“Falling Away from What Is Human:” Thomas Pynchon and the Posthuman Gothic (PhD Thesis)

After much work and waiting, my PhD thesis is now available online. The topic of the thesis is Thomas Pynchon and the posthuman Gothic, with chapters on the themes of terror and horror in The Crying of Lot 49; the Gothic spaces and times of Mason & Dixon; the strange blend of posthuman Luddism of Pynchon’s nonfiction; and the ambivalent cybergothic of Bleeding Edge. An archived copy may be accessed here (or via this backup). The abstract may also be read below:

Long recognised as one of the preeminent writers of literary postmodernism, Thomas Pynchon’s reputation appears set in stone. Yet, I argue, beneath the postmodern appearance of Pynchon’s writing lies a much older form: the Gothic. This thesis contends that Pynchon participates in several broad conventions of the Gothic genre by way of his dramatisation of anxieties surrounding the place of humanity and rationality within inhuman environments. This reading of Pynchon’s Gothicism places his work within the contemporary subgenre of the posthuman Gothic, primarily due to his preoccupation with humanity’s integration into machines, and also by way of the accompanying concerns with the loss of bodily integrity, psychological autonomy, and spiritual agency.

By examining Pynchon as a specifically posthuman Gothic writer I wish to show that the course of human history imagined in his novels does not lead solely to apocalypse or extinction—as critical commentary on his early fiction tends to suggest—but toward a transformation of humanity by its technical and ecological surroundings. Beyond this re-reading of Pynchon’s work, this thesis also attempts to theorise the posthuman Gothic as being more than simply a rehashing of Gothic tropes with sputtering robots instead of cackling villains: in short, I suggest that the structural anxieties of the inside and outside identified by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as hallmarks of the Gothic are isomorphic to the structures of the posthuman subject which is similarly invaded and confined by its environments.

From within this framework of the posthuman and the Gothic, I argue that Pynchon’s various aesthetic and political commitments may be drawn into focus, as the seemingly archaic forms of the Gothic re-emerge once again to name an emerging posthumanity haunted by its recent human past while descending into a monstrous future.

Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End

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Paul Klee, Fermata (1927).

“This time, then once more I think, then perhaps a last time, then I think it’ll be over, with that world too. Premonition of the last but one but one. All grows dim. […] I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.”[1]

With these words from Molloy, Samuel Beckett evokes a curious sense of temporality. The end has already come, yet never seems to arrive; the world appears in its final dying form, but it is only the first of an endless precession of death masks. The end of time doubles back on itself, replaying its last moments like the skipping of a record player.

What appears in Beckett’s novel as a narrative at the limits of the sensible is perhaps no longer so rare an experience. Today there is no shortage of proclamations on the end of days, either in the mode of imminent catastrophe or in the grim acknowledgement that it is already too late to change our fate. It is said that our actions on this planet have inaugurated a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, the era of humanity—and that this epoch also marks our doom, as an era of inevitable catastrophe and extinction. The concept of the Anthropocene carries within it a temporal ambiguity, as it signifies both “that there will not be complete annihilation but a gradual witnessing of a slow end, and that we are already at that moment of witness, living on after the end.”[2] To call this situation apocalyptic or even post-apocalyptic would be a misnomer, because the catastrophe is one without a moment of revelation, much less a redemptive relation to the history that preceded it. The end is embedded in the earth itself, and made into something always already present, as a simple fact of the human era.

It is the argument of this paper that this vision of an end to human history that is at once finished and unfulfilled is not an innate fact of our ecological predicament but is rather symptomatic of our present historical juncture of late capitalism—which is itself interminably caught on the verge of global climate catastrophe but seemingly without alternatives. To attribute the ecological disasters of a historically novel economic system to the geological epoch of humanity itself risks reifying that system into something ahistorically innate to human nature, and therefore without changeability or recourse. The narrative of the Anthropocene is thus characterised by a mournful order of time—which shrinks from historical consciousness and envisages humanity as fossils in the making.

To make sense of this melancholic disposition, I will turn to the works of Walter Benjamin to give a typology of the forms of time available to us. Specifically, I will examine Benjamin’s early writings on Baroque drama, which stages a model of history in which all human action sinks into the mute eternity of the natural world. This form of time will also be compared with Benjamin’s more famous formulations of industrial capitalism’s homogeneous, empty time and the Messianic time which marks the moment of historical fulfilment. Having examined the temporalities of natural history, mechanical time, and Messianic fulfilment as they are drawn by Benjamin, the final part of this essay returns to the present predicament of the Anthropocene and the possibility of reading this new epoch according to Benjamin’s typology of temporalities. If, as per Benjamin, the funereal vision of nature’s eternity is a mark of historical failure, we are today confronted with a failure of world-historic proportions that threatens to sweep up even the most critical minds in its tide. Continue reading “Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End”

“This is not your world:” Extinction and Utopia in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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This paper was originally presented for Gothic Nature III: New Directions in EcoHorror and the EcoGothic, in October 2020. 

For nearly forty years, Hayao Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) has stood as a preeminent work of ecofiction. Set a thousand years after the destruction of civilisation by industrialised warfare, on an earth now covered by a toxic mushroom jungle, the film follows Princess Nausicaä as she attempts to bring an end to a war which threatens both her agrarian community and the future of humanity itself. The critical reception of Nausicaä has tended to read it as an eco-fable, depicting what Donna Haraway describes as the earthly salvation of “peace between humans and other-than-humans.”[1] What this reading ignores, however, are the far darker themes of the manga series upon which the film is based, in which the film’s dreams of natural harmony swiftly give way to the nightmares of mutation, manipulation, and extinction.

As I will argue, the Nausicaä manga (1982-1994), continued by Miyazaki in the decade following the film’s release, systematically undoes the utopianism of its cinematic adaptation.[2] While the film ends with Nausicaä’s messianic rebirth as the mediator between humanity and nature, the manga continues on to disturb the very notions of an independent ‘humanity’ and an undisturbed ‘nature.’ Nausicaä discovers not only that the ‘natural’ world of the mushroom jungle is itself an anthropogenic creation meant to purify the earth, but that the pure earth would be uninhabitable for she and her fellow ‘humans’—because they too were altered to live in a toxic environment. As the monsters of the antediluvian world emerge from their crypts to destroy the earth once more, Nausicaä battles to save a world without a future.

As a tale of extinction rather than salvation, I argue that Nausicaä functions less as an eco-fable than as a work of ecological Gothic. Specifically, this paper aims to show that the moments of horror in Nausicaä are built upon the utopian expectations of ecological fiction, and the abject ruin of those expectations in a world in which the very conceptions of humanity and nature are no longer tenable. I will begin by delineating some of the differences between the film and the manga, before moving on to examine the decidedly Gothic character of the latter text, and the complex interplay of utopia and anti-utopia found within it. Continue reading ““This is not your world:” Extinction and Utopia in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”

Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

The topic of time and temporal order is not new to celebrated novelist and recluse Thomas Pynchon. In a now largely forgotten essay published in 1993 in the New York Times Book Review, Pynchon puts forward an account of modern time that is at once idiosyncratic and in clear conversation with his magnum opus, Mason & Dixon, published four years later in 1997. What is curious about this essay, titled “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” is its focus not directly upon the social structuration of time but the possibilities of moving against and hindering those structures by way of the mortal sin of Sloth. Sloth, or acedia, was once the sin of indolence and laxity which drew the faithful from their duties to God, but in Pynchon’s account the term has since been secularised to describe a sin not against God but against a more earthly order. Not only is Sloth secularised as a worldly rather than spiritual indolence, it is also given a profane meaning as a sin against an economic rather than theological order. In this new regime, writes Pynchon:

“Spiritual matters were not quite as immediate as material ones, like productivity. Sloth was no longer so much a sin against God or spiritual good as against a particular sort of time, uniform, one-way, in general not reversible—that is, against clock time, which got everybody early to bed and early to rise.”[1] 

If Sloth has a new meaning and a new use in the modern era, it is because it has become detached from the divine and integrated into a new perception of time which marches to a mechanical beat. More than anything else, Sloth has been borne into the modern era as a sin against the time of productivity—the time of work—as a drag against the motion of production and the ever-accelerating pace of modernity.

Continue reading “Outside of Time: Sloth and Melancholy in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon”

Underground Intensities: The Gothic Marxism of Deleuze and Guattari

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Boris Kustodiev, “Vampire” (1905).

Within the pages of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s collaborative works recur images of the most unsettling kind. Writing of capital’s endless thirst for living labour, they remark that it “is no longer the cruelty of life, the terror of one life brought to bear against another life, but a post-mortem despotism” or the despotism of the vampire (AO 228). Of the State’s manufacture of pliable subjects they write that it “makes the mutilation, and even death, come first. It needs them preaccomplished, for people to be born that way, crippled and zombielike” (ATP 425). Of their own virulent politics they demand that “we oppose epidemic to filiation, contagion to heredity, peopling by contagion to sexual reproduction. […] Bands, human or animal, proliferate by contagion, epidemics, battlefields, and catastrophes. […] The vampire does not filiate, it infects” (ATP 241-2). For all their purported joyousness, and the assorted “vital materialisms” which today claim filiation from these dubious parents, the two volumes of Capitalism & Schizophrenia are undoubtable compendiums of darkness and terror.

And yet, it is apparent that Deleuze and Guattari’s most morbid imagery appears primarily in their most political statements: when they recall Marx’s account of capital’s “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour” (1976, 367), when they revile the monstrosities of state subjugation, or when they posit a viral infiltration of the very arteries which feed state and capital alike. With this in mind, the object of this paper is to examine the radical politics of Deleuze and Guattari by way of their occulted images and monstrous figures. Specifically, and with reference to Margaret Cohen’s study of the phantasmic Marxisms of Walter Benjamin and André Breton, I wish to propose a “Gothic Marxist” approach to Deleuze and Guattari’s work.

Continue reading “Underground Intensities: The Gothic Marxism of Deleuze and Guattari”

Metabolic Monstrosities: Vampire Capital in the Anthropocene

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André Masson, “The Seeded Earth” (1942).

Paraphrasing a passage from Marx in the Grundrisse, Stavros Tombazos remarks that “every economy is in the end an economy of time” (2014, 13). This is to say that the productivity of labour, the accumulation of wealth, and the circulation of goods and resources which make up an economy in its broadest sense are all components of a particular organisation of time. Changes to this economic organisation are therefore felt not only in the transformations they effect materially, but also in the order of temporality and the rhythms of life possible under a particular economic system. This fact that the passage of time, which is so often taken for a given, is in actuality conditioned by the material and economic conditions in which we live is nowhere more apparent than in our present moment of climate change and ecological catastrophe.

Two long centuries of industrial capitalism have left us with a perception of time which is no longer adequate to the material conditions now reshaping our lives. The ecological historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz typify this old order of time by its dependence on the extraction of fossil fuels: “The continuous time of industrial capitalism,” they write, was “projected onto cultural representations of the future, conceived as a continuous progress unfurling to the rhythm of productivity gains” (2016, 203). The shock of our present moment is that this steady and linear increase in productivity, conceptualised as the natural progress toward a tomorrow greater than today, was only ever the product of a temporary influx of energy from a diminishing resource. As Rob Nixon writes, “in this interregnum between energy regimes, we are living on borrowed time—borrowed from the past and from the future,” with the continuation of the status quo only accelerating us “toward an abbreviated collective future as fossils in the making” (2011, 69).

In the twilight years of fossil capitalism we see the emergence of a new organisation of time in which the present is no longer able to fuel itself at the expense of the future, and the accumulated destruction of the past returns at a planetary level. To address this disjunction between the time of capital and the temporalities of nature upon which it feeds, I will offer an account of the metabolic rift theory of contemporary ecosocialists and attempt to expand this metabolic account into more monstrous territory by way of Marx’s own characterisation of capital’s vampiric thirst. Consequently, I wish to suggest Walter Benjamin’s approach to history, nature, and capital as a potential bridge between the metabolic account of capital’s planetary depredation and the project of ideological critique required to lift the haze of our temporal stasis and dispel the vampire’s curse for good.

Continue reading “Metabolic Monstrosities: Vampire Capital in the Anthropocene”

Thinking Flesh: Nietzsche’s Hysterical Body

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Writing on the nature of conscious life in The Will to Power, Nietzsche remarks “that which is called ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ is of such unspeakably greater importance” for the production of thought than the “superfluous” sentiments of consciousness (WTP §674). “In the vast multiplicity of events within an organism,” writes Nietzsche, “that part which becomes conscious is but a small corner of it” (WTP §674). Far from being the centre of human life, the height of being, or the natural ruler of the body, the conscious mind is instead understood as a minor element among myriad unconscious processes which determine the visible workings of the mind. What appears to our conscious minds as a unity of self or an autonomy of mind is merely an illusion or  mask which hides the polyphonic base of the thinking subject. As Lou Andreas-Salomé remarks: “He willingly relinquishes personal unity—the more polyphonic the subject, the more it pleases him” (2001, 20). Similarly, Gilles Deleuze marks this fragmented conception of the self as central to Nietzsche’s philosophy, stating that

“Nietzsche didn’t believe in the unity of a self and didn’t experience it. Subtle relations of power and of evaluation between different ‘selves’ that conceal but also express other kinds of forces – forces of life, forces of thought – such is Nietzsche’s conception, his way of living” (2001, 59).

This emphasis upon the multitudinous forces which precede the thinking subject has likewise been emphasised in the commentary of Pierre Klossowski, who writes that “starting from these impulses, Nietzsche suspected that beyond the (cerebral) intellect there lies an intellect that is infinitely more vast than the one that merges with our consciousness” (1997, 33). What this paper suggests, however, is that this attention to the unconscious forces both discovered in Nietzsche’s writing and at work in his thought have not been fully situated historically. Emerging from among the late nineteenth century’s growing medical and literary discourses of the body, Nietzsche’s writings speak to a wider interest in the transfiguration of the body as key to the secrets of the mind. Contemporaneous with Nietzsche’s theorisation of the corporeality of thought are the medical discourses of hysteria, which saw the feminine body as a flux of malleable and preconscious signs. Drawing from works by Janet Beizer and Kelly Hurley on the medical and literary history of hysteria, I propose that the vagaries of the flesh in Nietzsche’s late philosophy be read as an adoption of the hysterical body as a model of creative, ecstatic existence.

Continue reading “Thinking Flesh: Nietzsche’s Hysterical Body”

Unearthly Utopias: Ecogothic Scenes in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

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The ambiguous role of machinery in Thomas Pynchon’s fiction has been much discussed, from the strange amalgamations of body and technology in his first novel V. (1963) to the haunted cyberspace of his latest Bleeding Edge (2013). As I have previously arguedPynchon’s fiction may be understood as participating in certain conventions of the Gothic genre by their recurrent imagery of humanity’s dissolution into an inhuman environment. This posthuman Gothic, as theorised by critics such as Sean Bolton and Anya Heise-von der Lippe, may be distinguished from an earlier postmodern Gothic in the way it eschews that aesthetic’s fears of disintegration by machines for a broader concern about the integration of our lives into machinery. In Pynchon’s fiction this integration is made manifest, as both his characters and readers become increasingly aware of their complicity in vast machineries of control, and the possibility that their seemingly autonomous sense of humanity was always already incorporated into a mechanical order.

Continue reading “Unearthly Utopias: Ecogothic Scenes in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon”

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”

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”