Gustave Courbet, The Beach at Trouville at Low Tide (1865).
Inherent Vice (2009) is a novel which, despite the overriding nostalgia of its setting and the hardboiled trappings of its plot, is decidedly contemporary in its dual preoccupations with globalised capital and environmental destruction. The Golden Fang, the mysterious organisation which occupies the centre of the novel’s mysteries, appears as a figuration of global networks of exchange, influence, and domination. The specifically trans-Pacific operations of the Golden Fang recall Pynchon’s early preoccupation with the sublimity of the ocean in V. and The Crying of Lot 49, but whereas those novels saw the Pacific and the Mediterranean as sites of pre-human nature, in Inherent Vice the sea is a space of transit for the forces of empire and a territory ensnared in global capital.
Throughout the novel, this global dimension is repeatedly posed against the hippie myths of Lemuria and Atlantis, which are said to have been destroyed for their transgressions against nature, and specifically for their use of fossil fuels to gain dominion over the earth. Through these myths, Pynchon expands the spatial dimensions of the novel into the deep temporalities of history, to ask not only how the global structure of capital manifests within the limited perspectives of individuals such as his protagonist, but also what fate awaits a world wracked by ruthless extraction and financial accumulation. With reference to Andreas Malm’s concept of ‘fossil capital,’ this paper aims to show the necessary link between Pynchon’s figurations of global capitalism and ecological disaster, which are entwined and expressed in the novel’s recurrent conspiratorial themes of international exchange, financial speculation, and imperial expansion. Continue reading “The Sea of Memory and Forgetfulness: Inherent Vice and the Figurations of Fossil Capital”→
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.
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.”
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.
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 argued, Pynchon’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.
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”→
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: