Critical Essay—The Informational Subject in Formation: Telephonic Subjectivity in Wharton and Gaddis
This essay argues that Edith Wharton's House of Mirth (1905) and William Gaddis's J R (1971) parse the impact of telephony on narrative, identity, and culture. Despite their 70-year difference, the novels have more in common than would first appear, deploying telephony in terms of both content and form. The central conflict in each novel hinges on the function of language and its (dis)connection to truth and this conflict plays out across competing media of the mail and telephony. On the one hand, both novels thematize the impact of telephony on the formation of the self and the individual’s relation to others, depicting the emergence of the informational subject whose autonomy, self-presence, and coherence is threatened with dissolution by teletechnological culture. At the same time, the two texts also embody formally the lessons of telephony’s impact on representation, language, and narrative. As they manifest anxiety and speculation about the increasing speed and distancing effects of wired communication, these novels provide a counterpoint to one another, highlighting the failures of connection and the threats to inheritance, identity, and agency as telephony takes hold and reaches its apogee. Comparing the two novels shows how mastering the circulation of information—or failing to—becomes a matter of survival for their protagonists as subjects of information.
Telephony has undeniably had an impact on narrative form, as The Matrix’s retro stylization of phone booths, curly cords, and trunk lines as narrative switchpoints attests. While the telephone operates memorably in films across the decades, from silent cinema to the present, this is not the only medium of telephonic representation. Indeed, the telephonic novel has a less fully appreciated, though equally long, history. Given that the novel and the telephone both rely on language rather than visuals as their medium of representation, the novel would seem a natural fit for telephony’s stories. Telephony promises truth and presence through the voice’s unique and intimate qualities and augments the subject’s agency across distance. Like narrative focalization, telephony enables us to share a virtual mental space with another person; it thus seems to offer a fullness of presence that transcends the body.1 At the same time, however, the telephone strips away the richly informational context of face-to-face interlocution as it bridges two disparate spaces; the signal is reduced down to the relatively narrow bandwidth of the voice. Telephony thus opens up competing theories of language—fullness of meaning vs. minimalist sufficiency—and it behooves us to examine how those theories of language are represented in the telephonic novel.
Telephony offers not simply an extension of sense, à la Marshall McLuhan, but its transformation of space and time renders subjectivity dispersed, disrupted—and attempting to smooth over that very disordering. This disjunction of time and space has made the telephone powerful for cinema, which is fundamentally ordered through montage. Yet while the principles of montage offer a robust visual patterning tool for cinematic form, they also owe a debt to Sergei Eisenstein’s attention to novelistic technique.2 The representation of relations between spaces that montage affords points to how open-ended the possibilities for connection are in telephony and narrative. These possibilities hold not only for showing connections between spaces but for depicting missed connections or non-intersections.
The telephone materializes and even exacerbates deconstructionist views of how language operates, as Avital Ronnell’s book on the telephone shows quite vividly. The telephone’s power to decontextualize verbal communication opens up not just instabilities of language but also undermines the assured coherence of individual identity, the truth purportedly in the voice. The stability of individual identities in the emerging teletechnologial economy of the twentieth century and the whole fraught question of possession—self- or material—becomes a concern for texts that examine telephony in novel form. In the early twentieth-century American imaginary the logic of telephonic technology plays out through the problem of the proper boundaries of the gendered and classed subject in Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth (1905), while nearly a century after the telephone's invention this instability reaches its novelistic apogee in William Gaddis's J R (1975), where the eponymous hero amasses a paper fortune trading in surplus goods, junk bonds, and other unwanted items almost entirely over the telephone. This essay examines how these two novels operate telephony in terms of both content and form. On the one hand, both novels thematize the impact of telephony on the formation of the self and the individual’s relation to others, depicting the emergence of the informational subject whose autonomy, self-presence, and coherence is threatened with dissolution by teletechnological culture. At the same time, the two texts also embody formally the lessons of telephony’s impact on representation, language, and narrative.
Comparing the two novels enables us to limn the generation gap between subjectivities and language practices permeated by the age of information and those who bequeathed this inheritance. In both novels the central conflict over the function of language and its connection to truth plays out across competing media of the mail and the telephone. These novels reveal rival theories of language, what I’ll call signal vs. mimetic. The former is an informational notion of language, where the communicative power of a sign is minimal, even reductive, determined more by the sign’s efficacy for action than for its anchoring in intent or reference. It is language in its most literal and logical power, affording pure connection with little sense of the emotive, ethical, and reflexive powers of language. Such a view narrows down the function of language merely to conveying message-content (what Roman Jakobson calls “referential” in his six functions of language) and its effectual power on the addressee (what Jakobson calls “conative” function), as if the tone of communication or the interpersonal relation were alienable from the meaning. Just as the telephone enables action at a distance, this informational wielding of language instrumentally conducts an agent’s business. A signal theory of language makes possible a fluent, labile mode of communication that, ironically, relies on the circumstances of communicative exchange to resupply the tone, attitude, and ethos of the original, stripped-away context. This reductive, instrumental approach thus makes the message more explicitly susceptible to changing frames of reference, misconstrual, or willful overwriting. Anyone who has misunderstood an email’s tone or tenor, mistaken its sender’s intentions, and/or miscalculated that email’s purpose has encountered this signal theory of language.
Informational language or signal contrasts with a more traditional mimetic theory of language, where language has a fairly fixed, reliable, and transparent power to represent, to refer to reality, and a semiotic economy where truth is possible to disclose and identities are stable. Such transparency and referentiality are made possible by cultural convention and are grounded in language’s ability to convey more than just a message’s contents, but a communication richly embellished by the speaker’s attitude, the impact on the addressee, the interpersonal (phatic) connection between the speaker and the addressee, and the ability of both interlocutors to reflect on how the language is conveying the message. In other words, interlocutors come to agree on how the words they exchange impinge upon the objects, events, real experience, etc. that are the topic of the message, and that coming to agree relies on the interlocutors’ shared metalinguistic capabilities and frame of reference. The fullness of communicative action, on this view, conceals the reliance on context that is inevitably essential to a message’s meaning, as J. L. Austin and Jacques Derrida’s reading of him have demonstrated.
J R exemplifies the reductivity of the first kind of language. The eponymous catalyst of Gaddis’s novel’s action is just a kid, one who has a very literal minded approach to language, typified by his adherence to “the letter of the law and evading its spirit at every turn” (Gaddis, “Trickle-up”). In J R’s view, meaning is subordinated to what you can achieve by sending the signal, and he can only achieve what he does via the telephone, which minimizes the sender’s identity as well as strips down the context of the message, leaving it open to imputation by the receiver (an instability that J R takes full advantage of). Yet he operates in a world peopled by those invested in actual presence, seeking truth, seeking to realize who they really are. Complementarily, Wharton’s Lily Bart has a nostalgic and very high-minded view of language—that there is truth, it can be told, the self can be fully realized, and that appearances do not detach to circulate on their own, performatively rewritten by context; yet she inhabits a world of informational flow, where who you are is greatly affected by what information circulates about you and what signals you send. As they manifest anxiety and speculation about the increasing speed and distancing effects of wired communication, these novels provide a counterpoint narrative to one another, highlighting the failures of connection and the threats to inheritance, exchange, identity, and agency as telephony takes hold. The juxtaposition of the two novels, like their juxtaposition of old and new technologies, manifests the struggle over the emergent social and information orders. The two novels delineate a paradigm of telephonic subjectivity and show how mastering the circulation of information—or failing to—becomes a matter of survival.
Few of the main characters in these novels succeed in any conventional sense under the new technological regime, but where Lily Bart fails by being born too late and being too deeply invested in writing and the mimetic representational order, Jack Gibbs and Edward Bast, the characters most critics take as protagonists in J R, strive against failure to carve out a certain independence from the swirl of information which engulfs them. Both Gibbs and Bast seek to do something that means something—pursue the art that fires their passions—and they fail in different ways than Lily Bart. They may adapt to the telephone, but unlike J R himself, they never assimilate into the mode of information that emphasizes signification over representation. Their romantic idea of artistic achievement is as old-fashioned as Lily’s ideal of social achievement. Yet, the novels’ own investment in telephonic signification leaves open the possibility that none of these “unsuccessful” protagonists quite wanted that retro ideal; in other words, as these telephonic novels feature failed subjects the text’s style is actually siding against its own protagonists insofar as they refuse or resist telephonicity.
I. Wharton's House of Mirth marks the incursion of the telephone in the social spheres--both business and domestic--at the turn of the century, an incursion that transforms the circulation of information and intervenes in the mapping of space.3 We might consider this incursion to be a symptom of what Mark Poster has delineated as the third mode of information, exchange through electronic media rather than through print or face-to-face encounters. While much of the criticism of this novel has focused on the systems of economic exchange at work in the society of the novel, the fact that this economy is based on the circulation of information more so than money tout simple bears further consideration.4 This caveat gains credence when we look at the larger financial context of the novel, for the permeation of telephone service at the turn of the century led to significant changes in stock and securities trading, in a striking increase of liquidity. As John Brooks notes, in the early part of this century "a person in a distant city--if he was lucky enough to get a call through to New York and make himself heard over it--could buy a stock on favorable news almost as fast as his counterpart on Wall Street. . . . Wall Street went national" (115). This possibility drastically altered not only how quickly but how much capital could be amassed, as J. P. Morgan's partner boasted that he could "raise twenty millions in twenty minutes" (qtd. in Brooks, 115).
The flow of information is not limited to stock tips and orders, though these are surely important to the narrative, but includes gossip and similar social information about acquisitions and mergers of the marital sort. Likewise, the novel's field of communications comprises not just the telephone but also the letter and the telegraph--indeed, the novel's plot pits the effects of these three communications modes against one another. Through a view that nostalgically turns away from the promises teletechnology presents to the imagination and the changes its intervention effects in the social, Wharton's novel confronts the impossibility of returning to an innocent age prior to the mode of information premised on electronic exchange and depicts the saturation of the social network by the functions of teletechnologies even before there is a telephone in every home.
Through the plight of Lily Bart, this text exhibits some of the changes occurring in the social fabric that will alter not only the very constitution of the subject and the status of truth, rewriting the boundaries between insider/outsider as connected/disconnected or as informed/ignorant. These changes are part of a significant shift in the economy and culture that Poster describes as a change from the mode of production to the mode of information. One effect of this new informational mode is a fundamental change in the assumptions governing exchange from scarcity to plenty, since information, unlike material products, is an inexhaustible resource. More importantly, the intervention of electronic technologies that give us access to information has significantly altered our sense of time and space and thus our relations to one another. The sense of the local and immediate, for instance, is not geographically defined, but a question of access, connection, and engagement.5 In the informational world, there is no presumption of a singular, stable relation between word and object: things are subject to persistent re-interpretation and recontextualization, so even materiality provides no safe haven.
This instability bears upon subjects by rendering them permeable to and constituted by the flow of information. The mode of information, in Poster's view, is particularly crucial because it alters the sustainability of the bourgeois--masculine, autonomous, rational--subject. The mode of information has taken us away from a grounded subject whose presumption of self-expression relies upon a boundary between inside and outside, a singular, centered perspective and a nominalist theory of language that posits a clear translation of reality into representation. In its stead is an informational subject—"decentered, dispersed, and multiplied in continuous instability" (6)—who is constantly caught up in signifying exchanges that blur the distinction between reality and fiction, meaning and context.
Such a subject is incipient in Lily Bart. It is no accident that this informational subject is female and precariously bourgeois. As a single woman of society with neither parents nor enough money, she is in a very delicately balanced situation and in need of a propitious marriage to secure her place. She has much of the will to be the bourgeois subject, to be rational and autonomous, to master her fate as she sees those around her do; that the precariousness of her situation is largely due to her gender is hardly incidental as her circumstances foreground the circulation of information and the vulnerability of the modern subject to that informational economy. Gender abets the operation of information technologies to construct Lily Bart as a subject on the verge of an informational breakdown. The novel’s marriage plot, so much of which is focalized through Lily, aligns readers to want what Lily wants, a love match with a suitable suitor, namely Lawrence Selden, and while we may want this plot to be resolved as neatly as it is in Jane Austen, the novel’s real achievement lies in demonstrating how and why such resolution is impossible in the age of information.
This angle on the novel obliges us to understand Lily's inability to implement the technologies available to her—whether to establish her own nuptial node in the social network or to use information for blackmail—as a symptom of the breakdown of earlier technologies' efficacy in the face of innovation crisis. This dissolution is particularly vivid in the case of communications technologies in House of Mirth. It is perhaps not coincidental that Lily is the same age as the telephone; in 1905, both are closing in on their thirtieth year. But where the telephone is starting to really take off, Lily is about to be left behind.6
At least for the technology's infancy, telephone was limited to those who could afford this costly new device. The possibility that anyone could call anyone else with a telephone threatened class boundaries so much that telephone companies resisted placing phones in working class neighborhoods and priced subscriptions out of the reach of many, in order to mitigate this threat to wealthier patrons.7 The restriction to the upper classes made telephony "safe" as a mode of communication within the social class, though still fraught with certain limitations on its use. For instance, as Lily assists her hostess with her correspondence duties one morning early in the novel, Judy Trenor suggests calling Lawrence Selden.8 Their activity, issuing invitations to spend the weekend at the Trenors', indicates that letters are still the formal means for house-party summons to go out; Selden can be excepted because he is a single man on close social terms with the Trenors.9 Selden's social position is reinforced by his technological position, and being on the same telephonic circuit as the Trenors would seem, to make him a marriageable choice for Lily. Yet the suitors presented as more likely candidates for her—Percy Gryce and Simon Rosedale—are telephonically off limits. It’s as if Lily must adhere to a kind of technological exogamy. Indeed, Judy’s threat (or promise) of calling Selden almost suggests his more intimate connection within her social economy, as if circumscribing him in taboo.
Indeed, Judy's first mention of the telephone functions like the telephone itself, suddenly interrupting with a call from elsewhere: "'Do you know,' she exclaimed after a long pause, 'I believe I'll call up Lawrence Selden on the telephone and tell him he simply must come?'" (45). This intrusion of the telephone is as sudden as it is direct, and Judy's exclamation startles Lily. This telephone call makes connections that will structure the heart of the novel. Lawrence shadows Lily throughout the novel as a possible connection, yet, as in the moment of Judy's suggestion, Lily constantly turns away from making that connection complete, from receiving the call, in favor of some other marital prospect on the line which for one reason or another she cannot take off hold. Judy queries Lily one last time: "You're quite sure,' ... 'that you wouldn't like me to telephone for Lawrence Selden?"(46). It’s not clear whether it’s Selden’s invitation or that he would be telephoned that incites Lily’s demurral.
The subsequent appearance of Selden that weekend indicates that surely Judy telephoned him, and gives us our first intimation of an informational circuit Lily is out of (and that her being out of conflicts with her wishes). Although Lily had stopped by Selden’s Manhattan apartment on her way out to the Trenors, as if to let him know her weekend destination, his presence at the Trenors’ will perturb Lily, making her wonder why she is suddenly so interested in him after knowing him for eight years. So even though face-to-face communication is important as one of the several modes operating in the field of information exchange in the novel, here the obscurity of why he arrives will signal that even face-to-face communication is not purely nominal, offers no direct access to truth, but is already permeated by competing telephonic connections.
Hinged as it is between one mode of communication and another, between the letter and in-person exchange, this moment of the telephone's intrusion into the novel marks the intrication of the narrative in the different stages in Poster's mode of information: oral, print, and electronic mediation of information exchange. This knot of communication technologies parallels Lily's own tangled feelings for Lawrence and inability to communicate them; moreover, it presages the tangle of communications at the climax of Book I. As Poster acknowledges, these three stages are not mutually exclusive, consecutive steps, but rather distinctions in concurrent communication practices; as new technologies—print, wired, electronic media—emerge, they influence and disturb the settled practices of the precedent forms of semiotic exchange. As it manifests in this novel, however, the dominance of third mode makes it difficult if not impossible for print and oral interactions to be conducted on their own, uncontaminated terms. Precisely because they are language-based, these "prior" modes are affected by new linguistic practices and their presuppositions. The coincidence of face to face, letter, and telephone communications in the novel, therefore, illustrates the pressures to assimilate to the latest mode of information, even if it means giving up a deeply held investment in the representational theory of language, correspondence theory of truth, and depth model of the bourgeois subject: the very nature of reality has changed, and insofar as it is realist this novel charts that change.
The imbrication of face-to-face, print, and electronic media plays out through two climactic passages in the novel. In the first book of the novel, the belief in the truth of the letter, in contrast to the corrective speed of telephony, makes possible one of Lily’s critical slip-ups, and contributes to her fall. In the second book, the truth of the letter, information fixed and justified by actual letters, seems to be the thing that will exonerate Lily, and yet she cannot bring herself to treat the letters informationally, as blackmail to clear her name. The order is crucial for showing why in the second instance the letter fails, just as it did the first time. In the mode of information, letters can no longer act as guarantees, corresponding word and object, but must function in electronic stream as information, with its own performative power.
Over the course of the first book of the novel, Lily becomes a subject of information, an unstable node in constantly shifting relations of power. She initiates this transformation herself when she strives to use information to solidify her position. Strapped for cash, and unable to go to a broker herself, Lily had asked Gus Trenor to invest her money for her on the stock "tips" he was getting. He supplied her with nine thousand dollars on the pretext of her success, which only much later does she realize is simply a pretext. Lily had unwittingly slid into a compromising indebtedness to her friend Judy's husband, an indebtedness that is as much informational as financial.
Having given her the money, Gus leverages something in return. The circulation of money from Gus to Lily is accompanied by the circulation of information in a broader social economy, not only in terms of Gus's expectations for how Lily will reciprocate but for also in terms of how Lily herself is interpreted by society. Gus pressures her to spend time with him, leading to rumors that link her with him—not only by flirtation, but, as her cousin Grace Stepney maliciously puts it to their aunt, "People say that Gus Trenor pays her bills" (131). With this information conveyed to her aunt, who controls what Lily stands to inherit, Lily is thus poised to lose her position, unaware of alternative interpretations and competing definitions of her actions. Rather than embrace and redirect the informational flow into which she has tumbled and turn it to her advantage, Lily becomes invested in returning to a single meaning, a fixed truth of her innocence that, once asserted, can clear her name and reinstate her prelapsarian wholeness.
Wired communications technology decisively intervenes to tip the balance of this delicate narrative equilibrium. That crucial morning, Lily awakens to find herself with two notes, one from Lawrence Selden announcing he had been called to Albany on business and asking when he could see her the next day, and one from Judy Trenor, announcing she would be coming through town that evening and would Lily like to dine with her. She responds to both, posting a telegraphically brief note to Selden and a telegram to Judy, deferring her meeting with her until after a dinner party that evening. When she does arrive at the Trenors' town house, she finds no Judy but only Gus, wanting both "to know just where you and I stand," and to make her pay for having him think she was after him (146). Although Gus presses his salacious case, Lily successfully stands him down and tries to leave the house in proper form, hoping no one has seen her lest she be further implicated with him.
The circumstances of book one’s climax pit modes of communication against each other in the representation of the truth: can it be communicated directly and transparently through correct alignment of stable facts (as a mimetic theory of language suggests) or must it emerge through contradictions and competing interpretations (as the informational signal mode's processes require)? The deceptive summons to the Trenors' is facilitated by the differences in particular modes of communication. Judy's note goes directly to Lily, and indeed Lily perceives this as a welcome and direct communication after being snubbed earlier (141). Judy's change of mind, however, puts the message in Gus's hands, as she relies phoning him rather than the telephoneless Lily with the news (145). While the letter and the telegram are structurally on par, the telephone clearly introduces a distinction. The line of privilege between having a telephone or not determines insiders and outsiders, for Gus is not the only one with a phone. Judy's remaining away from town was established at the very soiree Lily had left, as one of the party remarked that "Judy telephoned me from Bellomont this evening" (159). Hearing this disturbs Selden, who had arrived late at the dinner in search of Lily. His thoughts dwell on the note he had received from her earlier that day, and he determines to follow her. Coincidentally, Selden and another of their set arrived at the corner by the Trenors' house just at the moment when Lily emerged. Selden's companion coughs and suggests they say nothing of it, that the scene is too liable to mistaken interpretation. The literal truth of the companion’s statement about misinterpretation is unheeded as informational interpretation, the suggestion that there is something to overlook, takes precedence. Selden’s shock at seeing Lily emergence from the Trenors' house knowing of Judy’s absence, and his discomfiture that this was witnessed by another party, sends him packing—quite literally. Selden not only puts off his errand to see Lily but soon after quits the country in order to try to forget her and how she betrayed his love. This encounter emphasizes how even face to face exchanges are structured by the indeterminacies of informationality and illustrates how despite being embedded in the telephonic circuit, Selden, too, has not transitioned from the singular interpretation and transparent truth of a nominalist mode, unable to countenance competing interpretations that the informational economy presents.
The network of exchanges here are marked by competing orders of desire and temporality—who wants what, when do they want it, but also how fast can they communicate it, or how committed are they to what they have said? The narrative changes its focalization from Lily in the thirteenth chapter to Lawrence in the fourteenth as if to emphasize this contrariety. The telephone calls mark an immediacy of desire, a projection of the future, but also an open a space for contradiction or change of plans. Judy is not coming to town, deferring her desire until another time. The telephone affords her the opportunity for a sudden change of mind. If Judy is not in town, her absence opens up a space for her husband's competing desire to seek its aim. But his wife's absence alone does not enable the forward-looking Gus to seize the chance to requite Lily for obstructing their exchange. Rather, the gap between the letter and the phone call lets Gus give the letter the lie and reassert his own desire in the communication exchange. On this view, Lily's lack of a telephone may not be incidental to her lack of spontaneous and direct expression of her desire. She moves socially at a fixed, even ancient pace, the speed of letters rather than phone calls.
By contrast, then, the letters' temporal lag marks a fixation on a moment gone by, an emphasis on the past rather than the present. Lily's reliance on letters affords no opportunity for the quicker changes of plans that Judy's social pace presumes. Selden's musing over Lily's response is likewise a backwards glance, not only because it is later shown to be nostalgic, a burgeoning romance truncated by the shock of recognizing her leaving the Trenors', but also because his perspective is related to the reader in the chapter after Lily's encounter with Gus, so everything we see through his experience of the events already resonates with what we know of her perceptions. Judy's letter too marks a view to the past, though a more distant one, since her direct communication and desire to see Lily resumes a friendship established at the very beginning of the novel but which had recently been suspended. In its attachment to the past, the letter enacts a nostalgic tribute to Lily's friendship with Judy, her reputation before her standing became compromised by rumors of her association with Gus, and the mode of communication itself.10
Lily is constantly recontextualized—thus fortifying the novel’s commitment to the dynamics of information flow—and yet this reframing never enables her to unsnarl her lines of communication because she perceives only constancy. Telephone and telegraph technologies confound the traditional, cadastral organization of space and time, translating one almost synesthetically into the terms of the other. To those on the line, as Selden or the Trenors are, this telephonic disruption is overlooked, or even viewed as advantageous to convenience of getting things done. But for those off line, as Lily is, this reorganization of time and space will absolutely trip them up, and they will not even realize how the remapping will impel them either to become if not a party on the line then part of the line itself.
The climactic triangulations of misdirected communication close with what is telegraphed to Selden in seeing Lily leave the Trenors.' Here the disruption occurs in the presence of another, rather than over distance with the letter, telephone, or telegraph. Yet here too distance is a paradoxical measurement, as if person-to-person contact has been disarrayed by wired communications. Selden's misunderstanding of Lily's relation to the Trenors is based not on what was said between the two parties, but how it was informed by context, by the "buzz" around the conditions of speaking, the rumors of Trenor's association with Lily. In short, Selden's reading of Lily clinches her status as an information subject, for he rejects what he knows of her directly and personally—her having visited men at home before, namely himself, without that intercourse being anything more than social—as well as his own desire for what he wants her to be, in favor of an understanding of her based on the crisscrossings of wired communications, on what is telegraphed by society. Lily has been discursively overdetermined, and Lily's informationality keeps her in play, socially.
The first book of the novel ends with a chapter from Lily's perspective, with Selden's silence towards her after this incident. That we remain subjectively with Lily at this point goes against the grain of her increasing informationality and instability, though it offers a certain symmetry given that the book commenced by observing Lily from Selden's perspective. The alignment of our focalization with Lily, however, also proffers the hope that she will recover from her informational inscription and regain a bourgeois subjectivity--the agency to acknowledge and act upon her own desire, the power to exercise her social will, and the social position to underwrite this control. This optimism is inextricable from the possibility that the technology of letter writing will save rather than condemn her. When, due to mistaken identity in Book II, she comes into receipt of her rival Bertha Dorset’s love letters, we can only hope that Lily will recognize the letters’ informational power and deploy them to clear her name in the social media of the smart set.
II. It may be curious that the overtly telephonic section comes first, before the section relying on written evidence—an anti-deconstructionist placement of speech before writing. But this ordering is crucial, for the decisiveness of the telephone's privilege—its reworking the connections among people, its reconfiguring temporality and spatiality, its redistricting the public and private, for example—needs to be established in order to understand Lily's failure to wield the letter. Disinherited by her aunt on rumors of her association with Gus Trenor, Lily’s material position in society is jeopardized. Instead of clearing her name, Lily doubles down, traveling to Europe with Bertha and George Dorset, where she serves as cover for Bertha’s affair, but in a way that further compromises her own reputation when she is left alone with George. Lily has lost the human connections of Judy's friendship, her aunt's patronage, and Lawrence's marriage-interest, and with them the capacity to act on her own behalf or participate fully in her social world. The question Book II raises is whether this is a failure for her as a protagonist, an idealistic woman defeated by economic circumstance, or a failure that is a larger symptom of the shift to the informational context and its complications of the mode of exchange. Book II reaches beyond Lily's particular position to examine the broader implications of her loss: she is not simply a fallen woman, but the scapegoat who serves as a target for displaced anxieties about social and technological change. Acknowledging and repudiating her as the informational subject enables others to disavow their own informational precariousness.
The ordering of the novel allows the decisiveness of the telephone's privilege—its reworking the connections among people, its reconfiguring temporality and spatiality, its redistricting the public and private, for example—to be established before we can understand Lily's failure to wield the letter. The question Book II raises is whether this is a failure for her as a subject, or a failure that is a larger symptom of the shift to the informational context and its complications of the mode of exchange.
The shift to informational economy may disempower Lily but it emboldens other informational subjects—including Simon Rosedale, a successful Jewish stockbroker looking to make a socially auspicious marriage by offering his hand to Lily at the end of Book I. She defers him, hopeful that Selden would be calling on her (unaware as yet that his seeing her leaving the Trenors had caused him to flee) and fearful primarily of the information Rosedale has on her: her "secret voice . . . warned her that she must not quarrel with him. He knew too much about her, and even at the moment when it was essential that he show himself at his best, he did not scruple to let her see how much he knew” (177). Yet Lily seems remarkably insensible to the power Rosedale’s informational position affords him, precisely because the economic base is shifting towards information. His visit offers the first intimation that the problem of the informational subject requires understanding transformations of the larger social field. His offer of marriage will haunt the plot, as a second spectre of how things might have turned out differently had Lily embraced informational subjectivity.
Failing to recognize the possibilities of her new role as information broker, Lily fails to see the tenuousness of her own subjectivity and the potential consequences of living in an informational world. Coming into possession of the adulterous love letters of Bertha Dorset offers Lily the opportunity to redress the informational wrongs of Book I. Moreover, because these letters are material evidence of Bertha’s infidelity instead of ephemeral telephone conversation, they seem all the more likely to persuade, at least to readers who, like Lily, might hope their investment in the letter would pay off. The letters, however, must be deployed informationally—either privately to blackmail Bertha or publicly to pass along to George for leverage to divorce Bertha. With such evidence, Lily could marry the newly single George, or, were she to use the evidence to preserve the Dorsets' marriage and blackmail Bertha into reconciliation and aiding her own social reinstatement, Lily could marry Rosedale. Yet Lily is unable to employ the agency of these letters
What finally suggests the truth in House of Mirth is not the letter but the check--and even that is shown to have its limits of stable meaning. A check directly manifests only the sum to be paid to a party; its significance or reason must be deduced from context, and that deduction is necessarily incomplete. A check is only a signal communication, instrumental and informational, not mimetic. Reading the check puts a check on how we read the letter, enjoining us to read the circulation of the letter informationally, as a signifier for what it purports to guarantee. When Selden arrives at Lily's rooms the morning after her overdose, he finds in the papers she left behind traces of her desire.11 At first, he is struck by her having addressed a letter to Gus Trenor; it provokes all the associations he had felt at the conclusion of the first book and makes him question again her love for him. But going through the papers in her desk, he finds the note that he had written her at the end of Book I, asking when he could meet her. That in itself is not enough to entirely dissuade his re-aroused suspicions of Trenor, though it does force him to confront his own cowardice. Not until he goes through her bank ledger and finds a check of a substantial sum made out to Trenor does he realize the limits of his understanding, the possibility not of grasping the truth, but of finally knowing. "It was true, then, that she had taken money from Trenor; but true, also, that the obligation had been intolerable to her," Selden realizes. But the text admonishes that "that was all he knew, all he could hope to unravel of the mystery" (329). The check cannot offer the full story, but must rely on context and other bits of information to fill it out. More so than the in-person sighting of book I, the check operates as signal rather than mimetically truthful representation.
But truth, it turns out, is not the aim of the story. Ultimately, neither the letter nor the check can gainsay the truth that will enable desire to find its connection, and here The House of Mirth’s telephonophilia emerges most clearly. Selden must come to an understanding beyond the intervention of these modes of information. The final sentence puts into relief the lack inscribed by the intervention of the telephone in the cultural scene. "He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made it all clear" (329). The aim is clarity, not truth. Clarity, however, is a feature of the signal, an informational element, the quality of connection over a telephone line. Clarity had seemed an impediment to truth--for it was clear that Lily had left Trenor's house that decisive night; it was clear she had returned alone with George Dorset from their fateful excursion; it was even clear that as a result of the news of these incidents she had been disinherited.
The word referred to in the final clause is both the last word Lily considered before she fell into her final sleep ("there was something she must tell Selden, some word she had found that would make life clear between them" ), and the word that propelled Selden that morning to Lily's room ("he had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wait a moment to be said" ). This is clearly a spoken word, not a written word; the distinction marks a change in registers, from the failures of the letter to the effectiveness of the telephone, the medium of the spoken word; and from the representational economy of the letter (in the larger sense of the written word) to the informational economy of the signifier. Yet at the end of the novel, the telephone is not yet in place, its effectiveness forestalled as the facilitator of communication and consummation. Its minor presence in the novel hints at its potential. We might go so far as to observe that but for want of the telephone, Selden and Lily might have lived happily ever after; for in their passionate grip of the word that veers them off their habitual path, one or the other might have phoned in the middle of the night to say the word. Instead, Selden is left at Lily's bedside, communicating his word to her across the vale of death; a communication that is both out of reach of our technology, and reminiscent of the uses to which Clifford Pyncheon wanted to put teletechnology to communicate with the dead.12 The absence of the telephone at the end of the novel, however, serves not to tantalize us with how else the story might have ended, but rather to define the need, the void, that incites the teletechnological drive.
That the destabilization of the subject is intimately correlated to the destabilization of meaning is not a surprising revelation after poststructuralist critics have demonstrated how the very categories that hold such a subject in place also structure the system of representation that organizes our relation to truth.13 But the important lesson here is how the connection plays out between this destabilized subject, contingent truth, and information technologies.14 By focalizing so much of the narrative through Lily or her primary love interest, Lawrence Selden, The House of Mirth sets up a tension between competing modes of truth: informational power or mimetic revelation. The truth that will enable Lily to overcome her subjugation by a rival adept in the informational technology of public knowledge cannot be elicited by simply biding one's time and felling with a single, revelatory stroke, as the spectre of her confession to Selden would seem to do. Ultimately, Lily must act to reveal the truth, or at least obtain what she desires, through wielding her own informational power--and ultimately, she cannot, for the truth is too imbricated in informational mode of language to be revealed and returned to a mimetic representational economy, and half truths will only implicate her deeper in the reputational mire she is in. However much we may be tantalized by potential plot openings to think otherwise, in The House of Mirth there is no moment where truth can be revealed through a simple reversal such as that which resolves the tensions in, say, the House of the Seven Gables. In this distinction from the earlier novel, this House commits itself to an aesthetic of what might be called informational realism, a depiction that eschews the gothic or spiritualist resonances with which nineteenth-century culture greeted telecommunications technology.15 Death does not enable new masters to control the technology of public knowledge, but simply brings the subjects of this technology to the brink of recognition of their own domination by this network. Moreover, in this instance, even death does not so much reveal truth as enable an acknowledgement of love and lack, but it is an acknowledgement that arrives too late.
III. A different negotiation of the potential failures of the devolution of inheritance transpires in Gaddis's novel J R, which more fully explores the misdirections of inheritance through the informational subjects' varying successes at operating. Of the multiple characters whom we follow in the novel, few achieve any more satisfying narrative closure than Lily Bart. In fact, to the extent that, with one exception, main characters do not die or marry, there is no conventional closure here—and that is quite its point, as an informational novel. J R maps out a competing field of informational subjects and exchanges and transforms the literary category of the character. Where The House of Mirth crucially features the telephone as it takes account of a range of competing communications technologies, J R's entire structure is based on the telephone. The very success of the eponymous character—an eleven year-old boy who puts together a multimillion-dollar corporate conglomerate over the telephone—relies on the phone, which conceals his youth. In its plot and theme as well as its underlying theory of language, J R is the one of the most thoroughly telephonic novels ever published.
This 726-page novel averages one telephone reference every four pages. But more than content, the form of this novel is telephonic. Entire passages of one-sided telephone conversation, running as long as four pages, are the most obvious examples of this novel's formal telephonicity, but, more importantly, the reader's perceptions of the characters, events, plot—all the fundamental narrative elements—are telephonically structured. In lieu of conventional focalization we have overheard conversations; there is no longer the illusion of psychological depth through interiority as we rely on the exteriorization of being on the line. The sequence of events, moreover, relies on contiguity—for instance, the segue from one plotline to another occurs only as characters or phone lines cross in diegetic space.
Like the telephone itself, which struggled for decades to realize videocalling for the masses, this novel resists the visual. We never have a full view of anyone or anywhere, even in the few passages that are not dialogue but unspoken description. Most of what description there is in the narrative emerges in dialogue but there are passages of lyrical narrations that rely heavily on poetic syntax and figurative language, particularly synecdoche and prosopopoeia, rendering the context nearly indecipherable though nonetheless quite moving. In this, J R offers a counterpoint to The House of Mirth’s crucial reliance on the gaze, on a visual economy as a complement to the verbal economy, where both threads contribute to the informational economy. In that sense, J R’s fullblown commitment to telephony might render its informationality more retro than the earlier novel’s.
Take, for example, the following passage describing Edward Bast trying to write music in the overwhelmingly cluttered 96th St. apartment without being bothered by Rhoda, who's also, randomly, camping out there. It is a rare descriptive pause in an otherwise dialogically saturated novel:
And he turned with it from her reach that gaped the open shirt to find a pen and spread the scribbled sheet of score, settled on Hoppin' with Flavor! licking the pen nib bent over the empty staves where his pen came down pausing, arching, blacking in, pausing as his face drew closer the lips parted, meeting, parting on bleats of sound gone in mere breath and the pen stopped as toes approached the score along the spine of Thomas Register of Manufacturers and clung with a prehensile twinge at plunk... plunka plunk... (551).
This passage illustrates how telephony pervades even the non-dialogic passages, through, in this case, the reliance on the telephonic trope of synecdoche—telephonic, because we substitute the narrow bandwidth of voice for the whole person. Though the depiction relies on language’s power to visualize, the tactile appeal of the scene constantly diverts us from a purely visual sense, which is, insofar as it is there, tightly focused as if through a keyhole (again, a synecdochic gesture). The words on the box, Hoppin with Flavor!, substitute for a description of the box itself, which is used as seating in the cluttered apartment; or toes approaching the score along the book spine synecdochally signal Rhoda's coming over to Edward (represented metonymically by "score"). This substitution is a motivated connection, one that seems to exist even outside of language, heightening the sense of realism (since Rhoda's toes actually would be proximate to the spine of the Thomas Register volume lying on the floor as she stands next to Edward, regardless of how they are described).
Synecdoche might seem to be a purer or more direct form of linguistic expression, untainted by the looseness of a figure of speech and the multiple associations that, say, metaphor presents in its substitutive gesture. And yet despite the clarity of synecdoche's—and even metonymy's—connection, these descriptive passages require readers to re-traverse them, simply to decipher what they depict. Despite metonymy’s being the trope of realism (as Lyn Hejinian has posited) it gives us here a less immediately vivid picture of the diegetic world than the telephone conversations we overhear. By contrast, the novel's telephonic communications seem to be more direct, present, and unmediated, as if following our intuitive or experiential sense that the telephone offers a purer and closer form of connection than letter, telegram, or email. The synchronic presence of the other person on line—even in the synecdochal substitution of the aural/oral for immediate physical presence—offers the dimensions of tone, breathing, background noise, etc, that minutely shape the meaning of the conversational exchange. The telephonic narration of the novel similarly relies on institutional context, idiosyncractic speech or verbal tics, to convey that ultra-linguistic dimension.16
With such an extensive reliance on dialogue, it would seem that the novel would offer a direct vantage on events, but its telephonic nature means that the narrative emphasizes reportage and indirect communication of key information even more so than a conventionally narrated text. We only see, for instance, J R's assembling of his corporate conglomerate through his post hoc conversations with Bast, who reluctantly serves as his go-between, or through comments the over-involved public relations executive, David Davidoff, makes to business associates and clients, or speculations Typhon CEO Gov. Cates and corporate lawyer, Beaton, make as they take over J R Corporation in receivership. It is this filtered view that makes the novel so particularly telephonic; you're not there, but you're nearly there, disavowing the distance from being there.
Where House of Mirth reaches its critical turning point in the aunt’s will, J R opens with the settling of an estate, specifically the efforts of a small, family-owned-company lawyer, Coen, to settle the estate of one Thomas Bast, who died intestate and whose shares in the privately held family firm General Roll Co. would give his heir the controlling interest in the company. From this Astoria, Long Island-based company and the Long Island home of two ancient spinster aunts, the narrative sprawls into a local school, homes of school teachers, the Long Island Railroad, a multinational corporation based in lower Manhattan, midtown and uptown apartments, various men's rooms, and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Waldorf hotel. Of more than 60 characters, eight might be considered primary and ten more secondary, which makes following the plot by the usual identification with a singular protagonist much more difficult. J R himself does not show up until p. 31, unnamed, a boy with a newspaper glancing through office glass at a child snapping open and shut a coin purse. His second appearance, when Edward Bast apprehends him in the school office on p. 35, finds him working the phones until Bast hauls him into a rehearsal for Wagner's Ring, where J R makes off with the cash his class has raised to "buy a share of America" in Diamond Cable Co. stock, a subsidiary of Typhon International which makes, among other things, telephone cable.
J R's confiscation of the sack encapsulates the appropriation of language, wealth, and power thematized in the novel, issues over which Wharton's characters likewise struggled. But the conflict between truth and semblance, or signal and mimetic representation, or correspondence and interpretation, takes on new twists in Gaddis's hands. For instance, at the Wagner rehearsal the Rhinemaidens, impatient with not having stage Rhinegold, borrow Mrs. Joubert's class's sack of coins which Bast has in his keeping, in order to have "real money so we can really pretend" (36). It's as if some fetish of the real must guarantee semblance, but here, instead of grounding the performance /or fiction in truth, the "realness" merely intensifies the fiction, furthers the abyss of signifiers. When J R makes off with that real bag of coins, it is as if, more than the cash, his theft has undermined the power of nominalism to mean what it says, unloosing the play of contingent and associative signification that marks the mode of information.
At the same time, this expropriation sets up a nice intertextual parallel. As Susan Strehle notes, Wagner's opera starts "with the dwarf Alberich's theft of the Rhinegold, and ends when the ring made from the gold is restored to the Rhinemaidens" (124). Although she does not pursue the intertextual implications of this beyond charting the role of cycles in her incisive reading of temporality in this text, the resolution of the novel—or the very determination of whether this sprawling narrative indeed has resolution—relies upon this parallel. For if J R steals the fictional gold to create a real paper empire—which he does, by threatening Diamond Cable with a minority stockholder's suit and thereby leveraging from Davidoff the cash to start buying other holdings—the ring that is made from the gold—the corporate acquisitions, subsidiary holdings, suits, and other interconnections of J R Corporation to Typhon and General Roll—is restored to the Rhinemaidens. These turn out to be not the "crass, uninnocent, and avaricious" (124) schoolgirls, as Strehle describes the cast of the school's production, but rather the adult women Amy Joubert (in the end, Amy Cutler) and Stella Angel, who gain control of their respective family businesses, each of which has tangled with J R Corporation. As characters relatively at the margins of the narrative (which focuses so much on men), their success should not be surprising in an informational world, where decentralization is the structural paradigm. The competing emergent social centers of Wharton’s world have in Gaddis’s fully devolved into diffuse and labile networks of power.
Like Lily Bart, J R is framed by the phone and postal systems, both of which he employs for his empire building; notably, his first encounter with Bast is at, rather than over, the telephone. Like Lawrence Selden, J R has no qualms about wielding these systems. Depicted early on as a small boy nearly overwhelmed by the pile of junk mail he's carrying, J R explains that it's all "Just things where you can send away, you know?" (59). He builds his conglomerate on junk—junk mail, junk bonds and series B debentures, plastic flowers, and throwaway towns that no one else wants to invest in—all of which he has, in effect, sent away for. He seems to follow the pattern more of Lily Bart, being formed and informed by competing communications networks. Yet where Lily Bart was clearly on the side of the letter, J R is deeply imbricated with the phone and its possibilities for fiction and exchange. Loss, however, remains their common denominator. J R is as obsessed with loss, tax write-offs, debts, as he is busy trading one asset for another, a pension fund for a health plan. Moreover, the connections he makes—among a textile mill, mining claims, international shipping company, women's magazine, brewery, funeral home chain, and textbook publisher—are as complicated and far-fetched as those among the characters themselves.
As a counterpoint to J R, the novel also tracks the hapless Edward Bast, whose sincere investment in his own realness—as opposed to J R’s investment in strategic fictionality and the letter of the law—is undercut by the fact that he appears often only in transmission, as in the smudged newsprint photograph which seems to render him to the racist eyes of Zona Selk as a Black man. When we see him most directly, it is at his least effective—for instance, complaining to J R on the phone about being shuttled around the country on a bus, or feverishly collapsing into incoherence in lawyer Coen's car. Both of these instances position Bast as the exchangee—subject to exchange, like Lily Bart, rather than the operator of the exchange like J R. In the first instance he is on a corporate mission, putting a face on the corporation that is taking over the pension fund of the company and thus manifesting the corporation's agency, and in the latter case he is assembling fragments of J R's own speech, dissolving from action, intention, and content to pure language, chains of signifiers and patterns of enunciation. In both instances, Bast is more the informational subject than the operational agent; his ineffective embodiment contrasts with J R's disembodied efficacy, as he cannot seem to extract himself from J R's manipulations, but only falls deeper into debt, both fiscally and figuratively (constantly needing more money, but also constantly taking on more jobs—from writing a score for a vanity hunting film to monitoring radio songs to ensure royalties are paid).
Edward Bast is perhaps the most a-telephonic or tragically telephonic of Gaddis's informational subjects, and thus arguably the one most like Lily Bart. That he's the object of the inheritance question which frames the book only reinforces his similarity to Lily (that their last names are only one letter off from each other is a merely coincidental confirmation). As with Lily, the relation to the inheritance is through a parent's sibling, although unlike Lily, there is some question as to the legitimacy of Edward's birth and who precisely is his father, James the exiled composer or Thomas the deceased, both of whom his mother had been involved with before his birth. Bart and Bast, however, hold expectations around which their identities are shaped that only come from their lineage: Lily's rightful place as a debutante in New York Society living the beautiful life parallels Edward's rightful place as a composer/musician creating the beautiful work. Neither one, however, can unquestionably maintain their hold on this position or quite achieve the expectation set out by their line of descent because of the onslaught of information, which entraps them in different ways. And where Lily ultimately fails to accede to her inheritance in lieu of her cousin, Edward cedes his inheritance of the General Roll shares to his cousin, Stella.17
With Gaddis’s novel, however, not just an eponymous protagonist or his counterpart but all of the characters are informational subjects, contingently constructed on promises, debts, rumor, and media representation. While Bast exemplifies the resistant informational subject, the quintessential example of the positive informational subject is Grynzspan. He’s only a name that novelist Tom Eigen and would-be writer Jack Gibbs made up in college but by novel's end has everyone from corporate headhunters, to the IRS and the Connecticut Highway department seeking him out. The great thing about this novel is that it's hard to tell the difference between Grynzspan and any other character, since so many characters are defined only by other people talking about what they did. How do we know a telephonic subject is real, when it's only a voice at the end of a line? It’s the Turing test put into fictional play. This difficulty points to the notion that there may well be no difference, despite Grynzspan’s being purely discursive, a convenient masquerade for Jack or Tom to appropriate. Grynzspan gets mail, bills, phone calls; he wins money at the track, instructs filmmakers, lawyers, and brokers on strategies for running their business—in fact, he's better at it than they are, which is why he's targeted by the headhunters.
If there's little distinction between Grynzspan and the other characters whom we might want to privilege as more "real", this is not due to the flatness of the characters' presentation. Although their very representation is so restricted by conventional narrative standards, without much physical description or narrator commentary that usually fills in information beyond what the characters say, it is actually quite rich in telephonic terms. O'Donnell aptly describes J R's existence as "a kind of talking switchboard" (165), but he is not the only one thus appointed. David Davidoff, the corporate PR guy, is similarly situated in his own flurry of language, rattling off to a caller on one hand and dictating to a secretary on another (plagiarized from elsewhere in the novel). As with J R, Davidoff's words set things in motion, although also like J R, the catalyzed action never quite achieves what was intended nor remains under his control. Edward Bast, by contrast, as J R's business representative, might seem to be more actual than either Grynzspan (whose capacity to act is hampered by his fictionality) or J R (whose capacity to act is hampered by his juniority, which he conceals behind the telephone), but his efficacy is restricted by J R's own business dealings. Protesting J R's reversal on a previous promise Bast complains "I gave them my word..."
If Bast's forced retreat from his word corresponds to his plot-driven retreat from the piano which echoes his conceding his shares from the piano roll company, it also invites a parallel to the romantic image of the artist retreating from the world—figured now as the telephone network.18 Yet while Bast might be construed as going offline, in fact his last line shows he realizes the connection that has to be made "until the performer hears what I hear and can make other people hear what he hears it's just trash isn't it" (725). The telephone is one technology for this realization, but music is another. Bast is not eschewing the telephonic connection so much as investing wholeheartedly in making it work in a different medium; his technology is less fiber optics or copper cable than paper, wood, and wire. The thematic issue of the artist, then, through Bast's coming to terms with immanent practice rather than transcendent striving, transmutes into the telephonicity that structures the novel. Bast accedes to the immanence of informational realism.
Thus, if the novel is named after J R it may well be simply because his representation is most evidently telephonic; his eponymity is our cue to read the others as equally telephonically represented, constituted through speech over the wire or page through a whole network of connections.19 Indeed, we should question the idea that the novel centers on J R, precisely insofar as this notion relies upon a presumption of the center that the telephonic narrative radically reworks. This question brings us back to exchange, which in its telephonic form facilitates indeterminacy in connections and makes possible an open system rather than a closed circuit. Multiple centers—dispersed exchanges—structure but then also de-structure connections as they proliferate. The more nodes there are, the more possible paths for information to travel; the fewer nodes the narrower the possibilities and the more certain the trajectory. Certainly J R's business exchanges are critical to the novel's trajectory, but while he is nominally running his corporate conglomerate he is not in control of the whole show. Even Gov. Cates, whose gubernatorial honorific suggests a cybernetic form of control that his position as Typhon Inc.'s head might corroborate as the most powerful character in the novel,20 cannot maintain his hold in the face of Amy Joubert's accession to power at the novel’s end through her consolidating a majority stake in Typhon. Her efficacy, like J R's, is only indirectly represented, but, like J R's reputation, it also generates fictions that operate beyond her immediate agency. We might even say that she follows J R's model of receding into fiction in order to become more efficacious.
If J R is a fiction, a composite instigated by a small boy whose postal efficiency is augmented by a telephone booth installed in his school, a Manhattan cafeteria worker posted as a secretary, and a music teacher dispatched as a company representative, this plays nicely off the fact that J R is a fiction; the novel’s realism derives from the network of relations that it maps, a network whose nodes are defined only differentially, through the particularities—even idiosyncrasies—of speech. For instance, to return to the archetypal informational subject, Grynzspan, the novel’s own inside joke about him as a conglomerate also redounds upon Cates: like Grynzspan, the governor is shown to be not a coherent, self-sufficient subject but a composite of "somebody else's ears those corneal transplants God knows whose eyes he's looking through, windup toy with a tin heart he'll end up with a dog's brain and some nigger's kidneys why can't I take him to court have him declared nonexistent, null void nonexistent why can't I Beaton" as his companion Zona spitefully complains to the Typhon lawyer Beaton (708). The cracks in the absoluteness of even the most powerful individual's capacity to act show up in Beaton’s trailing-off response, reinforcing the informational mode of subjectivity as always already a corporate and legal fiction.
As fictions, the characters' informationality unhinges them from the truth, just as Lily Bart is unhinged. It is tempting to read the novel as an exposition of the failures of capitalist society, as a tragic commentary on capitalism's ravages (seen through the sad consequences of Typhon's and J R Corp's dealings that destroy, among others, an African country, an upstate NY industrial town, several smaller businesses, the environment, and even the school J R attends). But to rely on this entropic reading prevents us from one of the novel's most important lessons; that control is always going to be conserved, even if that means it must change hands.
In J R, control not only changes hands, it changes gender and position. As I mentioned with the Rhinemaidens parallel, it is Amy Joubert who triumphs in this business game at the end, and her triumph tells us something about the telephonic structure of the novel. In a sense, her victory can be seen as a successful inheritance, and in this regard we might view the novel's whole inheritance trajectory as a bait and switch; Edward's inheritance, which readers have been tracking since Coen showed up at the aunts' house on page one, is not the one to be settled, whereas Amy's is almost inadvertantly settled by her deciding, Oedipa Maas-like, to take control. Notably, Amy gains her leverage over Typhon stock through failure—“ her failure to have signed over these last powers of attorney will give her the additional votes of both her brother's and her son's . . . " as Typhon’s lawyer describes it (712).21
Where Wharton's novel loads "failure" with Lily Bart's social descent and eventual death, Gaddis' novel questions any sure binary between success and failure. That Amy Joubert, as she has been know through most of the novel, becomes Mrs. Cutler, with her marriage to Typhon’s D.C. lobbyist, indicates her willingness to play the informational game, to shift identities in a changing economy. Espousing Cutler signals Amy's embrace of the system—she had earlier rejected dating Cutler as akin to "marrying your six percent"—and her willingness to take a position on the affairs of the corporation. Amy’s marriage suggests she realizes Lily’s second-chance plot possibility in marrying the rich informational node Simon Rosedale. But importantly, Amy’s corporate control hinges on her having the votes of her legally minor brother and son, not on her marriage—thus, on her legal capacity to speak for them. Where Lily fails and through failure cannot manage to operate the system of information, Amy's failure catapults her into the very position that allows her to operate through legal fictions of majority and minority.
If the voice is the signature of truth, J R calls telephonic transparency into question, precisely by favoring those who become proficient with a telephonic masquerade, the informational subjects who embrace or even exploit the contingencies of their identity or reputation in order to operate the system. Where House of Mirth inhabited the interstices between a correspondence theory of truth and the misdirections of informational multiplicity, tempting us with the nostalgic possibility of returning to the former, J R eagerly pursues those misdirections through the varying levels of telephonic masquerades, missed connections, and telephonic prestidigitations—or rather more accurately, prestiphonications. In realizing the latent informationality of House of Mirth, J R has given up any claim to truth in favor of pursuing the instabilities of meaning. It embraces a new mode of fictionality, one based on a theory of language as a composite signal. The ascension of Amy Montcrieff Joubert Cutler in the end signals not the triumph of the marriage plot, but the willingness to exchange one fictional identity for another, and to deploy identity for the fictions of exchange.
Where House of Mirth, through its centering on Lily’s commitment to the letter’s mimetic power, puts in tension the range of agencies emerging in the informational world with the conventions of a realist novel, J R presents a decentered mosaic of agencies in the age of telephony and opens up new, more collective, but also more explicitly mediated, narrative forms. The vantage offered in Gaddis’s novel is not the earnest tragedy of Lily Bart's failure to manipulate the information system in her favor, partly because J R’s many protagonists serve as diffuse networks of agency in the ensemble narrative structure. The plural perspective works against our heroic emotional identification with one or two figures. But the diffuse focus alone does not account for the novels’ difference. What House of Mirth begins to articulate, J R embraces: the socially mediated mode of agency that is the signature of the telephonic medium in the age of information, one with certain acknowledged limitations but viewed without prelapsarian nostalgia.
- 1. As Ned Schantz observes, "At the limits of the telephonic imagination, the fantasy of an ideal telephone turns into the fantasy of telepathy" (7).
- 2. Eisenstein, one of the foremost theoreticians of film, draws on both novelist Charles Dickens and filmmaker DW Griffith, for instance, to consider how Soviet cinema’s techniques have evolved from them, and to suggest an inherent cooperation between narrative and montage to engage audiences (eg., Film Form 204).
- 3. Aaron Worth charts the telecommunications circuit in this and two other Wharton novels, persuasively demonstrating the integration of the business perspective into the feminine social sphere; Michael Mayne offers an astute reading of space in this novel as subtending communicative agency.
- 4. Wai-Chee Dimmock's powerful marxist analysis of this novel is particularly remarkable on the point of economies in Mirth, but Lilian Robinson draws similar conclusions about Lily's capital.
- 5. See Paul Virilio's Open Sky, for instance, which argues that our whole temporal and spatial horizon has changed with the advent of global network culture.
- 6. John Brooks notes that "1905 saw the company's greatest one-year growth up to that time" (121), though independent and rural telephone companies were burgeoning in this period as well.
- 7. See Hello Central and America Calling for a discussion of class and telephony.
- 8. This is not the first instance of the telephone’s appearance in the novel, but it is a remarkable tell, as it establishes for readers the possibility of Selden as a mate for Lily. The first mention of the telephone is alongside a mention of the telegraph, with Lily's mother described as cabling to Paris to order dresses or phoning the jeweller to purchase a bracelet (30-31). This incidental mention aligns telephoning another part of town with communicating instantly to another continent, as if they were equally mundane practices, even if available only to the affluent and well-connected, and it underscores both the gendering of the phone and its use for business.
- 9. Aaron Worth notes that different communications technology calibrates to different social status and functions in Wharton’s fictions: “communications technologies are seldom interchangeably used in her fiction, but rather serve as figures suggesting precisely calibrated degrees of mediation, privacy, and importance. Their use may convey distinct levels of social status as well, in addition to varying degrees of complicity in the project of modernity, or connection to the parvenu world of business” (96). In particular Worth singles out how the telephone marks Selden’s modernity and his availability for Judy Trenor to “fine-tune her social mix” (97).
- 10. In addition to this layering of temporalities, communications technologies serve to mediate the characters' relations to space and regulate their access through space. On this view, the letter might seem to function more as a telephone call: the invitation summons Lily to the Trenor's, but the wires are crossed when the summons is recalled. Lily then goes to the Trenors' only to find it is a wrong number, a bad connection. The disparate spaces of Lily's prior engagement of the dinner party and her subsequent engagement at the Trenors are not only brought together through the summons and thwarted call, but through Lawrence's trajectory from one place to another in search of her. The narrative makes the connection between these two places twice, as if serving as a private line between them, reinforcing the remapping of space that telephones enable. The space of the Trenors' country home also haunts these connections but remains significantly disconnected from their city house. The networked, remapped space of New York connects Trenor's city house with their country house via the site of the dinner party, which acts as the local exchange where calls are put through or missed.
- 11. The overdose raises the question of whether Lily did commit suicide, but the text is, like the check, not entirely fixed on this point; it could have been simply an accidental overdose.
- 12. See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables.
- 13. For instance, Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology or Limited Inc, or Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, among many other interrogations of this problematic.
- 14. Contrast with how in The House of the Seven Gables, a paradigmatic telephone novel that lay the groundwork for understanding telephony’s fictional function, the echt informational subject was Judge Pyncheon, patriarch of the Pyncheon family and who governed the family’s informational heritage and ancestral reputation with a deceitful but ironclad stance. In The House of Mirth, the technology of public discourse is fixable and centrally controllable; but in Mirth this informational technology of public knowledge is much more slippery, manifold, and its control by a single subject—even one as comparably well-placed as the Judge is—that much more elusive. See McCallum, “Hawthorne and Pynchon on the Line.”
- 15. Ronell charts the spiritualist dimension of telephony and connects it to Derrida’s idea “hauntology”; Laura Otis’s Networking contrasts this metaphysical interpretation of teletechnology with a neurological realism that is closer to informational realism. See also Mark Goble’s artful readings of telegraphic and telephonic fictions in Beautiful Circuits, which offer a different perspective on the informational aesthetic.
- 16. Patrick O'Donnell rightly points out that these "speakers, for the most part, are located within institutional and communicative confines—the principal's office, the boardroom of the corporate headquarters, a telephone booth—which constrain and define them as the instruments of vast and intersecting bureaucracies" (160), and his observation might be taken to indicate the depiction in this novel of a postmodern or Foucauldian discursive subjectivity, overdetermined by its context. I suggest, however, that this contextual construction—how readers deduce who's speaking not simply by who else is present, on the line or in the office—illustrates the novel's underlying theory of meaning as context- rather than content-driven.
- 17. Note that the Hawthorne narrative's issue of inheritance is also solved through a cousin; Phoebe is a cousin of Judge Pyncheon, so slightly off line, while Matthew is positioned more centrally as Maule's direct descendent.
- 18. Indeed, Edward yields his claim on to his cousin who has viciously confronted him with his uncertain paternity: "this whole frightened romantic nightmare you'd put me into all of it … this fear you haven't inherited James's talent so you'll settle for money that's where it belongs all of it, with your music in the trashbasket all of it" (717).
- 19. The important difference is that presence hinges on speaking up, if not for oneself then at least as someone, rather than being represented by another. This might seem to require us to return to an anti-Derridean privileging of speaking over writing, but in fact what the lesson of deconstruction's attention to language offers us in thinking about telephonic texts is that the features of any linguistic practice bear upon the structure of language as a whole. Telephonic signification, then, is different in important ways from mimetic representation, just as speech is substantially different from writing and these differences challenge conventional habits of language. Telephonic speech is not about presence, but about authenticating, or the last reduction of nominalist content. J R shows how that authentication goes awry.
- 20. As a former Governor, Cates emblematizes a little cyber pun, since "cyber" and "governor" share the same root.
- 21. Although Amy’s brother is the same age as Jack Gibbs, his developmental disability renders him a legal minor whose interests Amy represents, while her son is a legal minor, like J R is.
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E. L. McCallum’s teaching and research at Michigan State University range across feminist and queer theory, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, aesthetics, American literature and film studies. Her most recent book is Queer Times, Queer Becomings, coedited with Mikko Tuhkanen (SUNY 2011); her first book was Object Lessons: How to Do Things with Fetishism. Currently she is completing a monograph on Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans, exploring a range of questions about aesthetics, temporality, emotion, and narrative through the novel. Recent essays have examined the Gothic in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, the verbal photograph in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and montage in Vertov and Faulkner.
© 2013 E. L. McCallum, used by permission