“Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’: Undermining Signifying Practices” by Mª del Carmen Pérez-Llantada Auría – Questions

“Throughout the novel, embedded stories, dreams, fantasies, films, and even the narrator’s retrospective accounts on Frenesi’s life have all worked as representations, as empty, or rather, incomplete, problematic references cut off from their external, “real” referent. Vineland thus becomes a narrative grounded in the play of textual dissemination” (Auría 179).


What are some of the instances in the novel in which we get information on who Frenesi is? What do these instances say about Frenesi and the person describing her? Why is it important to make the distinction between the Frenesi of the stories, and the “real” Frenesi, whom we never see? How is Auría’s use of Derrida’s dissemination applied to the many different “readings” (stories) Frenesi in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland?

8 Replies to ““Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’: Undermining Signifying Practices” by Mª del Carmen Pérez-Llantada Auría – Questions”

  1. Dissemination is a term I’ve never read before but it definitely does well summing up the experience I’ve had reading “Vineland” so far. There is one central plotline, Prairie’s discovery of her mother Frenesi, but other than that, it’s difficult to stay on track with every interconnecting story and characters involved in the reading. New people will appear within the text without much of a transition. The only transition is a short description of the character’s personality then its right back into whatever tall tale seems to be going on at that moment. This decentering of the focus is purposeful. Mª del Carmen Pérez-Llantada Auría writes, “Thus, Vineland’s self-referentiality works to foreground the idea that meaning is always deferred, infinitely multiplied.” (173). This sentence says that what’s most important is the process of making things important in this book. I may be wrong but I took this as to mean that the book is constantly trying to throw the reader off from focusing in on one important point. Instead, it creates 100 situations that all appear meaningful. This causes the reader to be unable to determine much about the book. They are constantly put in a loop of discovery and then attempt to find meaning. However, the meaning is everywhere making it difficult to find a focus. This is not how usual texts work.

  2. In Vineland, we are offered a lot of information about who Frenesi is, but that information is always undercut with the realization that we’ll never know the real Frenesi. For instance, at one point Prairie looks at pictures of her mother and we learn that Frenesi wore mini skirts and bell bottoms. We learn she spent “most of the time holding a movie camera, at demonstrations, getting arrested…” (114). This moment seems to provide with a factual account of Frenesi because photographs capture moments in time that did happen. Frenesi really did get arrested and wore mini skirts.

    However, the passage also calls attention to the fact that this picture withholds information about Frenesi: “Prairie would learn her mother’s hands, read each gesture a dozen ways, imagine how they would have moved at other unphotographed times” (114). Even though we see glimpses of Frenesi here, we still know so little about her. Prairie will never see how Frenesi acted in private moments. She will never know what her mother was like or even how her mother moved when cameras weren’t pointed at her.

    Because of this, the passage calls so much attention to the fact that these are pictures of Frenesi, but a picture is not a person, and we will never see the real Frenesi. These photographs are just one example of how the “limitless richness of references and infinite interpretations have taken the place of ‘truth’” and have taken the place of the real Frenesi (6).

  3. Readers of Pynchon’s Vineland are given plenty of information on Frenesi through flashbacks and stories from other characters. However, this does not mean it should all be accepted as truth; in fact, it can’t all be accepted at the same time. As Conor stated already, the narration can be misleading at times, blurring scenes together and making readers forget whose story they are following. The flashback beginning on page 68, which tells of Frenesi’s work, her father, and other things, is an example of information given to the readers. As Auría says, “References to her come from various marginal sources. They all act as duplications that substitute the original for copies. As a result, the decoding of ultimate meaning is constantly being disseminated” (Auría 172). This reveals how important these stories are to both Prairie and the audience, as they act as information in place of the truth.

    Over the last few weeks we have looked at the dispersing of information through the lens of conspiracy theories and texts such as Libra. We witnessed the deliberate act of convoluting the truth and disorganizing stories, so as to hide something from the general public. (I think Katie’s connection to dissemination is important because it perfectly describes this process.) We have also seen the impossibility of obtaining truth, in texts such as The Trial. Now, in Vineland, it seems like we are viewing the process (whether deliberate or not) from the opposite angle: Prairie serves as a character that is trying to undo this dissemination and reassemble a story. It seems impossible, but at the same time there must be some facts available. We as readers are placed in Prairie’s shoes, and it is our job to decipher who is a reliable source on Frenesi and who is not.

  4. As Mellissa pointed out in her post, we are given fleeting glimpses of the “real” Frenesi through the photographs as they only give us tangible facts due to a photograph’s inability to properly preserve the truth. Moving pictures, on the other hand, provide a much better sense of reality and the truth of the real Frenesi by capturing her very essence and personality on film.
    As we discussed while watching the clips on the JFK assassination in our last class, the film taken of that day tells the truth of the events that took place, painting a picture of the true reality. Both photographs and actual film captured the events of the assassination, allowing investigators to piece together what became known as the Warren Commission. The moving pictures allowed the event to come alive despite it having happened in the past and let the true emotions of that day be reborn, with the sense of fear and confusion which still photographs don’t have the same impact or inside look into what an even or an individual was really like.
    With the pictures of Frenesi, we are given actual facts about her person, that she wore mini skirts for instance, but not much else. We see what she was wearing, where she was and how she stood on that particular day in which her image was captured on film. With moving pictures, however, we would be able to capture the way she laughed perhaps or her way of speaking, her true personality as it were, rather than the simple fact that she liked to wear particular garments.

  5. To echo what has already been said, I think the clearest example we have that gives insight into who Frenesi is exists in the photographs that Prairie sifts through. However, we will never truly know who Frenesi “is.” While these photos serve to function as a visual referent for Prairie for when she thinks about her mother, as Melissa noted in her post, a picture is not a person. Photos only capture a visual moment in time and unless there is prior knowledge of the moment behind the photo, the emotional/personal sphere is essentially vacant.

    These photos act as an absent presence for Prairie as Frenesi is never physically present until the last chapter. Even then, their reunion is somewhat anti-climatic, given that much of the plot line of this book revolves around Prairie’s quest for her mother. With this anti-climatic reunion in mind, it makes me think that even when Frenesi is physically with Prairie, she still function as an absent presence. The “mother” is never fully there.

  6. Malcolm, I really liked your observation that Vineland appears to be an attempt to “undo this dissemination and reassemble a story” through placing us in Prairie’s shoes, because I too think that’s what is going on. Like others have pointed out, the flood of stories, glimpses, etc., we are given in an attempt to both physically locate Frenesi and also formulate her identity many times results in an overwhelming, hectic reading experience. To compare this to other work we have read in the seminar, perhaps we can see ourselves as the “Nicholas Branch” of Vineland.

    Yet, such a process (chaotic as it can be) makes nothing but perfect sense if we, like Auria does, see Frenesi as a “presence deferred” and Pynchon’s novel as a confrontation with this absence-presence. Like Auría explains, Derridean post structuralism thinking decenters all meaning-making systems to expose how a given system posits (rather than reveals) a center from which everything issues and on which the system’s privileged meaning is propped. While I am not familiar with the concept of dissemination, it does appear to connect to Derrida’s notion of différance, a non-word and non-concept I will attempt to explain. Typically understood as a temporization and spacing in language, différance “defers the object of referent a sign represents.” Indeed, Vineland, and the process of attempting to find Frensei, represents this idea of différance (of this infinite absence-presence that is Prairie’s search for her lost mother)

    What is the purpose or significance of this process? By challenging this seeming solitary, concrete system of meaning and turns it on its head; what remains is a futile, arbitrary, and entirely constructed rather than revealed center that is free to be exchanged with its inverted counterpart. As Auría writes, “Pynchon’s narrative praises the marginal over the center so as to prove the inaccuracy of language when describing reality.”

    One question I have, however, that is probably appropriate for next week’s discussion (as the assigned reading tomorrow only brings us to the novel’s halfway point), is what happens if Prairie and her mother (this absence-presence) are eventually brought together? How does this impact Auría’s reading of the text?

  7. Throughout the semester, we have explored language as a means of communication which is itself inherently limited. In arguably all of the material we have worked with thus far, we have been able to locate instances in which language as a signifier fails to access the intended signified, which seems to be the downfall of all modes of representation in general. The dissemination of information by nature relies upon representation to share such information, which creates a sort of blockage between the sharing of the information and the meaning of the information itself. Throughout Vineland, Prairie’s access to information regarding who her mother was/is is largely limited to the information others can provide her, which means that this information is being heavily filtered through another person’s unique experiences before it reaches her eyes and ears. This information must be understood as subjective in two ways: 1) it must come in the form of some type of representation (for instance, the “embedded stories, dreams, fantasies, films, and even the narrator’s retrospective accounts” you speak of in the original post), so it is already limited in is ability to access the “real”; and 2) the information is being provided by sources from Frenesi’s past, so it is already biased by those individuals’ experiences (179). Therefore, Prairie can seek out information about her mother in the form of others’ memories, photographs, etc., but she is unable to ever truly “know” the person her mother was/is, and her mother remains just as absent and inaccessible as ever.

    If we consider the dissemination of information on a larger scale, the blockages present in accessing the “real” multiply each time the information is spread, given the fact that the information is being filtered through a new perspective each time it is re-told or re-represented. (I picture a subtler, perhaps less blatantly malicious type of distortion that rumors undergo when they are spread.) Does this mean that the more widely information is disseminated (across place, people, and time), the further it gets from properly representing its original source?

  8. Frenesi’s absent presence in this novel creates an easy connection to the unstable centers that Derrida comments on in his theory, so I understand Auría’s gesture toward Deconstruction. One particularly poignant encounter with Frenesi comes early on when Zoyd tells Prairie he can often visit, or “haunt” (40) his ex-wife. When asked for her location–a more concrete piece of informaiton–Zoyd is unable to deliver; interestingly, this is a chalked up to a kind of interpretive blockage as Zoyd tries to “read signs, locate landmarks” but “there’s something between it and [his] brain that won’t let it through (40).”

    We might think that this dream-state encounter is different than when Prairie handles old photographs of her mother, or actually meets her, but I wonder if it really is. In both cases there’s a kind of blockage (another concept at play in Derrida’s work as we discussed in the context of “The Trial”) that either prevents traditional ‘reading,’ or turns that process on its head.

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