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 couldnt.
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.
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.
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,
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
Shannons 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.
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.
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
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 is 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
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 Pynchons 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.
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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: