Type of Document Dissertation Author Varela, Julio Armando Author's Email Address firstname.lastname@example.org URN etd-03032004-150920 Title Vortex to Virus, Myth to Meme: The Literary Evolution of Nihilism and Chaos in Modernism and Postmodernism Degree Doctor of Philosophy Department Humanities Program Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title S.E. Gontarski Committee Chair Mark Pietralunga Committee Member Roberto Fernandez Committee Member William Cloonan Committee Member William T. Lhamon, Jr. Committee Member Keywords
- Cultural Evolution
Date of Defense 2004-03-01 Availability unrestricted AbstractThe emergence of nihilism and chaos in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries offers us a case study in how memes work. Memes are bundles of cultural information that display viral properties, sowing the seeds of reality in the individual minds that make up a culture, sub-culture, or counterculture. In the case of nihilism and chaos, the ongoing epistemological and ontological revolution initiated by the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the collapse of myth as a totalizing source of meaning, and the transition from a Newtonian, deterministic worldview to a quantum-relativistic, chaotic worldview transformed the Western cultural landscape, paving the way for the “viral” spread of nihilism and chaos to different intellectual and cultural strata.
The matrix model used in this dissertation provides a fruitful way of approaching cultural dynamics and morphogenesis in general, and the evolution of nihilism and chaos in particular. According to the model, culture evolves when memes (viral bundles of cultural information) flow from the sociocultural matrix (the evolving aggregate of paradigms and epistemes that define a culture) to individual agents (authors and subjects, in this case). Authors and subjects function according to the chaotic model of the self described in chapter one, which defines the self as a radically intersubjective entity that evolves through feedback, renormalization, and “locking in” to a battery of attractor symbols in cognitive phase space. These agents assimilate the memetic material, modify and recombine it with other memes, and incorporate the memetic innovations in the work of art/cultural artifact. The work of art/cultural artifact flows back into the sociocultural matrix and changes it, adding the novel memetic material to the body of cultural codes that make up the matrix.
James Joyce’s Ulysses, Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow serve as focal points in this study because each work represents a critical juncture in the memetic evolution of nihilism and chaos during the modernist and postmodernist periods. Joyce’s novel embodies the “lapidary” modernist aspiration to create the great work of art which serves as an antidote to the turbulence and anomie of the early twentieth century. Beckett’s work occupies that liminal space where late modernism and early postmodernism meet; his preoccupations in Three Novels focus on the insurmountable problems posed by language in representing the subject and the futility of our epistemological quest to understand the self amidst the “spray of phenomena” that surrounds us. Pynchon’s sprawling Gravity’s Rainbow captures that historical moment in time (the end of World War II) when the modernist impulse toward totalizing systems of order and meaning is eclipsed by the postmodern embrace of chaos and semiotic free play.
When we discuss 1904 Dublin, the haunting abode of “The Unnamable,” and Pynchon’s “Zone,” we examine three distinct matrices in which modern and postmodern subjects struggle to find meaning in a topsy-turvy world where the totalizing rationality of the Enlightenment and the redemptive power of classical and Judeo-Christian myth have failed. Lacking a firm epistemological-ontological-moral foundation to serve as an intellectual immune system, modernist and postmodernist subjects prove vulnerable to the encroachment of nihilism and chaos as cultural contagia that mold and shape the evolution of a distinctive stream of consciousness.
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