E. L. Doctorow's "The Waterworks": Knowledge and Cognition in the Early Age of Data Storage

Michael Wutz
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As a contemporary/postmodern novel investigating the vicissitudes of “historical” representation, E. L. Doctorow’s "The Waterworks" (1994) retrospectively stages the building crisis in information processing and knowledge production following a booming American economy after the Civil War. While Doctorow’s late 19th-century literary predecessors were acutely sensitive to the emerging media ecology, esp. the growing fissure between the ethos of journalism and fiction writing and the emergence of new data streams (such as those produced by the typewriter, the gramophone, and the recording technologies of new medical equipment), only a writer looking back on such a medial juncture from the late 20th-century can offer sustained reflections (in, significantly, fictional form) on the continued epistemological role of narrative. In particular, it is through the quixotic figures of a maverick detective (an American version of Sherlock Holmes) and a fictionalizing newspaper editor that Doctorow opens a space that not only interrogates the slippery distinction between knowledge and information in a predominantly empirical culture; he also retraces the cognitive recalibrations of the human mind as effects of an urban data surplus, evident above all in the various forms of personal information processing and the novel’s sustained discourse of the brain.

In the first section of the paper, entitled “Stars at War, or, Data in Gotham,” I aim to show how the novel locates itself thoroughly within the late 19th-century discourse network and how, as the information historian James R. Beniger has argued, the gap between a booming American economy and lagging innovations in processing and communication technologies produced an informational “crisis of control.” As well, this section seeks to map the feedback loop between improved information processing technologies, historical junctures, and their secondary and tertiary effects, as well as the emergence of new disciplinary practices (phrenology, “description-based portraiture,” administrative logistics), and the development of characters as operators in an information-driven culture.

Part two, entitled “Brains, Waves, and Recording Machines,” probes the slippery boundaries which the detective’s hunt for data is unable to engage: what is the difference between data and knowledge, information and wisdom, sanity and insanity, and, finally, what is the place of narrative in a time of exploding data streams? I want to do so by drawing attention to the novel’s sustained rhetoric of skulls and brains (that is part of the cultural imaginary of19th-century America) and, in particular, by offering a close textual/theoretical reading of Dr. Sartorius’ pioneering work on brain research. In their entirety, his contributions read like samples, both actual and visionary, of the work of some of the experimental psychologists of the day (such as Paul Broca, among others) and contemporary clinical technologies (such as electro- encephalography). Part of the larger point of this section is to demonstrate that some of Sartorius’ patients suffer from a form of informational overload which the brain is incapable of handling—a kind of developmental lag between a data surplus and the cognitive malfunctioning of subjects ill equipped to deal with the modern overload of information. As a second point, I suggest that the relay-based cognition underlying any brain mechanics reduces (a Heideggerian form of) human being to binary signal sets that define human agency in terms of electric impulse switches. Much like the disjointed necks and brains in The Waterworks, whose unlinking from the body suggests interrupted circuits, cognitive processing in mechanistic forms severs instantaneous high-speed decision-making from more long-term and wide-ranging ethical considerations. Literary narrative, by contrast, as a traditionally more human and more immediately humanist storage technology, can negotiate such divides and binaries. Fiction, in Doctorow’s view, has the quality of a ruminating and reconstructive retrospectivity to tell its tale. Unlike medical technologies or visual and sound storage, which record immediate physiological effects of the real, narrative can enact a form of, more conventionally (but not necessarily) mimetic, memorization by sorting through, and distilling, real history into a verbal account cognizant of its symbolic artifice.

Section three, “Modularity, Information, Narrative Knowledge,” centers (if time permits) on the (non-physiological) memory function of literature and on the cognitive distance necessary to pre-process and condense history into the limited storage container of a book. To do so, I want to suggest the novel’s numerous thematic and formal parallels between current notions of cognitive modularity and its narrative structure, such as distributed cognition, the production of memory gaps (Daniel Dennett), and the narrator’s role as a narrative processing conduit. McIlvaine’s decentered role as a node for the convergence of parallel narrative strands not only gives him greater responsiveness than a traditional, however sophisticated, consciousness. More importantly, as Ellen Spolsky has noted, distributed cognition allows for the modeling of a “processor that is highly tolerant of error,” much like McIlvaine’s own thinking is, at virtually every step, recalibrated, refined, and thickened, as other narratives are traveling through his neuro-pathways. Similarly, the scatter-brained mode of McIlvaine’s rememorisation—with competing stories morphing and adjusting in interplay with one another—suggests the neural Darwinism of G. Edelman, whereby neural group selection takes place in response to competitive fields of stimuli. Just as McIlvaine evolves a, forever preliminarily final, version of a story that builds on the cumulative gathering of directive evidence, but shuts out numerous others in potentiae, so neuron podding in the brain depends on epigenesis, the often accidental, and hence unpredetermined, adaptation to environmental pressures. Indeed, as Spolsky notes, in view of Edelman’s close attention to the actual physiology of brains, his model contains within itself “a theory of a fragmented, contingent, necessarily opportunistic or pragmatic postmodern consciousness.” Similarly, as if to rehearse the gappy and multiply spatial nature of cognition (as a series of disjointed narrative fractals), Doctorow offers a formal model of meaning making that is akin to the both spaced and spatial modeling of modularity and a model that exceeds the linear thinking of a typographic regime. While the novel thus gestures toward what might be understood as the postprint technologies of memory and inscription (esp, film), Doctorow suggests that narrative spatialization (the “spatial form” of modern literature) appears to be nothing new. Parallel processing, he argues, has long been part and parcel of cognitive, and hence, narrative conventions, and readers of serious fiction have long felt drawn to the nonlinear and multidirectional vectors of literary narrative.

Keywords: Media Theory, Print Narrative, Knowledge & Cognition
Stream: Knowledge and Technology
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Michael Wutz

Professor of English, Department of English
1201 University Circle
Weber State University, USA
Ogden UT 84408-1201, Weber State University


I have a Ph.D. English and American literature from Emory Univeristy (Atlanta, GA), and have been working at Weber State University since 1992. I am a full Professor and the outgoing Distinguished Scholar (2002-05) in the university's College of Humanities. I have published on a wide range of issues, from 19th-century literature to postmodern fiction, on the links between science, technology, and literature, and on narrative and narrative theory; I also have a strong interest in media theory and media-theoretical issues (and, in that context, co-translated theoretical work from the German into English, including Friedrich Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter [Stanford Univ. Press, 1999].

My full cv can be viewed at http://faculty.weber.edu/mwutz

Ref: T06P0263