Pepe Tesoro / November 19, 2019
Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 is usually regarded as one of the best testimonies of Cold War paranoia and early psychedelic ’60s culture. Even though it is a keen and pointed exploration of the growing anxieties over the exponential post-war rise of mass media and market capitalism, the central conspiracy revealed in the novel doesn’t reproduce itself through the then-new and fascinating forces of radio waves or cathode rays. Quite the opposite: the kernel of the conspiracy in Pynchon’s novel lays precisely in a clandestine communication network sent through old-fashioned, conventional mail. This network itself possesses roots that go back as far as medieval nobility feuds, its presence identified with something as ancient and basic as graffiti. Fredric Jameson attributed the true effectiveness of the novel to this anomalous feature. “[T]he force of Pynchon’s narrative,” he writes in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, “draws not on the advanced or futuristic technology of the contemporary media so much as from their endowment with an archaic past.”
It would seem that in order to perform an adequate exploration of the psychological and social and political disruptions of an era’s newest and most cutting-edge technological developments, sometimes it is required to take one or two steps back, as if the reflection over contemporary objects would be better served through the examination of old and already familiar realities. The long history and deep cultural footprint of retro-futuristic aesthetics in Pynchon’s fictional universe seems to point in somewhat the same direction. But this odd narrative movement doesn’t just go backwards; it also, quite interestingly, usually goes downwards. That’s the case of the The Crying of the Lot 49, where the occult conspiracy that our poor protagonist, Oedipa Maas, struggles to unveil, doesn’t just rely on the old means of the mail. Its members are imagined as marginalized individuals living in between the remnants and scraps of industrial machinery, as if the life of the vagabond would be the only true escape from the madness of modern civilization. These elusive individuals, as imagined by Oedipa, seem to be:
…squatters who stretched canvas for lean-tos behind smiling billboards along all the highways, or slept in junkyards in the stripped shells of wrecked Plymouths, or even, daring, spent the night up some pole in a lineman’s tent like caterpillars, swung among a web of telephone wires, living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication, untroubled by the dumb voltages flickering their miles, the night long, in the thousands of unheard messages.
This supposed conspiracy of the homeless and the outcast, not subtly named W.A.S.T.E., is then imagined as a hidden net that mimics modern global communication networks, and even lives as close as it can to those hardware channels. And precisely because of that, it stays totally untouched by modernity and is invisible to its gaze. The particular mixture of secrecy, homelessness, and clandestine communication systems in Oedipa’s imagination was not new at the time, and can be traced back to the life and especially the works of one Leon Ray Livingston.
Livingston, born in 1872, was probably the most notorious American hobo. “Hobo“ is actually a rather particular term in American cultural history; it doesn’t merely designate an individual who lacks a stable location or place for living, but it instead indicates a quite idiosyncratic American social character, determined by the country’s own history of geographical expansion and industrialization. The hobo was a homeless man that crossed the entire continent, from city to city, throughout the growing railroad’s network, surfing the new, blossoming industrial landscapes a job at a time. Throughout the years, the hobo came to be recreated by the national cultural imagination as a romantic figure, a mystical outsider, a mysterious and almost invisible inhabitant of the modern world’s new industrial features, constantly at the edge of society, always trying to avoid unwelcome company and harassing authorities. That popular image was mostly the work of Livingston.
Livingston was not just a hobo; he was also a popular author. Under the pen name of “A-No1,” he published a series of books that fictionalized the hobo lifestyle and basically created from scratch the romantic and enigmatic portrait just described. But probably the most fascinating and persistent myth that emerged from the A-No1 books was the existence of a secret hobo code, presented in unnoticed and almost invisible chalk or charcoal graffiti. This code, composed of cryptic, seemingly ordinary and almost-childish hieroglyphs and symbols, was supposedly used by traveling hobos to transmit messages to their colleagues, such as “Dangerous town,” “Safe place to spend the night,” or “Here lives a nice lady.” It is known and well-documented (mostly through the work of filmmaker Bill Daniel) that the practice of signing the side of wagons and rail post with their personal monikers was and still is a spread practice for hobos and railroad workers in America. But with respect to a secret code that transmitted useful messages from hobo to hobo, there is not much evidence that it actually existed. After all, why would the hobo, a supposedly elusive and off-the-grid character, want to make public their own secret means of communication? It is not unfair to assume that the publication of the hobo code was probably nothing more than a ploy to fabricate and maintain that same legendary elusiveness.
Either way, thanks to Leon Ray Livingston’s works, the hobo’s supposed secret code became a common emblem of the intriguing and puzzling (and pretty much fantastic) mysteries of industrial civilization’s own underground realities. It seemed at the same time spooky and exhilarating to imagine that the unstoppable machine of progress was leaving behind, in its own dark residue, a striving secret society of outcasts and ostracized rebels living an almost chivalrous adventure, having happily exchanged social status and at times mental health to be free of the oppressive commands of power. I think it goes without saying how popular this common narrative has stayed throughout the years in science fiction and, more generally, in popular culture. The mystic figure of the marginalized can be tracked from the charming and magical homeless lady in Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles, to the cyberpunk Martian mutant separatists in Total Recall, to the Lo-Teks in Johnny Mnemonic and the Nebuchadnezzar crew in The Matrix series, just to name a few. These cyberpunk re-imaginations fall under the myth of the “hidden utopia”: the assumption that the hopes of resistance against the conspiracy of modern civilization lays in a counter-conspiracy of the outcasts, the unlikely sub-inhabitants of its most obscure and remote corners.
This is exactly what is deployed by Pynchon in The Crying of the Lot 49. Or, at least, this is how a borderline-paranoid protagonist tends to imagine a seemingly active but always evasive conspiracy, as if the myth of the hidden utopia could be also a borderline-paranoid fantasy of those made anxious and disoriented by postmodern subjectivity. It’s also possible to observe the echo of the hobo graffiti’s legend in Pynchon’s book, as the W.A.S.T.E. logo, a simply drawn muted cornet, suspiciously similar to the purported signs of the hobo code, appears to have been placed all over the most seemingly mundane corners of Oedipa’s reality, such as on the walls of a public bathroom or on the edge of a sidewalk.
But the recovery and use by Pynchon of these older cultural cues is not an idealization of the hidden problems of the homeless and the marginalized. After all, any social articulation outside the limits of the community itself can easily turn into a contradiction, a fantasy, a paradox not allowed by the predominant culture. If the whole world has been conquered by malignant forces and crooked interests, the possibility of a constructive, non-nihilistic escape from this system literally lays outside of this world. That’s why Pynchon, as Oedipa, finds himself at a dead end, accepting that, if W.A.S.T.E. and its obscure conspirators were to exist, its own definition would prohibit the final revelation of its actual existence. That’s good for Pynchon, who playfully explores the literary potential of such contradiction, but it ain’t so good for Oedipa, who is still and forever trapped in modern society, and seems destined to always live on the epistemic edge of paranoia, unable to determine if everything she experiences is a convoluted prank by her ex-lover, if she has gone definitively crazy, or if W.A.S.T.E. is, in fact, real.
In a dream-like episode in the middle of the novella, Oedipa encounters an old ex-anarchist friend, Jesús Arrabal, who, torn apart by the demise of the emancipatory narrative, has to admit to her the metaphysical impossibility, or at least almost supernatural essence, of any revolutionary promise: “You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one.” Alien invasion? Religious intervention? Not quite, but similarly unlikely: the possibility that, under the all-mighty and ubiquitous forces of the Machinery and the cannibalistic and expanding logic of Capital, there could have formed a secret alliance of those who have been cast out of society, those who inhabit the obscure nooks of the dirt and the piles of garbage, under the colossal figure of the ominous constructions and highways. Like parasites in the wires of modern communication systems, these posited liberatory beings have been exiled in a land “invisible yet congruent with the cheered land [Oedipa] lived in,” barely but firmly surviving out of the realm of the living, right next to where we stand, but nevertheless unnoticed by the naked eye.
Pepe Tesoro is a philosophy PhD student from Madrid. You can follow him at @pepetesoro.