigurable by giving what cannot be taken.
Thus Taylor provides a fitting, if discouraging, description of the book to be examined. Houseof Leaves is a book about a book about a house that continually expands within while remaining unchanged without. It is a book of layers, the intent of which is to force the reader to call into question which aspects and inclusions are true and which are false; which are real and which are made up for the sake of the book. Taylor explains it this way:
House of Leaves is a book about how to read in a world where the real, however it is figured, is always slipping away. Any effort to summarize the book, any attempt to say what the book is about, is bound to fail. The most that can be said is that the book is about the impossibility of saying what the book is about.
House of Leaves, then, is a web, a structure of many interconnections that seems to have no beginning and no end; each leads inevitably to the next. Does this not sound akin to the modern world, wherein everyone and everything is connected, where trouble in one section can easily ripple to the next?
The final book Taylor’s study is Don DiLillo’s Underworld. Unlike the others, which concern themselves with more strictly technological themes, DeLillo considers the effect of technology more covertly through the interconnectivity of markets and capital exchange. In a post-Great Recession world, a world in which a new economic downturn seems always a possibility, DeLillo’s examination is an important one. He posits that one of the greatest contributing factors to global instability is the ever-quickening speed of technological change. DeLillo writes, simply and significantly, “Everything is connected.” This is less an observation than it is a caution.
As interconnectivity increases it is all the more likely that what affects one will affect many others, increasing volatility accordingly. DeLillo worries not that capitalism will fail, but that it will succeed. Predicated on expansion, capitalism does not inherently know limitation. While most saw the West’s victory over communism as unquestionable, DeLillo suggests that capitalism needs a system like communism to maintain a healthy equilibrium, lest it drown in its own excesses. As nations grow politically, socially, and economically connected—case in point, the European Union—what affects a member must therefore affect the larger whole of the body.
Writing is a form of communication, and communication is the means by which we express our ideas. If writing does not clearly express an idea, it is therefore of little use to anyone but the author. Taylor often writes nonsense, not because he is not a fine writer—he is certainly that—but because the works he has chosen to write about examine extremely esoteric ideas. All four authors seem determined to be strange and confusing solely for the sake of strangeness and confusion. This, then, is the real value of Rewiring the Real, naming our time as a time of confusion. When we embrace the new at the expense of the old, we throw ourselves willingly and ignorantly into chaos. The problem is then looked to in hopes of offering a solution. Better than rewiring the real would be to remember the real.
Jeremy A. Kee researches, writes, and edits from Dallas, Texas, and is the founder of Further-In.com.