Thomas Pynchon and the Posthuman Gothic

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 is the Posthuman Gothic?

The Gothic is here defined by what Fred Botting calls a negative aesthetics, which abandons the traditional veneration of the good and the beautiful in art for the cultivation of negative affects: fear, disgust, pain, confusion, anxiety. However, under the guise of the Gothic, these feelings are not experienced in simply negative terms, but as ambivalent mixtures of revulsion and fascination at the prospect of something other than the ordinary overwhelming our senses. Botting writes that:

Negative aesthetics, in these terms, is double: deficiency, the absence, exclusion or negation of knowledge, facts or things; and excess, an overflow of words, feelings, ideas, imaginings (2014, 7).

Similarly ambivalent, the Posthuman is defined by Rosi Braidotti (2013) as what comes after the human, when it has been destabilised by the shocks of technological transformation and ecological disaster. 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.

Following the work of Anya Heise-von der Lippe (2017), the Posthuman Gothic is here defined as the expression of Posthuman themes of human decentring, disturbance, and dissolution through the negative aesthetics of the Gothic. This is in contrast to the Postmodern Gothic, in which fear is produced by the prospect of an “eradication of humanity at the hands of monstrous technologies” (Bolton 2). While the Postmodern Gothic posits an infernal machine working to eliminate the human, the Posthuman Gothic turns inward, and discovers that the “there is no inside except as a folding of the outside” (Fisher 2016, 11), and that the machine has been working through us and within us the entire time.

It is this folding of the inhuman outside into the human subject that resonates throughout Pynchon’s fiction, which chart the “the emergence of great systems of control” through the “self-steering and yet utterly subjectless” processes of cybernetic feedback and technological mastery (Noys 2014, 44). It is in this context that my analysis takes place, which takes Pynchon’s characters as Gothic heroes and heroines attempting to navigate their mixed joys and horrors in the face of a Posthuman world.

My focus today is upon Pynchon’s second novel The Crying of Lot 49. For the sake of time, the analysis of the plot of the novel is put aside, and the focus turned toward two scenes as illustrations of the Posthuman Gothic. Each scene inflects the genre with different valences, and each illustrates its functioning through the lens of two categories of the Posthuman Gothic aesthetic: the abhuman, and the eerie.


Whence the human? (Mucho Maas and the abhuman machines)

What is it like to experience the lapsing of the human into something other? Early in the novel, the protagonist’s husband Mucho Maas, working as a used car salesman, experiences a haunting by the past in which human traces persist in a kind of un-life. Mucho discovers that in each vehicle resides some ghostly residue of its former owner. He encounters

the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, […] and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused […]  and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost […] – it made him sick to look, but he had to look. […] Even if enough exposure to the unvarying gray sickness had somehow managed to immunize him, he could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else’s life. As if it was the most natural thing. To Mucho it was horrible. Endless, convoluted incest (Pynchon 1965, 8).

Where Mucho expects to find only inanimate machines, he sees the fragments of human life caught up in a mechanical process. The owners of the cars have their lives laid bare for Mucho, who is able to imagine them caught inside motorised shells. But they do not appear to Mucho fully-formed. They are not whole ghosts, returned from a previous life to make themselves known. They are described as residue and as shadows. Both of these terms bare further reflection.

The medium by which Mucho is haunted is not some spectral substance, but the material “residue” and traces left by the car owners themselves. Mucho pieces together the lives of the motorists from the various scraps which have been discarded without notice or care. The cigarette butts speak of a mouth which once held them. The rags recall their lost utilities in clothing and cleaning. The layers of dust show the years that have passed by, storing each fragment in its own milieu. These objects are not mere waste, but act as weird traces and residue of a life that has in all other ways departed, and their weirdness lying in the strange juxtapositions of scraps which never quite make a whole.

Together, these scraps create a map of the lives in which they once took part, showing travel, jobs, and habits in their most pared-down form. A kind of automotive metadata jumps out at Mucho, who is perturbed by the intimacy of information left behind.  When Mucho encounters this waste, he finds an abstract individual emerging from the bits and pieces of information that remain. In the car, the motorist imparts a “malfunctioning version of himself,” which Mucho rediscovers as an “automotive projection of somebody else’s life” (8).

The becoming-inanimate of human life, the disappearance of people in machines, isn’t conceived by Mucho as a grand act of violence or revolutionary overthrow of an old order. He is far from the Ballardian transgression of body and automobile. Rather, he recognises the slow and distributed nature of the process. Little by little, “each owner, each shadow” loses pieces of themselves to a process far beyond their awareness or comprehension. Mucho witnesses the fading of living bodies into shadows, haunting the world in strange presences and scattered fragments. What pushes Mucho over the line is the recognition that he is not exempt from this process. He too is becoming a shadow, usurped by a mechanical copy, leaving residue of his life wherever he goes.

This experience of becoming residue, of becoming a shadow, evokes Mucho’s horror for two reasons: Firstly, it punctures his familiar sense of self by way of the violence done to other human subjects. As his story continues, “the endless rituals of trade-in, week after week, […] were too plausible for the impressionable Mucho to take for long” (8). The fall of humanity from whole subjects into an amorphous mess of fragments and shadows is all too much for Mucho to bare, and so he quits the job. But for that time, he uncovers a weird (un)life at the heart of humanity, and an unsettling truth that what we take to be single and discreet people are only ever the shifting palimpsests of other inhuman lives. As Kelly Hurley describes these conditions in the fin-de-siecle Gothic novel:

Within such a reality […] bodies are without integrity or stability; they are instead composite and changeful. Nothing is left but Things: forms rent from within by their own heterogeneity, and always in the process of becoming-Other (1996, 9).

The violence that Mucho uncovers is nothing particularly bloody, but no less unsettling. It is the twisting up of human lives with an outside or other that produces what Hurley describes as an abhuman subject: one which is discernibly human yet inflected by weird influences, intrusions, and irruptions.

This leads to a second, deeper point of horror, which lies in a barely formed question: “What if we are as “dead” as the machines?” (Fisher 2018, 2). Mucho’s revelation is not that we, humans, are being erased by they, the machines. Rather, it is that “everything – human beings and machines, organic and nonorganic matter” are the same dead stuff, replicating itself in endless patterns without reference (ibid.). A cruel inversion of humanist philosophy takes place, by which the ghost in the machine is brought down to the level of base matter, and revealed as nothing more than product of a greater mechanism. It is this that brings a shudder down Mucho’s spine, as the daily deaths of his job reveal firstly the common fate of all the spectres scattered across a wasted world, and secondly the mute machinery working through his own soul.


What outside enfolds us? (Oedipa Maas and the eerie city)

It is this question of agency that leads us out of the weird life-forms of Mucho’s story and into the aesthetic experience of what Mark Fisher calls the eerie. The category of the eerie, for Fisher, is

constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, [or] there is nothing present when there should be something (Fisher 2016, 61).

If Mucho’s encounter in the caryard is unsettling because of its strange twisting up of human and inhuman life, then the eerie is unsettling precisely when this encounter with the other fails to take place. And yet, despite this failure, something—some Thing—is still there, just perceptibly out of focus. This sense of the eerie is likewise detectable in The Crying of Lot 49’s first chapter, when the heroine of the novel, Oedipa Maas, looks for the first time over the city of San Narciso

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, on to a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding (Pynchon 1965, 14-5).

As in Mark Fisher’s account of the eerie, the primary question raised by Oedipa’s encounter with San Narciso is one of agency. From her first moment of looking across the skyline she sees the buildings springing from the earth, “like a well-tended crop,” in an “ordered swirl of houses and streets” (14). But if they are crops, by whom are they planted? From where does this order arise? Within Oedipa’s failure to communicate and comprehend, there nevertheless lies a “clarity” of vision (14). Revelation seems to emerge over the horizon, as Oedipa stands “at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken” (15). This identity between city and machine brings to the fore the precarious position in which Oedipa finds herself: situated within networks of communication and exchange, but with no agency over the information that passes by her and through her. The radio receiver and the city are not subject to a human will, but speak among themselves in frequencies lower than Oedipa may know.

This is a quintessentially Gothic experience of the city, as what Hurley calls a “chaosmos – a space of meaningless noise, activity, sensation in which narratives indiscriminately crowd one another and no one narrative has any more significance than the next” which in typical Pynchonian fashion “has its inverse in the paranoid fantasy of [the city] whose seeming  indifferentiation masks a network of deeply-laid and infernal designs” (1996, 165). The tumult of roads, lights, peoples, and factories is experienced in the Gothic fashion as indicative of a deeper, eerie order which drives the seeming chaos of the streets. Unlike her husband’s horror at the car yard, Oedipa’s half-formed revelation hovers on the edge of terror at the hidden order precipitating around her.

But yet, Pynchon’s Gothic mode remains tied up with the Posthuman in that he refuses a clear split between his character and the machine. Here, and increasingly over the course of the novel, Oedipa is implicated within this chaosmos of the city. She never learns the arcane codes which pass through its networks, but she learns to wire herself into that system, and let the hidden agencies of the city pass through her. Stefan Mattessich suggest that “Oedipa is essentially a machine, a kind of information-processing computer that organizes or links the elements of the textual world through which “she” seeks answer to the [mysteries of the novel]” (2002, 48).

But what sort of machine is Oedipa? What is flowing through her? Just as Mucho’s cars reveal first a mechanical mode of life, only to strip it away to reveal a dead materiality, Oedipa’s encounter with the city provides one last turn of the screw. The price of fulfilling the Gothic plot, and uncovering this mechanism that gives sense to the senseless city, is the cessation of her person into the vast circuit-board. Trembling “just past the threshold of her understanding” (Pynchon 1965, 15) lies another world. A world that is not for us, but which passes through us and drives us. It is what François Bonnet has labelled the infra-world: “Everywhere, at every moment, it is unravelling. Everywhere, it oozes, it crouches in the shadows. Beneath language, beneath sensations. […] It is the world of exiled impressions and actions, but it is not an absent world. The infra-world is the world that withdraws from the infraliminal world of perception. It is what fails to make a world” (2015, 90).

The Maas couple each reach their limits early in the novel, as one finds his life disrupted by inhuman intrusions, and the other sees her world melt into ineffable networks and flows. Yet it is past those limits that Pynchon continues, as the novel charts out a cosmos in which the human is but a malleable component of a great infernal machine. In the fifty years since the The Crying of Lot 49’s publication, this process has continued apace, and we may now look back to the novel as a forerunner of our presently emerging Posthumanity. The Gothic addition to this mixture gives our Posthuman future a bittersweet taste: Pynchon seems to cry out, Look where you are going! How soon until we are all lost?— And yet, it is the ambivalence of the Gothic that also gives hope. It shatters the ordinary world we take for granted, reveals the horrific machinery beneath its surface, and asks if another world is still possible.

 


Bibliography

Bolton, Michael S. “Monstrous Machinery: Defining Posthuman Gothic.” Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies 1, no. 1 (June 2014): 1-15.

Bonnet, François. The Infra-World. Translated by Amy Ireland and Robin Mackay. Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2017.

Botting, Fred. Gothic, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Fisher, Mark. Flatline Constructs. New York: Exmilitary, 2018.

Fisher, Mark. The Weird And The Eerie. London: Repeater, 2016.

Heise-von der Lippe, Anya, ed. Posthuman Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Maguire, Michael P. “September 11 and the Question of Innocence in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and Bleeding Edge.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 58, no. 2 (2017): 95-107.

Mattessich, Stefan. Lines of Flight. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Noys, Benjamin. Malign Velocities. Alresford: Zero Books, 2014.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. London: Vintage, 1965.

 

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