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Games Doctors Play: Remedy as Cybernetic Strategy in Postmodern Fiction

Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India

Postmodern fictions depict strange relationships between doctors and patients, which are covert struggles for power combined with attempts of resistance towards any controlling mechanisms. A volatile postmodern milieu necessitates “control” in order to establish a firm sense of identity where human beings have been reduced already to the status of conditioned robots. The peculiar diseases that they suffer from indicate the fluidity of postmodern figures. The diseases, ranging from the real, like myocardial infarction, to the surreal, such as “cosmopsis,” render the patients dependent on their doctors and anxious to seek desperate remedies. However, the doctors use the remedies they offer, “Mythotherapy” for instance, as ploys for controlling the identities of their patients. Thus, the identity of a postmodern figure is virtually manipulated, conditioned, and monitored by the external environment and the physicians who act as controlling agents. Influenced by the Behaviorists who are not only interested in describing man’s doings but also in predicting and controlling his activities, the doctors represented in postmodern narratives believe that they could build into man desired patterns or emotional responses. Akin to this notion is Cybernetics – the inter-disciplinary study of control and communication in animals, humans, machines, and organizations. Cyberneticists use both the animate and the inanimate tools for behavior modification. Thus, there are the human therapists and the inanimate computers and televisions to act as cybernetic agents in the postmodern novels. Nonetheless, the focus of this paper is on the animate agents of control, the doctors, and their mysterious relationships with their patients in selected novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. By playing their plastic, psychiatric, and therapeutic games, “the doctors” as cybernetic controllers in the works of Barth and Pynchon play a significant role as constructors of human identities. Subversively, it is by constructing the identities of their patients that the controlling agents ascertain their own identities. The paper outlines this aspect of identity-control exercised in the enigmatic ties especially between Barth’s Jacob Horner and The Doctor in The End of the Road, and Pynchon’s Oedipa and Dr. Hilarius in The Crying of Lot 49. It implicitly argues that these are what Michel Foucault terms as “power-knowledge relations.”

Postmodern American fiction, cybernetics, doctor, patient, disease, identity, control, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Michel Foucault, power, resistance



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