Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, part II

For those who will inevitably be flummoxed by this entry, be aware that it is part of an ongoing attempt to illustrate some of the things in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, that I find interesting (see Part I)… This is going to be a weird one, folks, so lets stay frosty:

Dr. Laszlo Jamf was a Pavlovian psychologist who sought to condition an infant (Tyrone Slothrop), but previous attempts at such experiments brought in too much subjectivity. How can you quantitatively measure fear (as a previous experiment had attempted)? Dr. Jamf, therefore, decided that his indicator would be the erection of a male infant. Fear is subjective, “but a hardon, that’s either there, or it isn’t. Binary, elegant. The job of observing it can even be done by a student”.

Unconditioned stimulus = stroking penis with antiseptic cotton swab.

Unconditioned response = hardon.

Conditioned stimulus = x.

Conditioned response = hardon whenever x is present, stroking is no longer necessary, all you need is that x.

But what is x? It is the “Mystery Stimulus” that has fascinated generations of behavioral-pyschologists, and that is the whole point of the experiment. Traditionally, the subject of the experiment would have to be de-conditioned. Dr. Jamf would have to “extinguish” the hardon reflex he’d built up. This is where things get tricky: “…we must also realize that extinction can proceed beyond the point of reducing a reflex to zero. We cannot therefore judge the degree of extinction only by the magnitude of the reflex or its absence, since there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero.

Apparently, Dr. Jamf extinguished only to the point of zero, ignoring the “silent extinction beyond the zero”. Lt. Tyrone Slothrop was discovered many years later (now a man) to be quite sexually active. He even has a map on which he has marked his sexual conquests. Oddly, the marked points on the map happen to coincide identically with V-2 rocket impact sites! This is what seems to indicate some sort of latent conditioned response in Slothrop… Naturally, there is all sorts of speculation as to how this could be.

Further complicating matters, apparently the list of sexual conquests/rocket impact sites are described by a Poisson Distribution, a probability density function (one that tends to pop up in nature quite often).

So, yes, Gravity’s Rainbow has its share of interesting ideas, existing beside all of its beautiful nonsensical prose. Just one interesting note concerning the etymology of “Jamf”: apparently it is derived from an abbreviation of “jive-ass mother-fucker” which is said to have originated with Charlie Parker. Naturally, this lets me see Dr. Lazlo Jamf in a substantially different, and much less trustworthy, light…

And just for fun, some more quotes, further illustrating my fascination with how Pynchon’s language is structured:

  • “…but it’s something they want to keep, so much that to keep it, they will take on more than propaganda has ever asked them for. They are in love. Fuck the war.”
  • “Who can find his way about this lush maze of initials, arrows solid and dotted, boxes big and small, names printed and memorized?” – This in reference to the confusing proliferation of secret governmental agencies, each with their own acronym and each ordered in a mezmerizing hierarchy. The specific line quoted struck me because it could just as easily be applied to the computer industry…