Cryptonomicon: Democracy & Moderation, Conflict & Violence

I’m not going to do a full review, much less a fair and neutral analysis, of Cryptonomicon. The book is large with multiple storylines, one of which involves World War II. The passage that caught my attention, however, comes from the storyline set in the late 1990s when the book was written. Before I get to that passage, let me make note of the worldview of the novel and of the author’s other novels.

I’m going to take a partly critical view on Neal Stephenson’s work or at least aspects therein, but I’m not trying to dismiss his work. I enjoyed Snow Crash, in particular. It felt like a very plausible future in many ways. Stephenson can be a fun writer to read. He is imaginative. So, my purpose here isn’t to do a review of Cryptonomicon or literary criticism of his ouevre. I simply want to use his writing as a way of offering cultural criticism since Stephenson very much seems like a product of our culture. So, I will be narrowly focused in this sense.

I haven’t read all of Stephenson’s books (nor do I want to try). From what others have written, it seems that all of his fiction involves conflict and typically fighting, often outright war. As Al Dimond explains:

Conflict is a theme that runs through every Stephenson novel that I’ve read. That’s a pretty vague theme, you might say. Well, how about this: they’ve all ended in the middle of violent struggle. The corporate wars and virtual swordfights of Snow Crash, global factional fighting in The Diamond Age, small-scale jungle combat in CryptonomiconCryptonomicon‘s story of World War II, its central thesis made explicit in Enoch Root and Randy’s conversations in jail, is the clearest statement that Stephenson basically believes in conflict. He believes that the right side (the progressive side) will eventually win if there is conflict. That without conflict societies lose their sense of what they believe in the first place and can’t progress. Whether or not you believe that what I’m calling progress here is good, this is something that rings true to me: in a world of competitive civilizations, the progressive ones wipe out the others. We always worry that they (we) may wipe out themselves, too, just for the sake of completeness (ha, not really, actually just because we know no other way, or because there’s still enough inequity and thus conflict to keep us fighting and thus progressing). This is a subject that I’ve got to do some reading on, because I’m sure Great Books have been written on the subject.

One could easily conclude that Neal Stephenson, going by his fiction, seems to have little faith in the ideal of social democracy working out its problems without recourse to violence and revolution. There seems to be no overarching socio-political worldview that can encompass the diverse opinions and viewpoints of his characters. Some group apparently has to win and everyone else lose… or else there will be endless fighting and competition between forces. One might say that it is a bit of a Social Darwinian vision. Unsurprisingly, there is a libertarian bent to many of the narratives and characters.

The following is by David Axel Kurtz. This is from the beginning of his post which is a celebration and apologia of this worldview:

In Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, there is nothing more derided than irony. It is seen as the enemy of the artist, an obstacle to creativity, and the antithesis of true production.

If there is a protagonist to Crypto it is Randall Lawrence Waterhouse. He is comparable in many ways to the author of the story. They both came from the American heartland. They both ended up in the Pacific Northwest. They both came of age at the time of the computer’s introduction. They are both highly educated. They are both “white male technocrats.” They are both nerds.

The nerd as hero. I have nothing against that in principle. It is better than Rambo, but Cryptonomicon has both types: the nerd-hero and the soldier-hero. The greatest enemy of all is not taking one’s mission deadly seriously (i.e., irony is bad). No matter which type of hero you are in this world, you have to fight for what you believe in. There is no pacifist-hero of slow, gradual democratic change… for I guess that would make a boring story (and some would say make for a boring ideology)… very few stories, ideologies or products are sold without some drama involved, even if the only drama is the conflict of not having the beautiful woman in the advertisement.

Kurtz identifies the character Randy (Randall) with the author Stephenson. That is something I wondered when I came across the passage where Randy takes on the smug humanities professor G. E. B. Kivistik, a truly pathetic caricature in the tradition of right-wing fear-mongering about the academic liberal elite. What I wanted to know is: Why was the author setting up a straw man for his antagonist to knock down, unless that caricature is genuinely how the author perceives such people? The scenario was a libertarian wet dream. This immediately put my defenses up and made me start to pay closer attention to the story. I’m still not entirely sure where the author comes down on this.

Randy sees himself as self-accomplished and hardworking. He doesn’t see the privilege he has had a white guy born and raised in America. Nor do those inspired by this passage see this. It has become a manifesto of white male victimhood.

Dominic Fox explains this worldview in terms of a “tribal sociology”:

The point to understand here is that Randy is right for a small, local value of “this society”: if you are in a position to participate in the social customs and network of the Dwarves, the path to advancement is indeed to “work hard, educate yourself, and keep your wits about you”. If you are amongst Hobbits, you need to practice quite different virtues. Tribes such as these act as force-multipliers for personal effort (working one’s ass off, something Kivistik has also presumably done in his own way), provided it is directed towards goals that the tribe esteems and is in a position to reward. What is “entrenched” is of course not Randy’s personal position within the tribe to which he is affiliated, but the position of the tribe itself, with its considerable resources of knowledge and power.

The ideological move common to Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age is to displace class analysis (which would have something to say about hierarchy and exploitation, as fundamental operators of the division of the social world) into a “pagan” compartmentalisation of the world into competing tribes, a flat ecology of value-systems whose historical development is governed by something like an evolutionary fitness landscape. This is apparent from Cryptonomicon’s opening metaphor of the “first self-replicating gizmo” as a “stupendous badass”, and progenitor of a tremendous and varied proliferation of badassery throughout the natural and, by metaphorical extension, social world. This compartmentalisation enables Stephenson to range across wildly varied social and moral environments, and gives the Baroque Cycle its bewildering sweep and scope as well as its synoptic power. But it leaves Randy Waterhouse essentially mystified as to the nature of the opportunities available to him, and unable to grasp the Hobbits’ point, rendered as it is in language that seems offensively fatuous and vapid to him, about “false consciousness”.

An even more scathing criticism came from an unknown author of an essay, Retronomicon:

[W]hat’s most striking given recent political events, Cryptonomicon reads now like a lengthy, pulped-up pamphlet from Ron Paul. In its fascination with electronic cash and the gold standard, the book was dated even at the time of writing (remember, Paypal made its debut only a few months after publication, and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley a year later). Like seemingly all libertarian fantasies, there’s a lot of water, boats, and islands involved. Reading it critically, one is struck by the attempt to normalize some pretty wild ideologies, like tying Holocaust prevention to the possession of homemade automatic firearms. Pull back from the engaging spy-counterspy plot for even a second, and the whole thing starts to unravel, particularly since the dot-com bust has put a lot of its present-day speculation to death. Indeed, the WWII sections are still the strongest in the book, if only because they focus on a character who is not A) a self-indulgent technocrat or B) a particularly deep thinker.

But what I remember bothering me even as I read Cryptonomicon for the first time in college, is the dinner-party flashback in which he viciously burns a strawman of liberal arts and academia. In a novel that often goes out of its way to champion nerdiness (particularly the unexplainable romantic plotline, in which the tough-but-beautiful girl seems to fall for the protagonist through a courtship that bears no resemblance to human behavior), the dinner party stands out as a towering triumph of misplaced Mary Sue dialog.

This critic is speaking of that same passage. Further on, s/he gets into the meat of the issue:

Let’s set aside the poor-little-white-male victimhood schtick for a second, since it’s patently transparent. Look at Kivistik’s original question, the one Randy derides so readily: How many onramps will connect the world’s ghettos to the Information Superhighway? If you strip away the metaphor, all he’s asking is “who’s going to make sure the poor can also access the advantages that the Internet brings?” This isn’t some far-fetched academic pretense: it’s a classic question of the Digital Divide. Perhaps a superhighway is indeed a bad metaphor for this, although I think it actually works rather well. But to argue about the highway, instead of connectivity for the poor, is to miss Kivistik’s point entirely.

And in a book written by an honest author, instead of one using his protagonist as a mouthpiece for radical cyber-selfishness, a professor from Yale would point that out. But Cryptonomicon is not that book, sadly. That the author is capable of writing these sentences himself, and then misinterpreting his own words, is a sign of a shocking lack of empathy with his characters. And yet, I get no sense that he’s writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, since the same tone of self-congratulatory geekishness pervades the entire story.

This gives voice to my intuitive response when I initially read the passage in question. It seems the author expects us to take fully seriously this portrayal of academia and its takedown by the idealized nerd-hero outsider. Nonetheless, I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

In the passage, Randy defends himself against the accusation of being a technocrat… worse still, a privileged technocrat. I haven’t done a thorough search about the author’s views on such things, but I did come across an interview where he discusses a technocratic society:

The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the transitions.

[ . . . ] for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would therefore seem that we’re coming to the end of one era and about to move into another. Whether it’s going to be better or worse is difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be “worse.” If I really wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe we’ll get lucky again. In the meantime, efforts to predict the future by extrapolating trends in the world of science and technology are apt to feel a lot less compelling than they might have in 1955.

That seems to offer a clue.

In Cryptonomicon, Randy denies being a technocrat, denies even knowing what that means. The author in this interview, on the other hand, offers a loving portrayal of the technocratic society he was born into. Growing up, Stephenson saw strife and bickering take over our country. Little of the optimism that brought us to the moon was left by the time he was an adult.

Stephenson states that, “It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works”. That is pretty much the opinion of Randy and how he sees the humanities professor. Following this statement, Stephenson also makes a similar statement about the “cultural right”. He is speaking of the culture wars and so the “cultural right” he speaks of is the religious right. However, he separates out the technical class out of this culture war. That is precisely the view of Randy as he sees himself as the outsider. This so-called “technical class” is stereotypically known for its libertarianism and I doubt Stephenson is unaware of this when he makes such statements. He is speaking about a specific group with a specific ideological tendency.

Stephenson seems to have sympathies for the libertarian-minded, but at the same time he sees a broader view:

Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

As he further explains, “Myth of Redemptive Violence, which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated. But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against oppressive power systems of all stripes.” Despite all the conflict and violence in his fiction, he apparently hasn’t embraced this as normative. Still, the fictional worldview being presented is certainly not one of moderation or even any obvious hope for moderation. Stephenson’s stories offer some particular conflict resolved or semi-resolved in a world of conflict, maybe never to be resolved.

Like me, Neal Stephenson was a child of the Cold War. He is of a slightly older generation, a young Boomer. So, he is even more of the Cold War era than I am. That “triangular system” of stability is very much a product of the twentieth century, but when Stephenson spoke in that interview it was several years after the 9/11 terrorist attack and in an entirely new decade following Cryptonomicon. In this new century, conflict and violence has become a lot more personal to Americans. It isn’t about oppressive foreign countries or dystopic futures. We have come to a point where statism, terrorism and libertarianism are being brought to their extremes.

Stephenson explores the world where great heroes go on quests and great men fight for what they seek. Most of us on this teeming planet aren’t great heroes or great men. We are just people trying to get by and hoping for a better world for the next generation. What is everyone else supposed to do while all the great things are happening? Is there any room for democracy to emerge, for grassroots change that doesn’t require conflict and violence?

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