Contamination Plots!

On bitcoin, DeLillo, and a new vision for the systems novel 

This post starts out with bitcoin and ends with systems novels...stay with me. 

Bitcoin basics

Here are some things I, a novelist, know about Bitcoin, of which I own zero units, and which is now down 50% from its April peak: 1) adding transactions to the blockchain requires so much electricity that adopting it as a global currency poses a not totally insignificant threat to achieving UN emissions targets; 2) adding those transactions to the blockchain is also very slow; 3) if hackers manage to control 51% of the nodes (computers) authorized to authorize blockchain transactions, they can basically co-opt the entire money supply.

Last but not least, though perhaps less widely discussed: it’s an inherently deflationary currency. 

Deflating the bitcoin bubble

A lot of new cryptocurrencies are designed to get around Bitcoin’s problems of speed (slow to add transactions to the blockchain), expense (expensive to add transactions to the blockchain, because computing power and electricity aren’t free), environmental impact (lots of electricity needed to add a transaction to the blockchain!), and security concerns: What happens when someone steals all your money and there’s no FDIC to guarantee a refund? 

The first three roadblocks—speed, expense, environment—are really are byproducts of addressing security concerns. 

That there is no central bank, either to interfere with the supply of bitcoins or to insure your investments if someone steals them, is basically the founding, decentralizing tenet of crypto.  

Which is maybe why fewer bitcoin alternatives aim to address long-term problems of deflation. Inflation and deflation are big concerns for central banking and Keynesian types, not so much for futurism or crypto types. In fact the idea that crypto is inherently “deflationary” precipitates only from applying the conventional logic of monetary policy to it: the fact that crypto founders have set a maximum number of coins that will ever be minted means that were we ever to treat bitcoin as an actual currency, the amount of goods and services for sale would continue to rise while the money supply remains fixed. This is really different from the way modern, fiat-flush economies operate. 

For example, think about what might happen if we capped the amount of dollars in circulation to, say, 20.1 trillion, which is about what the money supply was in April. From today forward, the amount of goods and services for sale will expand, while the number of dollars (money supply) will stay fixed at 20.1 tril. And as the ratio of goods to $’s becomes more and more skewed (increasing amounts of stuff per every $1), a single dollar begins to count for more and more goods. In other words, prices fall, and the purchasing power over every dollar rises. This is called deflation. 

Deflation is bad for almost everyone. Take property-owners, for instance, who admittedly overlap with the kind of person who owns a lot of bitcoin. Americans generally see home ownership as a government-sponsored dream of (white) wealth creation, since housing prices rise over time. That’s what the Federal Housing Association and generally intervening to provide low-interest rates for mortgages (re: Freddie and Fannie) was for: (white) families have historically bought homes with cheap debt and resold them at a higher value. It’s a system of intergenerational wealth accumulation that is not only highly racially skewed but also tends toward speculation for the reason that housing prices tend to go up (and not, as in a deflationary economy, endlessly down). This happy trend culminated in the mortgage-backed-security-induced Financial Crisis of 2008. 

Investors in cryptocurrencies (maybe somewhat cynically?) actually treat bitcoins more like houses than currencies. In other words, as assets that increase in value, and not as cash, liquid and ready to spend. The major difference being that mortgages have a referent in the analog world, while bitcoins do not.

But in a world where bitcoin becomes a global currency, the price of houses, like all prices except for bitcoin, will continuously fall. Everything except for bitcoin is devalued over time. 

Seems fine! The American Dream was stupid anyway—and/or I got in on the ground floor of crypto. 

Before you decide that deflation therefore sounds like a cool anti-banking system for wealth redistribution, consider that monetary policy is kind of a zero-sum game: if someone’s losing, who’s winning? 

The real beneficiaries of deflation are lenders, the real losers, debtors: The loan outstanding rises in value as the dollar rises (ie, as a single dollar gains more purchasing power through deflation). In other words, a debtor needs to fork over more, proportionally speaking, of his total purchasing power to pay off his current debt. Deflation is therefore good for lenders, bad for debtors (it literally redistributes wealth from debtors to lenders), bad for homeowners, bad for consumers, and pretty much contra everything a central bank is meant to incentivize. 

One of the solutions put forward for crypto’s deflation problem, especially by those who are actually interested in replacing fiat currencies, is to “expand” the crypto money supply by just dividing coins. So, good thing bitcoins are in theory infinitely divisible. In this model, instead of devaluing goods, we just devalue bitcoins: 0.25 bitcoin is the new 1 bitcoin.

This isn’t like printing money, however, it’s just redenominating a currency—you can pay in quarters or in dollars, but the price will be the same. But it is a lot like Zeno’s paradox! 

Old-school paradox: Infinite divisibility   

Zeno was an ancient Greek philosopher who put Achilles and a tortoise in a hypothetical race. Tortoise gets a head start (only fair). Achilles starts after him. Clearly Achilles has to run at least to the distance equal to the amount of Tortoise’s headstart in order to catch him. But by that time Tortoise will have inched forward a little more. So Achilles has to run that much more. But the tortoise, meanwhile, will have pulled ahead a little more again...etc., etc., and so on, until Achilles never catches the tortoise. 

For many centuries arguments over this paradox centered on whether infinity is divisible into finite or infinite parts: basically on different types of infinity. If this sounds silly to you today, that’s because you know calculus, where speed is a derivative of distance/position function in space. But it was a hung jury for a while.

That proposition for infinite divisibility, however, brings us to a sharp left turn into the weird paradoxes that inevitably arise when you take something that seems pretty common sensical (Achilles wins against turtle; surveillance capitalism works against consumers and public freedoms so, you know, why not decentralize things through crypto?) and subject it to intense analysis. It’s exactly the kind of paradox explored in what I assume would have been every tech geek’s favorite pop math book, Gödel, Escher, Bach if the author, David Hofstadter, hadn’t made such a decisive break with the Kurzweils and Musks and other kingpins of the Artificial Intelligence world: he hadn‘t been to an AI conference, he told The Atlantic in 2013, in over 30 years. 

QED?!?!?!?!

On this Substack we’ve previously reviewed a few ways in which a clash of worldviews or disciplines can lead to nonsense conclusions: free $100 bills don’t exist, even if you find one; Wittgenstein won’t admit there’s not an elephant in the room; Bitcoin is a currency that works like an asset but, unlike a like a mortgage or a house, is tied to no actual physical object in the “real world.” 

This doesn’t actually mean that everything is nonsense, per Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, or that nothing is real (maybe), just that it’s actually a lot harder to prove common sense ideas than it seems—in fact, we can’t, because at some point there’s no system to explain the system we’re in. We run out of levels. (See: How Bertrand Russell ruined numbers for everyone.)

It’s a discovery that can leave you feeling you’re maybe far less in control than you thought, or at least that those who are in control are in actuality pretty confused themselves. 

In a novel, that realization rhymes with gaslighting, the sense you’re being manipulated (re: Kafka or Maria NDiaye). Or it can feel like pulling back the curtain and finding that Wizard of Oz is a nervous little man who still conducts his searches on Netscape and Ask Jeeves, and who also happens to be in charge of the government. (This may very well be Biden.) 

When world views or conceptual frameworks clash, it’s usually because respective priorities are at odds. For example, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies tend to value privacy, peer-to-peer relations, and decentralization—but foregrounding these priorities comes at the cost of ensuring liquidity, failsafes, and any centralized way of managing interest rates, all things that central bankers prioritize instead. This kind of clash is a good thing, not least because it’s useful to be forced to articulate what you prioritize and why. We could offer this up as a value judgement in the name of pedantry or liberalism. Or we could just point out that it’s fun to argue about things, especially if you’re a novelist with extra page space.

The (Meta)Systems Novel

This is all leading to a question that’s been on my mind: What does the new systems novel look like? To put the cart before the horse: maybe like a novel that exposes one system to the logic of another system? Keeping in mind that one of those systems can be an individual human. 

Is that already what the systems novel is?

For anyone who needs a refresher: The genre of “systems novels” generally refers to books by the likes of Gaddis, Coover, Pynchon, and especially Don DeLillo. The term was coined by the critic Tom LeClair to describe postmodern American fiction that seems to import elements of “systems theory” from people like Gödel, Escher, or Bach—systems theory being born of the Incompleteness Theorem for the internal logics of certain systems (See how Gödel, too, ruined numbers for everyone). 

I was thinking of “systems novels” in part because Bookforum, in the most recent issue, hosted a survey about how the novel should be, soliciting answers from contributors. I especially liked the observation by critic Julian Lucas that, contra a recent slew of solitary bildungsromans (reader, I wrote one too! though in the name of pushing copies: it’s also about paranoia, authenticity, and alternative facts in matters of love and politics) the new novel might shatter the “test tube” of the self and let the world “contaminate” whatever’s left. As Lucas writes, “May yet more writers break the test tubes of ‘inner life’ and let the world contaminate their experiments.” 

I feel like this translates pretty well to systems novels as a form, especially given our relative subject position to subject positions, which Lucas also touches on: areas of experience we recognize as bounded have a tendency to overspill. 

It also translates to the above discussion of exposing the logic of one system—say, bitcoin, or an individual human being—to the logic of another system. 

A case for contamination plots… 

Contamination plot: kind of sounds like a good seed for a DeLillo novel, no?

But honestly, what does this clash of conceptional frameworks look like in the systems novel, if not just more DeLillo? 

I don’t have a hard answer for this, and given the themes under discussion, I wouldn’t trust me if I said I did. But Lucas’s idea of “contaminating” the experiment of the self offers, I think, a kind of elegant bridge of cross-contamination between the psychological novel of ideas (Dostoyevsky, Mann), (which are often also called bildungsromans), and the systems novel.  

A certain, preexisting continuity is already there in deeper structures (or, since we’re in systems theory territory: “isoforms”) of both genres. If the plot of a Mann or Dostoevsky story tends to capture abstract and irresolvable questions—what is good? who is strong? what’s time? who’s sick? ensue debate—then the systems novel captures the sense of confusion that precipitates from an increasing level of abstraction to daily life: who the hell has the answers these days, and why do I seem to have zero influence over them? 

This is the kind of uncanny question that leads to the alienation that we tend to associate with systems novelists like Don DeLillo—but also with the sort of “shamanism” critics have assigned to his work. There’s a noted religiosity to the sick “magic” of America named in White Noise, or to the cults of Mao II, books that I would admire even more if they made room—like The Magic Mountain or The Idiot—for a little bit more of the ridiculous.

Because to inflate your self-importance as much as America does is a little ridiculous—it’s prefab tragicomedy; that self-importance, at first kind of laughable, inevitably overspills into matters of actual consequence.

Anyway, re: isoforms and DeLillo’s shamanism and linking this up with novelists of ideas: it’s hard to find many other writers as estrangingly god-obsessed as Dostoevsky, or as Devil-obsessed as Mann. Because God is the ultimately unprovable system. 

Talking heads: polyphony  

I guess the technical problem here is how to write systems novels without just rewriting the accomplished systems novels (or cyberpunk novels, re: William Gibson) we already have. And if the method of “contamination,” especially “cross-contamination,” is one way, then it also might require giving more voice to the “systems” that typically appear like absent but all-powerful agencies, pulling the strings from off stage. 

That idea of “giving voice” to different ideas maps to Mikhail Bahktin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, in which he claimed that Dostoevsky invented the “polyphonic,” or many-voiced, novel. This term is now loosely applied to any novel with multiple perspectives or consciousnesses, but for our purposes it’s useful to consider the stricter, original theses that (1) “The concept of polyphony is incompatible with the representation of a single idea executed in the ordinary way” and; (2) “The monological [as opposed to polyphonic] artistic world does not recognize the thoughts and ideas of others as an object of representation.” (Replace “thoughts and ideas” with “systems” and the same logic applies.)

The special thing about Dostoevsky, Bakhtin says, was that he was “capable of representing a foreign idea” without assigning it to the consciousness of the author, instead allowing it to exist as an idea held by a character. Not only that, but he allowed ideas to exist as characters, therefore giving them full treatment as “objects of representation.” Ideas literally become characters, or, in Bakhtin’s terms, “the image of the idea is inseparable from the image of the person, the carrier of the idea.” 

This is a thing that I want to say you don’t see so much in contemporary Anglophone literature any more: using characters as conduits for ideas or systems, winding them up, propping them on little soapboxes and letting them go. The absurdity inherent in that image also anticipates Bakhtin’s further claim that the idea-characters are “carnivalesque.”

But giving voice to ideas through characters is a technique of which both Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus) and Dostoevsky (The Idiot, literally any novel) were masters. In MM, for one, Settembrini is Humanism, Naphta is the opposite, and Hans Castorp is the compromise, caught between their many pages of repartee; in The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is Christ. Ensue debate.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven

Mieko Kawakami, best known for her 2020 bestseller Breasts and Eggs, uses the strategy of making ideas into walking, talking characters to excellent effect in her most recent novel to be translated into English, Heaven. Her characters similarly interested in debating morality as predicated on weakness/strength, and in the “sickness” of society. (I wrote about these ideas here, during the height of the Plague.) They do so in lengthy, unsettling speeches. The whole thing is surreal—carnivalesque.

It’s also a pretty violent book: Fourteen-year old protagonist, known to everyone at school as “Eyes,” is brutally bullied; foil Kojima, a friendless female classmates who’s famous for being willfully unkempt is equally ruthlessly bullied by the girls. The two become friends and witnesses to the violence each endures. (One day, when “Eyes” is forced to act as a human soccer ball, he’s kicked in the face so hard he nearly breaks his nose.)

As the two discuss their suffering, Kojima emerges as a Christ figure (like the eponymous idiot of The Idiot), arguing that “if there is a Heaven, this is it.” Their suffering makes them strong. A bully named Momose on the other hand argues that he and his friends are so violent toward Eyes for absolutely no reason at all: “Coincidence is all there is. That’s how the world works…Does anything in the world ever happen for a reason?” There is no right or wrong to Momose, just will: “Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do it because they want to.” 

There’s a lot of Nietzsche here, who himself famously declared Dostoevsky “the only psychologist in Europe from whom I could learn something.” And so maybe it’s no surprise to hear Kawakami on her literary influences: “Dostoevsky is all about polyphony.”

Anyway, in other news… 

  • Writing this reminded me of this review by Niela Orr, published in the LRB a while back, that reads Kylie Reid’s Such a Fun Age through a frosted cyberpunk lens.

  • I reviewed Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus for Foreign Policy. You can can find it online or in your mailbox, in print. 

  • My last review for Foreign Policy was on French-Senegalese novelist David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, which just won the Man Booker International Prize.  

  • My last Substack post on Sally Rooney and self-improvement literature appeared in a weekly newsletter put together by Bookforum, an actual publication. Thanks, guys!

Who knows what heaven is, Kojima, but hell is something like 250 pages of tracked changes, and I have no one to blame but myself.

-Jessi

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