In April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic phase-shifted America, and the world, into a grim, new reality, a story circulated via the AP wire about a post office in the microscopically small town of Deer Isle, Maine. There, a tattered American flag had been left to languish atop its stanchion.
A former pastor and current community health director with the cartoonishly New England-sounding name “René Colson Hudson” rallied to replace the beat-up flag in an effort to restore dignity to the post office, a once-proud civic institution and small-town community hub. “What a metaphor it is for our country right now,” she told the press. “It was really important that the flag be replaced, as a symbol of hope.”
A homespun island community banding together to salute a crisp new American flag seems so totally hokey. It’s like something out of a post-9/11 Paul Haggis movie. But Colson Hudson was, nonetheless, partially correct.
There was something poignantly symbolic about the ordeal. And it wasn’t the vision of Old Glory in rack and ruin. It was the post office. Because throughout the pandemic, and especially in the run-up to last year’s presidential election, the United States Postal Service became a metaphorical battleground.
In October 2020, an unlikely icon of the Must-See TV era joined the fray. Wayne Knight reprised his role as Newman, Seinfeld’s scheming mailman, in a series of political ads underwritten by Pacronym, a political action committee devoted, per their website, to getting “Trump the f*ck [sic] out of office.” Uniformed in standard-issue grey-blue-on-blue livery, Knight railed against recent attacks on the U.S. Postal Service. “There’s been a systematic, premeditated assault on the U.S. mail,” he rants, embracing feverish, Newmanesque hyperbole, “by President Trump and his so-called postmaster general.” He spits, revolted by the mere invocation of the president and the lackeyish USPS CEO Louis DeJoy, a noted, high-six-figure Trump donor.
A “detail-oriented problem-solver” with experience in supply-chain management, DeJoy was hired as postmaster to fix the post office’s failing finances. Such “efficiencies” resulted in further inefficiencies in the basic mail-delivery supply chain, raising higher order concerns about a pandemic-era presidential election relying heavily on voters mailing in ballots. Congressional leaders called upon DeJoy and other USPS brass to account for “why they are pushing these dangerous new policies that threaten to silence the voices of millions, just months before the election.”
In the long interregnum between Trump’s loss and his unceremonious retreat from the White House, the postal service would play a critical role in what the pundit class liked to call his Big Lie. He framed mail-in ballots, baselessly, as being especially susceptible to fraud and manipulation. Even before the election, back when he could still avail himself of Twitter, Trump tweeted that such ballots would lead, irrevocably, to “MAYHEM!!!” His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, freshly clowned-on in the new Borat movie, would likewise crow that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots tilted the results. Elsewhere, on newly struck TV ads, postal workers were framed as pandemic-era heroes, delivering parcels to communities squirming under stay-at-home orders.
This contest over the image of the postal service—and mail itself—revealed a more profound tension, a deeper crisis facing democracies in America and elsewhere. It is a fundamentally epistemic crisis: about the control and promulgation of information, and how that information comes to shape a worldview, and how those worldviews come to bear on the world itself. And it’s just one front in a war of epistemologies that has been raging since at least the republic’s inception. Because to control the mail, as Newman himself once memorably snarled, is to control information.
The control of information is key to any ideological project. In the sixteenth century, Emperor Charles V appointed Johann Baptiste von Taxis as “General Postmaster” of the Holy Roman Empire, his family having long established itself as speedy privatized postmen. The consolidation and expansion of the Taxis’ courier network resulted in an acceleration of newsworthy notices. Word of uprisings by Anabaptist reformists spread quickly. As did gossip about meetings between state and religious leaders. Under the expedient Thurn-und-Taxis Post (whose riders announced themselves by tooting on cylindrical post horns) news, as they say, traveled fast. And the news that traveled fastest gave shape to the Empire, and ultimately to Europe.
This network of postmen patrolled what Michel Foucault called an episteme: “the conditions of possibility of all knowledge.” This notion—that mail routes meaningfully constitute a whole universe, and the perimeters of our shared knowledge of it—was reflected in the title of John Taylor’s seventeenth-century atlas of English postal maps: The Carrier’s Cosmologie. And, at least until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire following the Napoleonic Wars, Thurn-und-Taxis ruled over this paper cosmos, trumping all comers. Or almost all of them.
Thomas Pynchon, in The Crying of Lot 49, offers a different story. In his novel, a Thurn-and-Taxis rival called Tristero continued operating on the sly for centuries, migrating westward to the United States, secretly shaping the nation’s history. Pynchon’s heroine, a California housewife named Oedipa Maas, is drawn into the Tristero conspiracy thanks to the last will and testament of an old boyfriend. What’s more, this underground mail service (those in-the-know send missives via inconspicuous bins marked WASTE, for “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire”) suggests a whole “separate, silent, unsuspected world” marked by “a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery.” Her paranoia peaking, Oedipa “remembered drifters she had listened to, Americans speaking their language carefully, scholarly, as if they were in exile from somewhere else invisible yet congruent with the cheered land she lived in.” She believes that everything and everyone half-forgotten or left behind is re-enfranchised in this underground network. Like the treacherous “Tethers” in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), they are the denizens of a shadowy, mirror-image America, a nation-state-scaled doppelgänger. It’s an America of exiles, lost and found among the waste (or WASTE).
How are people expected to head off threats to the planet when they can’t even agree on its shape?
Much of Lot 49’s tension derives from the question of Tristero’s legitimacy. Is it a functioning courier organization, or an elaborate gag devised by Oedipa’s dead and ludicrously well-to-do ex-lover? As the late Harold Bloom notes, even the word Tristero scans as deliberately ambiguous. A mash-up of tryst (or triste) and terror, a commingling of eroticism and sorrow and fear, Tristero, writes Bloom, “pretty much means what the reader wants it to mean.” This tendency to suspend both his characters and his readers in sticky irreconcilability is part of what makes Pynchon such a generous writer.
Yet to reduce the author’s tack to a sort of literary both-sides-ism, a higher-minded riff on the “Choose Your Own Adventure” form, is to diminish Lot 49’s effect. It’s not that two things can be true, and that we, as readers, must resolve ourselves one way or the other. It’s that the seemingly self-contradictory ideas are both true simultaneously. It’s an idea that recurs throughout his novels. An obsession with the “countercultural” is wildly extrapolated, resulting not just in intricate conspiracies (whether in Lot 49’s Tristero or Inherent Vice’s drug-smuggling operation involving a cabal of dentists) but in whole alternate conceptions of history—and especially American history—itself.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, the colonial heretic William Slothrop (ancestor of the novel’s de facto protagonist) is considered “the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from.” Exiled from the Massachusetts colony for preaching the divinity of those spared God’s salvation, Slothrop represents the negative-image of Puritanism and the spirit of raw exploitation that would motivate America’s history.
Such colonial-era eccentrics, shut out seemingly at the moment of America’s inception, abound in Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s other hefty masterpiece. It chronicles the titular cartographers’ picaresque journey through a nascent America, resolving a border dispute whose historical implications they can only faintly portend.
Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, Kathryn Hume observes that Mason & Dixon’s structure and style give shape to a kind of historical maximalism. “In life,” she writes, “we exclude data we sense to be unthreatening, but when reading this book we must consciously absorb vastly more data than our valve lets through in everyday life.” (The “valve” here is a reference to Aldous Huxley’s conception of consciousness as a “reducing valve.”) Mason & Dixon is a fantastical index of everything from the transit of Venus, to discourses around wage-labor and magnetism, to Jesuits’ scheme to purge the world of feng shui, to the vengeful plots of a sentient mechanical duck, to a pot-smoking interlude with George Washington. It offers a fulsome description of the nascent republic as a “Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true.”
What the book charts is not just the titular boundary between America’s North and South, but also the perimeter between the emerging rationality of the Enlightenment and the myriad systems of superstition and irrationality preceding it. Indeed, Mason & Dixon is so all-encompassing that it includes a character who performs the function of reducing and representing the story: Reverend Cherrycoke, a clergymen recounting Mason and Dixon’s exploits for an ever-changing audience. He tailors the telling of his tale to suit the listener’s fancies, adding elements of high adventure to suit the youngsters in the crowd, diverging into debates about the nature of liberty when other audiences demand it.
Cherrycoke’s story is itself a model of subjectivity: the sense that even a single, seemingly straightforward yarn can be presented from a panoply of perspectives, real and imagined. As the Good Reverend writes in his own Christ and History, one of Mason & Dixon’s countless texts-within-the-text, history itself is “not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All,—rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common.” What Pynchon’s writing resists is the more boring, chronological conception of history, in which regimes and epistemes are tidily superseded, one after the other. In Pynchon’s historical cosmos, those suppressed ideas still lurk inside dominant ideologies, where unreason and its opposite comfortably hang together like old high school buddies. This is part of what makes Pynchon’s literature definitionally postmodern.
This may all seem wholly theoretical in its implications, were it not for the fact that it’s not. Look to the modern-day dunderheads of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” who squeal against postmodernism because they’re too willfully obtuse to understand simple ideas around the social construction of gender. The intellectual threat posed by a practice that abhors the crude simplicity of the grand narrative, and expands the frame on the teleologies of history, science, and enlightenment rationality, constitutes a threat to those who have historically benefitted from the tyrannies of hierarchy, rigidity, and order. They rage, in all their frantic impotence, against the sun setting on their favored episteme.
Postmodernism, despite protestations to the contrary, is not really an ideology but more of a strategy. It’s a way of making sense of the collision of multifarious ideologies. And the postmodernism practiced by Pynchon is both conceptually lively (not to mention just plain fun) and relevant because it describes the way sense-making operates, and the process by which we order the disorder of the world. And moreover, his literature intuitively understands how the process of that ordering—of latching on to one narrative or data set or episteme—proves essential in actualizing the individual. Think only of Oedipa Maas, whose belief in the Tristero plot swells into a defining pathology. Whether or not she is correct becomes irrelevant. The conspiracy, and her newfound role within it, has become pathological, essential to sustaining Oedipa’s notion of herself.
The whole warp and woof of human existence is background noise until an individual is thrust into a convicting narrative, or has one thrust upon her.
Beyond a tendency to be deployed as a cliché—not long ago I came across a blog post foretelling of an existential crisis looming over the craft beer industry—the major threats we face are not really existential at all. They’re epistemic. They are threats to the body of common knowledge, to the taken-for-granteds that constitute a given episteme. Like, for example, the safe assumption that the earth is spherical and not flat. Without this shared understanding of what constitutes the character or essence or value of a thing, foundational threats to that thing are incomprehensible. If I believe, for example, that reports of rising atmospheric CO2 levels are some canard created by the Chinese government to make U.S. manufacturing less competitive, then I’m not very likely to sweat the alleged “existential threat” posed by climate change, which is a hoax, and doesn’t exist at all. Put another way: How are people expected to head off threats to the planet when they can’t even agree on its shape?
Recently, while doing some research on alleged “curses” surrounding the production of the popcorn classic The Wizard of Oz, I became briefly obsessed with “The Dark Side of the Rainbow”: a low-grade stoner conspiracy maintaining that the 1939 Technicolor musical fantasy could be synced up with Pink Floyd’s 1973 lite-prog chart-topper Dark Side of the Moon. Tellingly, claims of such spooky action arrived not with the release of the record, but the ascent of internet message boards.
In 1995, the phenomena was first reported in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Charlie Savage, a college intern who would go on, as “Charles” Savage, to a win a Pulitzer for his reportage on Bush II’s expansion of executive authority. Savage traced the origin of the Dark Side/Wizard of Oz experiment to an old alt.music.pink-floyd online newsgroup. “In the end,” he concludes, “the synchronization was either intentional or a cosmic coincidence—the musical equivalent of the ‘Infinite Monkeys on Infinite Typewriters Eventually Producing the Complete Works of Shakespeare’ effect.” The emergence of “Dark Side of the Rainbow” within such newsgroups speaks to the epistemic threat posed by the internet itself. When anyone with a dial-up modem has instant access to all the information accumulated in the course of human history, the orderliness of that history is jeopardized. There are just as many narratives as counter-narratives. And so some order must be reimposed by, for example, hammering out meaningful, intentional connections between two works, disparate in their contexts of production and separated by multiple decades. If meaning cannot be discerned, it must be manufactured.
Last fall, Scientific American released a special, extra-bulky TRUTH VS. LIES issue. Many of its analyses were devoted to social media, online echo chambers, and how the internet’s promise of what data researcher Walter Quattrociocchi calls “collective intelligence” actually produced, well, the opposite of that. Practically speaking, an infinitude of information is useless. It can even be deleterious. In 1996, British psychologist David Lewis diagnosed Information Fatigue Syndrome, or IFS, a malady that emerges from the sheer glut of information we’re exposed to, and which results in a “paralysis of analysis.” This paralysis is easily exploited, politically. On the subject of Israel and Palestine, experts invoke the notion of the conflict’s bewildering complication as a means of blunting more basic moral feelings. Recent months have also seen bold reactions to this paralysis: Trump’s Big Lie, the January 6 Capitol insurrection, the protests and counter-narratives that cropped up in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
When anyone with a dial-up modem has instant access to all the information accumulated in the course of human history, the orderliness of that history is jeopardized.
Still, it’s trite to blame our current epistemic messiness on the internet itself. It would be like finding someone bludgeoned to death by a hammer and then hauling the hammer before a court of its peers. Partisanship and polarization have always defined American public life. Rather, as Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts write in 2018’s Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, social media and the blogosphere were “grafted” onto an exciting “asymmetric structure—of media outlets, political elite practices, and media consumption and trust patterns.” Technology accelerated a longer-running institutional instability.
Paranoiacs and conspiracists need no longer be recruited by wingnut preachers peddling pamphlets on street corners. Instead, they can be recruited via the same social media sites they use to share photos of their Alaskan cruise or argue with relatives about politics. Standard-bearers of epistemic authority—politicians, scientists, the media—have been in many corners supplanted by memes spread algorithmically. A healthy distrust of authority and accreditation mutates into a reflexive antagonism, wherein a nation’s top scientists are held in contempt simply because they are the nation’s top scientists.
Comparing Oedipa’s tumble down the Tristero rabbit hole to the devotees of contemporary conspiracy cults, from QAnon to Covid truthers, feels obvious. They all belong, to paraphrase a note Oedipa makes in her trusty memo book, to projected worlds. A belief in such high kookery has the effect of actualizing the alienated individual, Oedipa-style. The whole warp and woof of human existence is background noise until an individual is thrust into a convicting narrative, or has one thrust upon her. Reality is incomprehensible and must be narrowed into one-or-another just-so story, which this mess of facts and figures can feed back into. And it’s not enough to silently foster one’s own personal reality—in private, in an anti-mask Facebook group, or in more radical reactionary online backchannels. These alternate realities are now pouring out from social media and being asserted, sometimes quite violently, in the fleshy spaces of material life.
If I nurtured one modest hope regarding the outcomes of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it was that the mess of misinformation would somehow be reshaped under the weight of a world-historical event like a global pandemic. You know, like how modernist writers reported seismic shifts in sentiments following World War I. Predictably, the pandemic only enlarged existing asymmetries, as loons declared the virus a hoax and the sitting U.S. president peddled snake oil treatments, as bodies were stacked in the streets—images from sci-fi B-movies. The virus was not a cure for conspiracists. It was an accelerant. It’s the same mindset exploited by the totalitarian propagandists who seize on what Hannah Arendt called the “ever-changing, incomprehensible world,” offering the assurance of streamlined narrative (no matter how farcical its details) to a people who seem almost eager to be deceived. The comfort offered by conspiracy is more visceral than that offered by political affiliation. Conspiracy is politics heightened.
Nor Gloom of Night
Like many of the republic’s august and rotting institutions, the sanctity of the United States Postal Service is enshrined in law. In 1970, in response to nationwide strikes by mail carriers, President Nixon signed Title 39 of the U.S. Code, also known as the Postal Reorganization Act. In order to suppress further collective action by federal employees, the postal service was made to seem essential to the functioning of American democracy. Section 101(a) of the Act dictated that “the Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people.” But this link between the postal service and the democratic legitimacy of the republic predates the 1970 law and Nixon’s threats to mobilize National Guardsmen and naval reservists to keep the mail flowing.
As historian Winifred Gallagher announces it in the introduction to How the Post Office Created America, “the history of its post office is nothing less than the story of America.” The service itself predates the Declaration of Independence. It was originally overseen by the patriot newspaperman William Goddard. His mail service, the “Constitutional Post,” was a kind of homegrown Tristero, operating in defiance of Britain’s Crown Post. Goddard’s network of carriers emerged when he realized his pro-revolutionary newspaper, the Pennsylvania Chronicle, was being stifled by the British-run colonial system: first by heavy taxation, then by outright suppression. The Constitutional Post proved an alternative. And its role in distributing such rabble-rousing subterfuge proved foundational. By subsidizing the delivery of newspapers instead of taxing them, this new postal service emerged as a vital artery of democracy, establishing the United States, in Gallagher’s estimation, as “the world’s information and communications superpower.”
In time, the Constitutional Post would develop into the original United States Post Office Department (USPOD), a branch of the federal cabinet signed into existence by George Washington with the Postal Service Act of 1792. Alexis de Tocqueville conducted large swaths of his famous 1831 survey of the democratic revolution in America from the back of USPOD mail carts. In the resulting Democracy In America, he marvels at the efficiency of the rural post offices he passes through, writing that “it is difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which thought circulates in the midst of these deserts.” The post office was deemed so reliable that parents even entrusted their most precious cargo—their human children—to mail carriers. Between 1913 and 1915, when the sitting postmaster issued a rule forbidding it, something like seven babies were transported between homes via good ol’ U.S. Mail.
Both institutional confidence in the mailman and the lack thereof have become tropes. In David Brin’s 1985 post-apocalyptic novel (and its 1997 Kevin Costner-starring film adaptation), a man in a postal uniform stalking America’s futuristic ruins becomes a symbol of hope, delivering the promise of a return to centralized governance. In the immediate wake of 9/11, and the subsequent anthrax attacks, the USPS released a commercial, scored to Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” which portrayed mail carriers as noble heroes and public servants, just like police, fire fighters, EMTs, and other first responders.
Elsewhere, however, the majesty of the post office and its workers is taken as something of a joke. There’s Lot 49, of course, in which the service is viewed not as an affront to American institutional power, but just another of its tendrils. There’s Seinfeld’s Newman and his TV precedent, Cliff Claven from Cheers (whose uniform is displayed at the National Postal Museum in Washington). Both characters are depicted as boorish know-it-alls whose devotion to their state-issued uniform borders on the maniacal. Even in his recently revived, Pacronym-backed form, Knight’s Newman appears a reprobate, rifling through private correspondences while gnawing on a mail-order turkey leg like some Tudor-era glutton. The punchlines are precisely that these men are lazy and incompetent, that anything from snow to rain to heat to gloom of night will stay these slobs from the completion of their appointed rounds. This crisis of confidence in the noble courier portends the threats facing the institution itself.
Beyond enshrining the sanctity of the prompt mail delivery, Nixon’s 1970 Postal Reorganization Act had other consequences. Most importantly, it changed the structure of the U.S. Mail from a cabinet bankrolled by public funds to an independent federal agency, the United States Postal Service (USPS). The new USPS operated without tax revenue and was forced to run like a business—by collecting fees in exchange for the expedient transport of mail. It all worked out pretty well for a while. Until the internet.
The universal adoption of email constituted its own (pardon the cliché) existential crisis. In a piece for the prominent wonk-pub FiveThirtyEight, Kaleigh Rogers noted that the USPS’s historical bread-and-butter, first-class mail delivery of letters and lightweight packages, peaked in 2001, then declined precipitously. Gas bills, paychecks, missives to loved ones could all be handled electronically. The postal service compensated with advertising (that is: junk) mail, which only had the effect of making traditional mail seem less essential. The increasing popularity of private carriers, like FedEx and United Parcel Service, further complicated matters. (Especially because the U.S. Postal Service’s mandate required it to deliver to the furthest reaches of the map, from Key West, Florida to Utqiaġvik, Alaska.) As a business, the USPS was pretty much boned: hamstrung by having to meet its original public mandate, all the while forced into trying to turn a profit offering an increasingly irrelevant service.
Yet in the pandemic election year, the humble USPS rekindled something of its bygone nobility. It was, after all, arguably the last lifeline of democracy in an election relying on mail-in balloting. It controlled the information the presiding government itself wanted to suppress. And more than that, mail carriers were recast as something like referees in the current existential crisis, vested with the power to mitigate between truth, post-truth, and good old-fashioned lies. It is perhaps ironic, but mostly just predictable, that a public service conceived as a bulwark to resist abusive federal power was summarily undermined and abused by those same powers. Nonetheless, the conditions of the 2020 election bestowed the Postal Service with a renewed sense of purpose, its workers shoring the battlements at the frontlines of the epistemic crisis. They embody an idea not of a centralized government, but rather of a common trust that connects all corners of a still-democratic republic, despite the deep ideological and epistemic contours that cleave it. Postal workers came to stand, once again, as guardian-protectors of the episteme, both figuratively and literally.
Short term, practical, fixes to this epistemic dilemma may seem self-evident: pressure the government to reinvest in the USPS and to restore some bygone esteem to the noble postman. Promote media literacy. Break up tech monopolies. Dis-incentivize the media’s promotion of lurid untruth under the guise of even-handed both-sides-ism. Calmly explain to your Facebook addict aunt that Bill Gates didn’t encode the Pfizer vaccine with microchips that will restructure her DNA. These are all valid goals. But they seem insufficient in addressing the foundations of America’s ongoing epistemic crisis. Suggesting to people that they’re wrong, and that they live in a bubble, and that their whole reality is a projection seems unlikely to work—cf. the famous dictum that it’s far easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.
Scrambling for a solution, I rifle through Scientific American’s recent TRUTH VS. LIES issue. Many of its columns conclude with optimistic codas that ring a bit phony: a hope that simply knowing about the problems is the first step toward fixing them. Knowledge, after all, is power. But is it? Isn’t the whole problem with an epistemic crisis that knowledge and truth and reason are evenly matched, or even outmatched, by the countervailing power of conspiracy and confirmation bias? It seems like an inescapable condition of subjectivity that we seek out information that conforms to our own biases and assumptions. This, too, is one of postmodernism’s admonitions.
Absent any common faith in the usual institutions of authority or in the clichéd cultural ephemera meant to transcend politics—like baseball and blue jeans and heartland rock radio—perhaps such epistemic tensions can only deepen, producing as many disparate, stitched-together realities as there are zip codes. But then, as a clever student of American history like Thomas Pynchon has long known, this has more or less always been the case. And the prospect of fully unifying, of putting aside differences of temperament and epistemology, has only ever been just another subjunctive hope among the mighty American rubbish tip.