Sunday, July 6, 2008

Information - relevant or toxic (Books - White Noise by Don DeLillo)

The characters in White Noise have an abject terror of death that they attempt to soothe by filling their every waking moment with information. It's as if the information can take the place of meaning. When that doesn't work, there is a time-released neuropsychotropic drug being developed that acts specifically to allay the fear:

"They isolated the fear-of-death part of the brain. Dylar speeds relief to that sector."


"It's not just a powerful tranquilizer. The drug specifically interacts with the neurotransmitters in the brain that are related to the fear of death. Every emotion or sensation has its own neurotransmitters. Mr. Gray found fear of death and then went to work on finding the chemicals that would induce the brain to make its own inhibitors.

"Amazing and frightening."

"Everything that goes on in your whole life is a result of molecules rushing around somewhere in your brain."

"Heinrich's brain theories. They're all true. We're the sum of our chemical impulses. Don't tell me this. It's unbearable to think about."

"They can trace everything you say, do and feel to the number of molecules in a certain region."

"What happens to good and evil in this system? Passion, envy and hate? Do they become a tangle of neurons. Are you telling me that a whole tradition of human failings is now at an end, that cowardice, sadism, molestation are meaningless terms? Are we being asked to regard these things nostalgically? What about murderous rage? A murderer used to have a certain fearsome size to him. His crime was large. What happens when we reduce it to cells and molecules?

The many ways Don DeLillo's 1984 book White Noise anticipates our own time continues to amaze me. There was an article in the last year's New York Times Magazine about the legal system and neurosicence. Here's a post I wrote about it. A man with a brain cyst pushes his wife out of the window - did the cyst make him do it? I have never understood how increasing our knowledge about the cells and chemicals that make up the nervous system eliminates the concept of free will or responsibility. I don't understand it any more than I understand how Darwin's theory of evolution obviates belief in one deity or another. The world is the way the world is. If our ability to imagine or measure our world changes so that we know more or differently than before, our world hasn't changed. I suppose we have changed, and change is very frightening for some people. But the world is the same as it was before. It's fearing that we must give up our concepts about the world that so terrifies Jack in this book. Aside from the neuroscientific information being a little off - there are not exactly neurotransmitters for every sensation, and there is no one brain region connected with fear of death, but the way we are grappling with our new found understanding of the brain, the medications that are being developed, the moral questions the knowledge is raising - these are spot on.

This book, even while a noxious chemical cloud (literally) engulfs the town in which Jack Gladney and his family live, continues to be hilarious. A professor of Hitler studies who speaks no German? Jack has arranged a conference of fellow scholars and now goes desperately and secretly to a German teacher several times a week to try to remedy this problem.

...I continued to have trouble pronouncing the words. Dunlop did not seem to mind. He enunciated for me over and over, scintillas of dry spit flying toward my face.

We advanced to three lessons a week. He seemed to shed his distracted manner, to become slightly more engaged. Furniture, newspapers, cardboard boxes, sheets of polyethylene continued to accumulate against the walls and windows - items scavenged from ravines. He stared into my mouth as I did my exercises in pronunciation. Once we reached in with his right hand to adjust my tongue. It was a strange and terrible moment, an act of haunting intimacy. No one had every handled my tongue before.

It seems that one of the toxic cloud's chief effects on the human body is to create feelings of deja vu.

"Why do we think these things happened before? Simple. They did happen before, in our minds, as visions of the future. Because these are precognitions, we can't fit the material into our system of consciousness as it is now structured. This is basically supernatural stuff. We're seeing into the future but haven't learned how to process the experience. So it stays hidden until the precognition comes true, until we come face to face with the event. Now we are free to remember it, to experience it as familiar material."

"Why are so many people having these episodes now?"

"Because death is in the air," he said gently. "It is liberating suppressed material. It is getting us closer to things we haven't learned about ourselves..."

There were also articles about deja vu fairly recently - here are two: 1, 2. DeLillo's explanations are beautiful narrative and really capture our zeitgeist brilliantly - visions of the future - that's what this book is! And that cloud over us - a toxic load of information - threatening to poison us all with meanings - so much meaning - how do we choose? And, Heinrich asks, to what end?

"Could you make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we're so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks invented trigonometry. They did autopsies and dissections. What could you tell an ancient Greek that he couldn't say, 'Big deal.' Could you tell him about the atom? Atom is a Greek word. The Greeks knew that the major events in the universe can't be seen by the eye of man. It's waves, it's rays, it's particles."

"We're doing all right."

"We're sitting in this huge moldy room. It's like we're flung back."

"We have heat, we have light."

"These are Stone Age things. They had heat and light. They had fire. They rubbed flints together and made sparks. Could you rub flints together? Would you know a flint if you saw one? If a Stone Ager asked you what a nucleotide is, could you tell him? How do we make carbon paper? What is glass? If you came awake tomorrow in the Middle Ages and there was an epidemic raging, what could you do to stop it, knowing what you know about the progress of medicines and diseases? Here it is practically the twenty-first century and you've read hundreds of books and magazines and seen a hundred TV shows about science and medicine. Could you tell those people one little crucial thing that might save a million and a half lives?"

"'Boil your water,' I'd tell them."

"Sure. What about 'Wash behind your ears.' That's about as good."

We saw Greek drama in the ruin of a Greek theatre in Siracusa just a few weeks ago and this afternoon we're going to see a contemporary take by the National Theatre of Scotland on The Bacchae - in New York City. Why do we still watch Greek dramas? Because they knew so damned much about us that they're still relevant. But DeLillo's point is that crowding our world with information is not the same as knowing something that we can put to use. Information can be vital but it can also be toxic. Sometimes our knowledge is useful and other times it is just noise.


Curt said...

Nice post - the toxic cloud of information indeed seems particularly relevant to recent 'political' coverage which is able somehow to produce hours of talk about a single sentences.

Ted said...

Curt - Thanks. Interesting comparison.