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


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. 

Two quick definitions are in order. I use the term Gothic here in the sense defined by Fred Botting as a genre of “negative aesthetics” that deploys mixed feelings and uncertain meaning to both disturb and transfix the reader (2014, 1). As we shall see, Pynchon refers to Gothic fiction as an ally to the Luddite cause precisely for its privative qualities, and their potential uses in rejecting the world of machines. Following Rosi Braidotti (2013), the posthuman is here defined as what comes after the human, when it has been destabilised by the shocks of technological transformation and ecological disaster. Although the posthuman may seem the natural enemy of the Luddite, under the shadow of the Gothic we should be wary of drawing any clear and unambiguous divisions. Even as Pynchon disavows technical modernity for the Luddite cause, his own fascination with machines, mechanisms, and monstrosity return to give an uncertain twist to the philosophy of yesteryear.

In contrast to the “irrational fear and hatred of science and technology” of which it is often accused, Pynchon insists that Luddism is better understood as a politically and materially conscious revolt against the growing obsolescence of the human (Pynchon 1984). Pynchon reminds us that “the knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries […] Everybody saw this happening – it became part of daily life” (ibid.). In the face of this longue durée of industrialisation, Pynchon does not see a “simple unreasoning horror” among its victims, but the complex mixture of utopian hope and well-earned resentment, “the love/hate that grows up between humans and machinery” (ibid.). What is clear in this process is the unholy alliance that is formed by the order of the day and the increasingly self-reliant machines. Each machine represents a “concentration of capital,” its own inhuman force of production, and a power to “put a certain number of humans out of work – to be ‘worth’ that many human souls” (ibid.). On the one hand of modernity grows the might of machines as their own category of (un)life, and in the other withers the organic lives and hopes of humanity.

Such is the dynamic which Pynchon attributes to the earliest of Gothic novels, which were grounded, he suspects

in deep and religious yearnings for that earlier mythical time which had come to be known as the Age of Miracles. In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so (Pynchon 1984).

Pynchon’s characterisation of modernity as the exit from an age of miracles recalls on the surface a Weberian disenchantment of the world and the desire “to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” (Adorno & Horkheimer 2002, 1). But he does not allow this formulation of modernity to sit easily. What was once possible—the miraculous and the magical—is made impossible in its old form, while simultaneously being made possible in another. In fact, Pynchon’s vision of modernity is far more akin to what has been described as the “Gothic Marxism” of Walter Benjamin (Cohen 1993). In this view, the disillusionment of the Enlightenment was accompanied by the mystifying forces of capital, by which, in Benjamin’s words, “a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and through it, a reactivation of mythic forces” (Benjamin 1999, 391). It is within this newfound sleep that the Gothic novel spins its most enticing dreams and most horrific nightmares, as it both recalls the earlier age of miracles while inhabiting a newly mystified era. As Leslie Fiedler writes, the Gothic form emerged “at a moment when everywhere rationalism had triumphed in theory and madness reigned in fact, [in which its writers] were plagued by a hunger for the inexplicable, a need of the marvelous which they could neither confess nor escape” (Fiedler 1997, 138). To insist upon the miraculous, then, is an ambiguous act which at once restores past myths while delving ever-deeper into the unconscious mythologies of the present.

Although Pynchon’s key reference in regards to the miraculous is Horace Walpole and his germinal Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, an equally fitting comparison is the late Gothic writer Thomas De Quincey, who in his Suspiria describes dreams invaded by machinery. According to De Quincey, the “colossal pace” of technological development reduces us to a “fleshly torpor” as “the brain is haunted as if by some jealousy of ghostly beings moving amongst us” (De Quincey 2013, 81-2). In both De Quincey and Pynchon’s accounts, machines are never merely technological, and in addition occupy an occult position within the rationalist logic of modernity. Pynchon proposes that

What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery. Blake’s dark Satanic mills represented an old magic that, like Satan, had fallen from grace. As religion was being more and more secularized into Deism and nonbelief, the abiding human hunger for evidence of God and afterlife, for salvation – bodily resurrection, if possible – remained (Pynchon 1984).

Pynchon posits that in our secular age the religious yearning for another world is not dispelled, but displaced. Into the void left by religion and the supernatural rush all the erstwhile hopes and fears of the technological, which promises to perform miracles of a far more material nature. Paradoxically, Pynchon suggests, “the influence of religion on history is not so much nostalgic as it is futuristic,” as within this complex of utopian hopes and mechanical acceleration, we discover the past haunting the present and continuing to inspire dreams of the future (Coe 2005, 148).

For all its insistence upon the miraculous—in one form or another—the Gothic retains another purely negative aspect. Pynchon turns to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a prototypically Luddite novel, which warns “of what can happen when technology, and those who practice it, get out of hand” (Pynchon 1984). He writes that

[Frankenstein] remains today more than well worth reading, for all the reasons we read novels, as well as for the much more limited question of its Luddite value: that is, for its attempt, through literary means which are nocturnal and deal in disguise, to deny the machine (ibid.).

What the Gothic novel’s insistence upon the miraculous ensures is not a simple return to a mythic past or the inspiration of a new age of wonders, but a denial of the world as it is at present. Such a task requires one to work through nocturnal, subterranean, and hidden means, as did the original Luddites “ahead of their time, using the night, and their own solidarity and discipline, to achieve their multiplications of effect” (ibid.). Here Pynchon assigns a definite political ends to the Gothic’s ambiguously aligned aesthetics, and suggests that it is only by way of this darkened passage that true alternatives to the status quo may be expressed. By way of its profound negativity, its “aesthetics of pleasurable fear,” the Gothic redoubles the strength of its critique of both a tyrannical past and an inhuman future (Sedgwick 1986, vi).

Pynchon’s idiosyncratic hero of this Luddite fiction is the “Badass,” who is powerful and dedicated enough to destroy that which would destroy him. The foremost example of the Badass in the essay is of course King Ludd, who Pynchon imagines using a “controlled, martial-arts type anger” to destroy the machines (Pynchon 1984). But perhaps more intriguingly, the Badass does not always originate from among a humanity beset by machines. Pynchon writes that “Victor Frankenstein’s creature also, surely, qualifies as a major literary Badass” (ibid.). Frankenstein’s monster certainly fulfils the two criteria which Pynchon sets for the Badass—he’s Big and he’s Bad—but he also draws Pynchon’s Luddism back to the core uncertainties of the Gothic.

As a monster, and as a technological construct, Frankenstein’s creation merges the Luddite appeal to humanity with the posthuman fascination with the more than human, and by association reveals the demand for monstrosity at the core of Pynchon’s essay. The Badass, whether in the form of King Ludd, King Kong, or Shelley’s creature, is someone or something made monstrous by the order of the day—a man possessed by a “fit of insane rage” at the machines, or a machine hell-bent on the destruction of its creator—and to whom all the powers of multiplied effect are made available.

What gave King Ludd his special Bad charisma, took him from local hero to nationwide public enemy, was that he went up against these amplified, multiplied, more than human opponents and prevailed (Pynchon 1984).

The Luddite cause thus demands that we become superhuman, even monstrous, if it restores our power to strike back against these inhuman enemies. Jack Halberstam notes that “the monster’s body […] is a machine that, in its Gothic mode, produces meaning and can represent any horrible trait that the reader feeds into the narrative” (Halberstam 1995, 21). So too do the monsters of Pynchon’s history lie somewhere between flesh and machine, and work to rebound all the technological amplifications of horror back upon the world which made them monstrous. It is in this manner that Pynchon’s essay pits two binaries against one another: the miraculous and the mechanical, and the human and the monstrous—but also proposes resolutions of those oppositions in the paradoxical figure of the Badass.

Provisionally, the key terms of the essay may be mapped onto a semiotic square (see below), beginning with the traditional humanity lost to the machines, and extrapolating non-human (monstrous) and non-machine (Luddite) positions from that binary. The neutral term is occupied by the Badass, who is monstrously more-than-human, and able to harness this negativity of the Gothic to strike back against its simply inhuman foes. The Gothic fiction’s appeal to the miraculous occupies the utopian space of the complex term, in which the miscalculations of the machines may all be resolved in time, achieving at last in the union of humanity and machine all the dreams of “bodily resurrection” (Pynchon 1984). In this manner we may see the hidden fault-lines of Pynchon’s essay, and make some sense of what appear at first to be mere equivocations between a Luddite technophobia and a transhuman techno-utopianism. From within the binary conflict between humanity and machine, whole new worlds of posthuman dreams and Gothic nightmares take shape.

greimas pynchon ludd

But what of the Luddite cause today, over two centuries on from the birth of its Gothic defenders? Pynchon warns that any revitalised Luddism must come to terms with the changing face of technology, which is now “so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead” (Pynchon 1984). More problematic still, there remains the possibility that “if the logistics can be worked out, miracles may yet be possible” and that “the deepest Luddite hope of miracle has now come to reside in the computer’s ability to get the right data to those whom the data will do the most good” (ibid.). Are we to believe that these Gothic antinomies are all to be resolved in time?

Here Pynchon tends close to the vision of a posthuman future critiqued by N Katherine Hayles, in which we are seduced by the “fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality” and doomed to fade into a cybernetic haze (1999, 5). But for all its miraculous possibilities, Pynchon does qualify this potential union of Luddite imagination and technological prowess as one at odds with the powers that be. The Luddites were never anti-technological zealots, he insists, and their struggle “was open-eyed class war” (Pynchon 1984). Today the conflict continues as it ever has, not between human and machine, but between humanity and the inhuman forces of capital, industry, and war. In paraphrase of Eisenhower’s denunciation of the Military-Industrial Complex, Pynchon writes that there is “now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are complete outclassed” (ibid.). The danger here is one reflected by Deleuze and Guattari a decade earlier, that there is now only one class with any true power to speak of: the servants of “the ravenous machine,” who maintain it and feed from it, and against whom we are all effectively Luddites (1983, 245).

As a tentative conclusion, I wish to take Pynchon’s essay in sum as both a manifesto for Luddite literature in the mode of the Posthuman Gothic, and as a statement on the goals of his own writing. Written in the hiatus between Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Vineland (1990), the Luddite essay casts a new light on the genre conventions of his early works, and the political directions of the later. From as early as V. (1963), Pynchon’s fiction has expressed anxieties around the mechanisation of life and the ensuing “falling-away from what is human” (405). Yet in his first novel this possibility holds none of its Luddite potentiality, and is instead framed in terms of decadence, entropy, and a misanthropism which elevates the mechanical to a natural law even as its universal reign is lamented.

From beyond this pessimistic framework, his Luddite essay provides much needed nuance, and a way forward taken up by his later novels. In Mason & Dixon (1997) the insistence upon the miraculous finds voice in the narrator Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke’s demand for history to be written by “fabulists and counterfeiters” who might plumb the “Mnemonick Deep” of memory to deny the powerful their control of the narrative (304-5). By that novel’s end, the cry to deny the machine is raised against the “great single Engine, the size of a Continent” into which the whole globe is to be slowly assumed, forever damning us to an inhuman destiny (772).

In this manner, Pynchon’s own fiction fulfills the demands of the Luddite novel, but not, I argue, in a classically Gothic fashion. What Pynchon deploys in the service of King Ludd is a dark alliance between humanity and machine, to the benefit of both, and to the detriment of the masters and owners who profit from their squabbles. As William Millard writes, “Pynchon closes his Luddism essay with an explicit wish not for any renunciation of scientific progress, but for a revolutionary technological change,” a change which admits the power of the monstrous and extra-human into the human itself (2003, 93).

With some irony, Pynchon ends up on the same page as transhumanist philosopher Keith Ansell Pearson who declares that “when that perennial species, Luddites, declare that they are ‘not into’ technology, they need to be reminded that it is […] more a question of technology being ‘into’ them” (1997, 152). As in Shelley’s Frankenstein, the triumph of technology over its creators is figured by Pynchon not only as the ultimate vindication of Luddism, but the most potent conditions for its revival. It is for these reasons that I dub Pynchon’s style of Gothicism a Posthuman Gothic, for it inhabits the interzone between the archaic and the futuristic, and works by night, negativity, and subterfuge to imagine a world of miracles born from the dissolution of our own. Or, in Pynchon’s final, prophetic words:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come – you heard it here first – when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long (Pynchon 1984).

This paper was originally presented for the International Pynchon Week conference in Rome, 2019. 


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