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.
Level 1: Cyber-Sanctuary
The central portal to the web in Bleeding Edge is the mysterious program DeepArcher. DeepArcher is a kind of graphical interface for navigating the deep web, in which various links and websites are represented by 3D models submitted by the program’s users. One of its creators describes the process like so:
The further in you go, as you get passed along one node to the next, the visuals you think you’re seeing are being contributed by users all over the world. All for free. Hacker ethic. Each one doing their piece of it, then just vanishing uncredited. Adding to the veils of illusion (Pynchon 2013, 69).
In addition to its role as a collaborative online space, the program doubles as a kind of search engine for the deep web. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, and without making the topic too complicated, the deep web is comprised of pages on the Internet which have not been indexed in conventional search engines—because they are protected by passwords, encryption, or are otherwise inaccessible to the web crawlers which compile the search indexes. Think online banking pages, paywalled journals, and assorted junk websites. As opposed to the surface web, which is easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection, the deep web must be accessed by way of direct links, and it is this role that DeepArcher plays by stringing together pathways through the deep web in its digital world.
There is in this depiction a certain fantasy element, not only in the ways that DeepArcher calls ahead to the online worlds of today, but in the ways it recalls the “consensual hallucination” of William Gibson’s cyberspace (Gibson 1984, 67). As in early works of cyberpunk such as Neuromancer, this vision of cyberspace presents a world just outside our own, composed of beautiful and sublime vectors of geometry, into which we may take flight from the darkened skies of this world. One of Pynchon’s characters recounts:
Originally the guys, you have to wonder how presciently, had it in mind to create a virtual sanctuary to escape to from the many varieties of real-world discomfort. A grand-scale motel for the afflicted, a destination reachable by virtual midnight express from anyplace with a keyboard (Pynchon 2013, 74).
In this imagery of sanctuary, and its darker undertones of trauma and escape, DeepArcher functions in the novel as a synecdoche for the Internet as a whole. Pynchon presents here a branching of digital technology into the communal that never occurred, but which is fated to the same depredations and privatisations as our own Internet. Over the sanctuary of the Internet lies the spectre of capital, and the capture of any as yet uncommodified creation to ends more base. Pynchon writes of DeepArcher that:
Whatever migratory visitors are still down there trusting in its inviolability will some morning all too soon be rudely surprised by the whispering descent of corporate Web crawlers itching to index and corrupt another patch of sanctuary for their own far-from-selfless ends (Pynchon 2013, 167).
The logic of the novel thus descends from the cybercultural dreams of creating another world to the grim realisation that our world is not so easily evaded. The nightmares of surveillance, cooption, and control take hold, and whatever freedom there is on the web is forced to either capitulate or take on methods more secretive and hostile to the surface world. David Haeselin has remarked that “for Pynchon, the ability to search offers access to a version of history, one not distorted by governmental power alone but by ‘late [digital] capitalism’ […] Here Pynchon’s fictional world fuses with ours. Information is cheap. There is already too much of it. Information is not power; the ordering of information is power. Given the unparalleled volume of data, only the mechanized indexing practices of the search engine can offer us access to this broad and dark world” (2017, 322).
Level 2: Cyber-Crypts
It is the dark world of our digital era which Bleeding Edge depicts in increasingly macabre terms. A character describes the process of trawling through the deep web in terms of excavation and secrecy:
The Deep Web is supposed to be mostly obsolete sites and broken links, an endless junkyard. Like in The Mummy (1999), adventurers will come here someday to dig up relics of remote and exotic dynasties. “But it only looks that way, […] behind it is a whole invisible maze of constraints, engineered in, lets you go some places, keeps you out of others. This hidden code of behavior you have to learn and obey. A dump, with structure” (Pynchon 2013, 226).
Here the logic of storing, hiding, and revealing that drives the deep web is twisted up with the language of horror. The web functions as a virtual archaeological dig, into which the waste of one age is cast to be excavated by the next. Dead links, abandoned pages, and the amassed clutter of the past are hidden in the depths, where treasures and garbage alike lie forgotten by the world above. But it also functions as a crypt, as in tales of adventure and mystery, which exerts its own power over its excavators. Complex networks of tunnels, passwords, and firewalls take the place of the puzzles, booby-traps, and curses of its more corporeal and cinematic brethren. “Sprawling beneath public cyberspace lies the labyrinthine underworld […] Cyberspace has its own shadow, its dark-twin: the Crypt” (CCRU 2017, 229). The deep web figures in the novel not as an excavation site that brings light to ages past, but as a catacomb into the darkness of which we must journey.
This journey is recalled in the name of DeepArcher, which facilitates the departure of its users into this dark world. In the first few pages of its introduction into the novel, the program is discussed in otherworldly terms, as Maxine speculates upon the alternate self, or avatar, which represents oneself in the virtual world:
“[…] in the Hindu religion avatar means an incarnation. So I keep wondering—when you pass from this side of the screen over into virtual reality, is that like dying and being reincarnated, see what I’m saying?” (Pynchon 2013, 70).
The avatar transports us from this world, and this life, into another. To be reborn on the other side of the screen is to undergo a journey without spatial coordinates, to be in two places at once, as in an out of body experience. As Mark Fisher writes on the cyberspace of Gibson’s Neuromancer:
Travel in cyberspace, then, becomes less a question of floating detached from all (sensory) input than of what Deleuze-Guattari call “intensive voyage”. […] The often dizzying confusion of Neuromancer’s narrative arises in large part from its hypernaturalistic description of intensive voyages. Different “realities” can be accessed – intensively – while the body lies prone, in the same extensive space. The concept of intensive voyage allows us to deflect assumptions that cyberspace travel is merely a psychological illusion, a phenomenological or interior projection (Fisher 2018, 55-56).
Bleeding Edge continues this cyberpunk tradition of intensive voyages, but with the added awareness of the mundanity of the web as a whole. Not all parts of the internet possess the power of initiating these departures from our world. If fact, the surface web serves precisely the opposite role, of tying its denizens ever-tighter to the rhythms of commerce and the paranoia of surveillance. When Maxine logs into DeepArcher she finds herself:
slowly descending from wee-hours Manhattan into teeming darkness, leaving the surface-Net crawlers busy overhead slithering link to link, leaving behind the banners and pop-ups and user groups and self-replicating chat rooms… (Pynchon 2013, 240).
The deep web of the novel is not merely a result of the incompleteness of digital archiving technology, but a vision of another world which hides all that cannot be in our own. But despite the 90s aesthetic of his novel, Pynchon does not fall into the hype for cybercultural utopias, which would play home to “the imagination of a global mind, hyper-connected and infinitely powerful” (Berardi 2011, 17). Instead, this other world is precisely that: Other. The descent from the New York cityscape, through the surface web, and down deeper and deeper to the sunless seas of DeepArcher is a journey of divestment, of being able to eschew the world as it is for precisely what it is not. Late in the novel, after the September 11 attacks have wiped the dreams of the 20th century away forever, the program becomes haunted by the ghosts of those departed, and a haven for the living abandoned by this reality. DeepArcher is an exercise in hauntology: as the ghosts and fragments of our world persist even as absences.
In the most telling passages of the novel, an ambiguous complex of images emerges, which tie together fantasy with capture, creation with death, and the depths with an invasive surface banality. Francisco Collado-Rodriguez has written that “Bleeding Edge is saturated with expressions that explicitly refer to the posthuman stage of present society” (2016, 235), the conditions of which recall N Katherine Hayles’ theorisations of the posthuman as a product of the disembodiment of information. In Hayles’ words, the “nonmaterial space [of] cyberspace defines a regime of representation within which pattern is the essential reality, presence an optical illusion” (1999, 36). Information in Bleeding Edge isn’t only disembodied, but also, in Wendy Chun’s terms, “undead,” as the deep web takes on the form of a crypt into which deferred and cancelled futures descend, and from which long-forgotten pasts exert a dark power (2015, 160).
With all this talk of departures, depths, and descents, whatever could lie at the bottom of this web? Although the creators of DeepArcher claim that they “don’t do metaphysical” (Pynchon 2013, 70), their program opens a twisted hole down to something. Another character recounts:
When the earliest Vikings started moving into the northern oceans, there’s one story about finding this huge fuckin opening at the top of the world, this deep whirlpool that’d take you down and in, like a black hole, no way to escape. These days you look at the surface Web, all that yakking, all the goods for sale, the spammers and spielers and idle fingers, all in the same desperate scramble they like to call an economy. Meantime, down here, sooner or later someplace deep, there has to be a horizon between coded and codeless. An abyss (Pynchon 2013, 356).
Pynchon’s cybergothic novel draws us down below the surface of the web, through the rubble of recent history, catacombs of information, to a place where all the bustle and purpose of the surface fades to black. At the deepest recesses of our digital world is not a ground but a horizon, which opens out onto the vast abrupt where the coded and codeless meet.
Level 3: …
Yet, a deeper horror lies at the heart of Pynchon’s cyberspace. The departure from ourselves into the bodiless, lifeless catacombs of the web leads only deeper into a yawning void. And at the bottom of it, in the darkness, thinking we have escaped the material world far above, we find our hands running across wires, cables, drowning in coolant—all the material infrastructure which keeps the hallucination running. In the final pages of the novel, a technician voices his scepticism toward the Silicon Valley dreams of posthuman escape from the world. “Fiber’s real,” he declares, although we could imagine him rephrasing his statement as “Fibre is the Real:”
“you pull it through conduit, you hang it, you bury it and splice it. It weighs somethin. [All] you people, livin in this dream, up in the clouds, floatin in the bubble, think ’at’s real, think again. It’s only gonna be there long as the power’s on. What happens when the grid goes dark? Generator fuel runs out and they shoot down the satellites, bomb the operation centers, and you’re all back down on planet Earth again. All that jabberin about nothin, all ‘at shit music, all ‘em links, down, down and gone” (Pynchon 2013, 465).
Bleeding Edge’s depiction of cyberspace is pulled in three successive but mutually exclusive directions: outward to a posthuman utopia, downward to the crypts, and deep below to the infrastructure which maintains it all. The first of these evokes the utopian dreams of cyberculture as sanctuary from the culture at large. This is the cyberspace of what Fred Turner calls digital utopianism, best exemplified by Wired magazine’s dreams of “a global, harmonious community of mind” (262). But Pynchon ultimately refuses this vision as mere fantasy, and as pretext for a greater capture by the forces of neoliberal capital. “What initially appears as the most separate and complete realm for living fantasies quickly opens up into the actualities of financial markets, wage labor, and exploitation” (Dean 2010, 120).
The second cyberspace of the novel evades this Elysian mirage in favour of a Stygian descent, ever deeper beneath the surface web, where time is contracted in the undeath of the haunt and space is travelled by intensive journeys of impersonal hallucination. This second vision seeks a cyberspace unassimilable to the markets and state-interests of the surface web, but in doing so surrenders itself to an arcane and inhuman logic. No longer a playground for its users, the web becomes a labyrinth where all paths lead inexorably downward, away from the light and the living, to where all human interlopers become subject to the circuitry itself. A machinic unconscious.
Here, at the base terminus of cyberspace, a third image emerges. By the novel’s end, any possibility of digital escape has been undone, coopted, or cut off. The otherworlds of cyberspace, whether higher or lower than our own world, all collapse into the base material Chaosmos of our own world. As Jodi Dean writes, “the now old cyberpunk fiction of a cyberspace, techno-utopian fantasy of an information frontier, and still lingering supposition of ‘the Internet’ as a domain separate from ‘real life’ continue to dwindle as imaginaries of an outside” (Dean 2010, 119). Despite his ready deployment of cyberpunk imagery and themes, Pynchon abandons as pure fiction their thirst for an outside to the mundane despair of late capitalism. The fantasy of cyberspace as another world, whether of a utopian or esoteric variety, dissolves into the singularity our own.
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