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A Thermodynamic Reading of The Crying of Lot 49
Exploring thermodynamic entropy and information theory clarifies the ambiguous relationship between Oedipa Maas, Maxwell’s Demon and the Tristero System in The Crying of Lot 49. Through a convoluted, chaotic adventure leading to disorder, Oedipa searches for the truth about Tristero, hoping it will save her from her tower of imprisonment (Pynchon, 11). Pynchon dangles this elusive message over Oedipa’s head until she discovers Tristero’s meaning. However, interference from thermodynamic entropy and the entropy of information theory prevent the message from being transmitted from the transmitter to the receiver.
Thermodynamics deals with the changes that occur in a system if energy distribution is unbalanced.
“Thermodynamics 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 within this system cause a loss in the grade of the energy. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas realizes ?her confinement” is similar to the closed system in which entropy thrives (Pynchon, 11). If she does not open her system, her energy will degrade until she is an embodiment of random disorder.
?At some point she went into the bathroom, tried to find her image in the mirror and couldn?t. She had a moment of nearly pure terror.? (Pynchon, 29). An image is created in a mirror when radiation falls upon an object of varying density, causing light to scatter, which composes the reflection. If there were no differences in density, and only random motion, there would be no image to project. Pynchon foreshadows Oedipa’s fate through the degradation of thermodynamic entropy.
Mechanical energy is an example of high-grade energy and heat is an example of low-grade energy. Thus, as entropy increases, negentropy degrades into heat, which is “a form of energy arising from randomly moving molecules” (OED). When a closed system possesses an unstable distribution of densities and gas molecules cluster in different areas, there is a lower probability and higher potential to do mechanical work. The loss of heat in entropy expresses the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy functions at the stagnant maximum of thermodynamic entropy, when energy or ideas cannot be transferred because the universe is at normal human body temperature.
Oedipa suffers this loss of heat to some degree, because her embodiment of thermodynamic entropy is an obstacle to her understanding of the message. “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” (Pynchon, 14). The rate of oscillation or vibration at which that these words are being spoken is unintelligible to Oedipa, coming at her like a “confused, tumultuous process “of the exchange of heat from a hot to cold system in exchange for usable energy (OED). 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 used to determine speed and quantity of information transmission. It statistically computes redundant information necessary to counteract any distortion or loss that may occur during transmission from one information source to another. Aside from the semantics of information, Claude Shannon asserts that the message is 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 chosen, because this is unknown at the time of design. If the number of messages in the set is finite, this number is a measure of the information produced when one message is chosen from the set with all choices being equally likely (Shannon, 3).
Shannon believes information is a mathematically defined quantity representing the degree of choice exercised in forming one message or symbol sequence out of all possible messages and that entropy is a “measure of the rate of transfer of information within that message” (OED). Oedipa identifies the Tristero System as the system that will “end her encapsulation in her tower” of thermodynamic entropy (Pynchon, 31). She has a set of possible messages to choose from as to the identity of The Tristero. The Tristero System is operative for each possible selection with each option being equally likely.
Statistically, the entropy of information theory measures the probability of a system arriving in its present state. Thus, the higher the entropy, the higher the probability. It is necessary to discuss the semantics of communication and the element of uncertainty present in both theories, because the second law of thermodynamics is statistical in nature and pertains to probability. A certain amount of macroscopic values about a system can be measured, such as composition, volume, pressure, and temperature. Previously, information has implied knowledge rather than meaning. Thus, any additional piece of information increases the negentropy, quality, or meaning of information in a message, because our knowledge is more complete (Brillouin, 11).
However, there are factors working 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 gradually loses value, and negentropy is constantly spent in the quest for more information (Brillouin, 11). Oedipa expends her mechanical energy traveling in California, trying to gather information about the unstable Tristero System. This system has been degrading since the 18th century, and the information Oedipa gathers has already lost its value compared to how much energy she spent in finding it.
As Klapp asserts, “matter and energy degrade into more probable, less informative states. The larger the amount of information processed or diffused, the more likely the information will degrade toward meaningless noise, information overload, or sterile uniformity” (Klapp, 2-3). For Oedipa, the more information she gains about Tristero, the more her thoughts become confused, fusing reality and fantasy.
This informational paradox in which knowledge and meaning clash, is held in limbo by redundancy. Repetition is helpful if it reinforces and establishes recognition. Otherwise, the signals would most likely be noise. Conversely, monotonous redundancy in messages can reach a point of banality and stagnation. Thus, repetition of the same message decreases its meaning and increases the entropy in the system. There are “thousands of unheard messages” in “brute repetition” Oedipa does not hear and with each repetition the message becomes weaker (Klapp, 180).
However, if information has a natural tendency to degrade, reprocessing will not necessarily improve message quality.
“The more information is repeated, the larger the diffusion scale, the greater the processing speed, the more opinion leaders and gatekeepers and networks, the more message filtering, 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, 126).
Although Shannon?s information theory studies were yet to be published in the 1930’s, other scientists such as Gilbert Newton Lewis and Robert Andrews Millikan, were 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, 815). Information, in this context, refers to data the Demon collects on the molecules in Nefastis’ box.
“As the demon?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” (Pynchon, 84).
The Demon has the power to reverse thermodynamic entropy, by producing a “staggering set of energies” through the destruction of a “massive complex of information.” (Pynchon, 84 ?85) His actions would violate the second law of thermodynamics, because entropy is an irreversible transformation.
In this situation, the human ?sensitive” supplies information the Demon needs to convert heat into usable energy. (Pynchon, 85) As Brillouin concludes, “every type of experiment represents a transformation of negentropy into information” (Brillouin, 12). For the demon to separate gas molecules, he must be able to see them, so he expends a high negentropy, radiation or light, to see the molecules? varying densities. However, the quantity of negentropy produced from this information overcompensates for the loss in the first step.
According to Nefastis’ explanation, the “sensitive” does all of the work, supplying information for the Demon, by visually concentrating on Maxwell’s picture. The Demon, however, participates “at some deep, psychic level,” which might expend energy, but certainly not in a measurable way as Oedipa does. (Pynchon, 84) Nefastis tells Oedipa to “Leave [her] mind open, receptive to the Demon’s message” (Pynchon, 85). She tells him he is not reaching her, so he repeats the message. Yet, Oedipa asks the same thing she thinks a few pages later amongst the “freeway madness” (Pynchon, 87). 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” amongst the noise from the “high-pitched, comic voices issued from the TV set,” but she only perceives a “misfired nerve cell” (Pynchon, 85 – 86).
The unheard message is like “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate,” but the “revelation trembled just past the threshold of [her] understanding” (Pynchon, 14). Maxwell’s Demon may be the “metaphor” 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” (Pynchon, 85 & 105). 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. A lie may be in its place; the lie Oedipa built her life around. “Oedipa wondered whether…she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues?which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly?” (Pynchon, 95).
The light the Demon uses to identify molecules is too bright for Oedipa’s system. Truth, like the entropy of information theory, irreversibly destroys the meaning of its own message, just as the Demon destroys knowledge the sensitive passes on to create energy. In this paradoxical state, Oedipa’s quest for the truth about Tristero and escape her tower are unsuccessful, because they bring her back to the same quantity of heat energy. Oedipa is stuck in a cycle of wasting energy finding information that loses value over time, ending up in the highly probable state of uncertainty over Tristero. Even if she found a central truth, its generated power would destroy the Pynchon?s ambiguous message. This appeals to science, because the high entropy of the information level at the end of the novel implies high probability and uncertainty. Pynchon would have violated the theory of information had he revealed the encoded message.
Allen, H.S., and Maxwell, R.S. A Text-Book of Heat. Macmillan and Co., London: 1939.
Brillouin, Leon. Scientific Uncertainty, and Information. Academic Press, New York: 1964.
Klapp, Orrin. Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society. Greenwood Press, New York: 1986.
Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Oxford University Press.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York: 1999.
Shannon, Claude. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. The University of Illinois Press, Urbana: 1959.
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