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”→
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”→
“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”→
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”→
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.
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.
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”→
Abstract: In this paper I examine the works of Thomas Pynchon through the lens of the Posthuman Gothic. This approach turns away from the typical postmodern or satirical readings of Pynchon, and resituates him both within the Gothic tradition of warped realities and inhuman powers, and within the emerging field of the Posthuman, where these terrors are projected from the deep past into the near future. Looking to the strange amalgamations of human and machine in The Crying of Lot 49, I argue for a fruitful reading of Pynchon’s works through the aesthetics of horror.
From the strange amalgamations of body and machine in his first novel V. (1963) to the haunted cyberspace of his most recent novel Bleeding Edge (2013), Thomas Pynchon’s fictive treatment of technology is intertwined with the aesthetics of horror. Although rightly classified as postmodern novels, with all the satirical modes, irreverence, and meta-textual play typical of the form, Pynchon’s fictions just as often refuse these trappings and evade the critical consensus on his works. Following the current turn in Pynchon scholarship, I posit that “literary criticism has focused inordinately on [his] postmodern aesthetics,” (Maguire 2016, 95), and instead turn to the aesthetics of the Posthuman Gothic to uncover a Pynchon relevant to our ambivalent present and uncertain futures.
But first, two quick definitions, and a third clarification are in order:
What even is theory-fiction? In short, it is the intersection of theory and fiction, and also the “dissolution of the opposition itself” (Fisher 1999, p 156). In this hybrid style, theory is torn down from its pedestal, the real power of fiction is affirmed, and both are released from the high forms of the academy.
Whatever theory-fiction may be, the works listed here emerged from disparate locations for manifold reasons: some are motivated by frustration with toothless academic theory, others by the prophetic powers of fiction, and still others by an aggressive disregard for any established form. Recently, Simon Sellars spelled out the issue quite nicely: “I don’t think theory-fiction is a genre, [it] is more like an attitude […] The world is so chaotic that no overarching theory can ever hope to explain it. So, the form itself leaks and cracks.”