Into a Silent Universe: The Sublime and the Eerie in Byron and Ballard

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This paper was originally presented for the Cultural Enquiry Research Group seminar series at Federation University, Ballarat in September 2019. 


Extinction is no longer news: everywhere stories abound of a humanity on the brink of collapse. No longer relegated to the distant reaches of deep time or the arcane will of a deity, the end of humanity is now increasingly lived and felt as an ongoing process. The countdown to global tipping points are not measured in the millions or billions of years, but by the decade—and even as the timescale of catastrophe contracts to the span of a human life, the mass of processes, actors, and systems leading into this disaster become inconceivably more complex. In the words of the philosopher of horror Eugene Thacker:

“The world is increasingly unthinkable  – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. […] To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part” (2011, 1).

The future, we are told, is not human, but posthuman: which is to say that we will no longer be able to recognise ourselves as ourselves as we drift further into a global order of ecological disaster. As N Katherine Hayles declares: “If human essence is freedom from the wills of others, the posthuman is ‘post’ not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will” (1999, 4). In other words, we realise that the human subject was never truly separate from the material processes  relegated to the exterior of humanity, and as the world outside ourselves becomes unthinkable, so too do we become indistinct within the background noise.

Despite its seeming archaicism in the face of a posthuman future, I contend that the genre conventions of the Gothic, and its formula of “negative aesthetics,” are best suited to making sense of the catastrophe and decay which characterise that future (Botting 2014, 1). Just as the posthuman subject is structured around the human interior’s loss of autonomy from what lies outside, Gothic fiction follows what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has identified as a “particular spatial model” structured around the tensions of fragile interiors under siege from dangerous and desirable outsides (1986, 12). This model of the Gothic as a conflict between “what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them” thus lends itself well to depicting the anxious position of the posthuman subject—whose unstable, human interior is infiltrated and overpowered by the vast outsides of nature and machinery (ibid.). To elaborate upon this intersection of the Gothic and the posthuman I will look closely at a pair of aesthetic categories typical of the Gothic, namely the sublime and the eerie, to locate within the Gothic style a nascent sense of posthumanity.

Continue reading “Into a Silent Universe: The Sublime and the Eerie in Byron and Ballard”

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A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought (Part III)

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Contents
Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought
Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought
Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

I: Turning the Gothic inside out

The conventions of the Gothic are doubly divided. The first division is the structural separation of inside from outside: In Eve Sedgwick’s account this inside-outside disjunction may structure thematic elements, such as the topography of the setting or the psychology of the characters, or it may describe the layered texts and narratives of Gothic fiction itself. In the preceding essay, I proposed that the Gothic’s inside-outside disjunction may also be read in epistemic terms, describing not only the dramas of characters navigating social space or fictions charting a textual topography, but also the inner and outer limits of the human subject. The inside and outside are in this sense not empirical markers of spatial or social division, but transcendentally interior or exterior to the faculties of the human mind. The transcendental outside is therefore “not just a matter of something being distant in space or time, but of something which is beyond our ordinary experience and conceptions of space and time itself” (Fisher 2016, 22).

The second division of the Gothic is generic, separating two modes of Gothic writing, and two types of Gothic plot. My study of Schopenhauer placed him within the context of only one of these traditions, namely that of Gothic horror or the masculine Gothic. In his investigation into the limits of knowledge, Schopenhauer writes a veritable Schauerroman—or shudder novel—that follows thought down through the catacombs of the noumena, where the seemingly discrete and free human subject is revealed as the puppet of a monstrous and exterior will. The end of self-knowledge for Schopenhauer is the horrified realisation that “‘we’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces [and that there] is no inside except as a folding of the outside” (Fisher 2016, 11-2). The question then remains, if the outside has thus far signalled either horrified abjection or the ascetic embrace of death, what thinking subject can possibly pass through the Gothic topography and return to tell of it?

Continue reading “A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought (Part III)”

Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought (Part II)

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Contents
Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought
Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought
Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought

According to Eve Sedgwick’s The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, the Gothic form is composed of three principle components—the inside, the outside, and what divides them. The inside and outside may be geographical, architectural, moral, or psychological, just as the boundary between them may be composed of brick, earth, fabric, or something more socially malleable. The present essay proposes that this inside-outside disjunction may also be conceived transcendentally, as a means of describing not only empirical instances of isolation and repression but also the grand enclosure of the transcendental subject away from “the unthinkable and unspeakable regions beyond possible experience” (Fisher 2001, 223). Additionally, with this tripartite topography of the Gothic in mind, there remains the question of how these elements interact with one another, and how their composition in the Gothic scene develops into a model of thought. What follows are five principles on the workings of the inside-outside disjunction accompanied by examples from Schopenhauer to lead us through the dark passageways of thought, toward a final horrific confrontation with the outside. Continue reading “Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought (Part II)”

The Powers of Terror: Toward a Gothic Image of Thought (Part I)

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Snake-bound Osiris figurine at the Museo Nazionale Romano (Terme di Diocleziano).

Contents
Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought
Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought
Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought

They told me that the night and day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to enclose me up;
And they enclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red, round globe, hot burning,
Till all from life I was obliterated and erasèd.
(Blake, “Daughters” 53-7)

The Gothic formula isn’t hard to spot. Characters cycle through a handful of archetypes: the wicked priest, the young lovers, the veiled virgin and the men who covet her, the demonic seductress, the wandering damned, and the list goes on. At the level of plot much is the same: imprisonment, live burial, profaned sanctity, hidden parentage, broken taboos, and shocking reveals are all to be expected. But what unites these disparate elements under the single and pre-eminently recognisable title of the Gothic? In The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick proposes an answer to this question in the formulation of a “particular spatial model” which unites the core structures and themes of the Gothic style. This spatial model is comprised of three components, “what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them,” which sever the individual self from something crucial to it (Sedgwick 1986, 12). This desired object can lie outside the self, or it can be hidden impossibly within, what is essential is the third component, the force or barrier which imposes that separation. Prisons, veils, and secret identities all come naturally to this structure, as all have to do with the intimate yet severed relations between insides and outsides. Continue reading “The Powers of Terror: Toward a Gothic Image of Thought (Part I)”

Denying the Machine: Luddites, Monsters, and Pynchon’s Posthuman Gothic

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As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

With these lines from Lord Byron, Thomas Pynchon ends his essay on technology and humanity, titled “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” (1984), with a resounding affirmation of the Luddite cause. The “‘Luddite’ skepticism that dominates Pynchon’s politics” has been well-noted elsewhere, but nowhere is it clearer than in this essay just what a fraught and ambiguous conception of Luddism Pynchon adheres to (Thomas 2007, 146). Far from espousing a simply anti-technological position, Pynchon’s essay is shot through with ambivalence, moving from the revolutionary hopes of Byron’s poem to the recuperation of those same energies to the ends of an eventual entente between humanity and machine. Pynchon equivocates between these two positions, suggesting in one paragraph that “if the logistics can be worked out, miracles may yet be possible” and in another revealing that promise of perfection to be the scam of “an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing” (Pynchon 1984).

It is the object of this paper to interrogate these equivocations in Pynchon’s essay, between humanity and technology, between miracles and machines, and to formulate what I identify as a specifically Posthuman Gothicism at the heart of this conceptual nexus. I wish to argue that in giving a contemporary voice to the Luddite cause, Pynchon simultaneously proposes both a Gothic aesthetics able, in his words, “to insist on the miraculous” and a paradoxically posthuman ethics able to “deny the machine at least some of its claims on us,” which together may “assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings” (Pynchon 1984). Further still, I suggest that Pynchon’s own fictions may in turn be read through this Gothic formula.  Continue reading “Denying the Machine: Luddites, Monsters, and Pynchon’s Posthuman Gothic”

“Down, Down, and Gone:” Gothic Cyberspace in Bleeding Edge

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Out in the vast undefined anarchism of cyberspace, among the billions of self-resonant fantasies, dark possibilities are beginning to emerge (Pynchon 2013, 327).

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge (2013), brings his longstanding concerns with technology and control into the digital age. The plot of the novel is too complex to summarise here, but can be understood as a mix of noir crime investigation, conspiracy thriller, and a latter-day cyberpunk homage set in the months following the dot-com crash of the early 2000s. The novel’s protagonist is Maxine Tarnow, a recently divorced mother of two and fraud investigator, usually of the financial kind, who is drawn by an old friend into a whole other world of crime: cybercrime. In Pynchonian fashion, the novel quickly descends into conspiracy, as collusion between tech companies, foreign governments and shadowy agencies crystallise. As the plot becomes overrun with loose threads of state-sanctioned barbarism, business malpractice, and cybernetic control, the lines converge on the web as a locus for the traumas of late capitalism, and for the hopes for another digital world which precipitated and fell away at the turn of the century.

The world that Pynchon dissects is depicted variably in the language of nineties and early-noughties pop-culture and in the darker tones of cyberpunk and the Gothic. Throughout the novel, the web figures as an otherworld just outside our own, where our dreams seek refuge and our nightmares take shape. In this paper, I argue that although Pynchon plays into the cyberpunk aesthetic, he ultimately redeploys its ambivalent terror and thrill for late capitalist economic and cultural capture to launch a critique against the world now made in its likeness. Looking back at the frenetic early years of the web, Pynchon forces us to see them through tragic rather than utopian eyes. This journey backwards in time begins with a departure from the surface web, through the forgotten and hidden passageways of cyberspace, down to the Gothic secret which lies at its heart. Continue reading ““Down, Down, and Gone:” Gothic Cyberspace in Bleeding Edge”

More Than This: Notes on Acid Communism

“A new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving: this is the promise of acid communism” (Fisher 2018, 767).

 “Acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through [their lies], so of course they had to take it away from us” (Pynchon 1990, 314).

Time stands still. Out of joint doesn’t even cover it. Get in your car and drive around the grey circuits of highways, looping over the city, through the country. The nights are marked by the strobing rhythm of streetlights, and the days blur into one another. On the radio Bryan Ferry croons: “Tell me one thing more than this — oh, there’s nothing.” Endless re-runs, ever-lengthening work days, and hopeless election cycles all keep us caught in a monotonous present. The past is just a setting for the new HBO costume drama. A future different from the present is unimaginable. What alternative could there be? The mantra is this: “nothing has ever happened, nothing can ever happen” (Fisher 2018, 602). Continue reading “More Than This: Notes on Acid Communism”

Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic

The Posthuman and the Gothic

In her book on The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti gives a startling portrait of the Posthuman approach to death:

What we humans truly yearn for is to disappear by merging into [the] generative flow of becoming, the precondition for which is the loss, disappearance and disruption of the atomized, individual self. […] This can be described also as the moment of ascetic dissolution of the subject; the moment of its merging with the web of non-human forces that frame him/her, the cosmos as a whole. We may call it death, but in a monistic ontology of vitalist materialism, it has rather to do with radical immanence. That is to say the grounded totality of the moment when we coincide completely with our body in becoming at last what we will have been all along: a virtual corpse (Braidotti 2013, 136).

Here Braidotti sums up the core elements of her conception of the Posthuman: the disappearance and disruption of the human subject; a repositioning of that subject within a wider cosmos of living matter; and the multidirectional mixing of the inside of the human with the outside of the universe. The Posthuman in this sense encompasses both the negative and the reformative aspects of life freed from the strictures of the human as a transcendent, universal category, out of which a myriad inhuman and unhuman forms of life may emerge. However, this passage provides a dark twist to the vitalist commitments its expresses. Although the moment of death is subsumed into a wider process of life, it also remains as an immanent and ever-present element of that process. In affirming the wider productivity and vitality of the material world beyond the human, we discover ourselves as something other than human. “‘We’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces. There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was” (Fisher 2016, 11-2). Continue reading “Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic”

From Isolation to Affirmation: Love of the World in The Crying of Lot 49

This paper was delivered at the International Pynchon Week conference in June 2017. It stands as the most succinct summary of where my research had arrived at that point. Suffice it to say, my position has changed since then: Firstly, moving away from the theme of humanity to that of its dissolution, which can be seen in formation in this paper. Secondly, moving toward a more radical reading of Pynchon as a political writer, beyond the political themes discussed here. Substitute any references in this paper to “consumerism” with “capitalism” and you’ll have an idea of where things have changed. Nevertheless, this paper remains the kernel of my current writing, and a worthwhile re-appraisal of Pynchon’s most popular novel. 

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Bordando el Manto Terrestre (Remedios Varo, 1961)

The theme which dominates The Crying of Lot 49 is that of loneliness, and beneath its shadow, the theme of love. Oedipa Maas is struck by the death of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, and in her grief searches the city of San Narciso for some shred of his passing. What she finds instead is not Inverarity’s ghost, but a newfound love of the lives around her and a care for the world they have in common. Although the novel ends in paranoid anticipation, the course charted up to that point is one of emergence from isolation and desperate reconnection to a world on the brink of oblivion.

Continue reading “From Isolation to Affirmation: Love of the World in The Crying of Lot 49”

A Vector of Desire: The Gothic Folds of Time and Space in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

1: Pynchon and the Gothic Line

This paper looks to Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon (1997) as a statement on the shape of time and space in modernity. Set in the middle years of the eighteenth century, a decade prior to the American Revolution, the novel charts the travels of the astronomer Charles  Mason and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. Over the course of the novel, the duo come increasingly to face the dark forces which inhabit their supposed era of Enlightenment. This age of reason begets the monstrous and “great systems of control” which typify Pynchon’s cosmos (Noys 2014, 44). And yet, peering back from the late twentieth century and the supposed end of history, gazing into the birth of modernity, the novel refuses to present a clear line of progress from there to here. Instead, we catch glimpses of temporalities other than our own, and we find our own conceptions of the world upset by strange twists in time.  Continue reading “A Vector of Desire: The Gothic Folds of Time and Space in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon”