“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”

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”

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”

A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought (Part III)

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Contents
Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought
Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought
Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

I: Turning the Gothic inside out

The conventions of the Gothic are doubly divided. The first division is the structural separation of inside from outside: In Eve Sedgwick’s account this inside-outside disjunction may structure thematic elements, such as the topography of the setting or the psychology of the characters, or it may describe the layered texts and narratives of Gothic fiction itself. In the preceding essay, I proposed that the Gothic’s inside-outside disjunction may also be read in epistemic terms, describing not only the dramas of characters navigating social space or fictions charting a textual topography, but also the inner and outer limits of the human subject. The inside and outside are in this sense not empirical markers of spatial or social division, but transcendentally interior or exterior to the faculties of the human mind. The transcendental outside is therefore “not just a matter of something being distant in space or time, but of something which is beyond our ordinary experience and conceptions of space and time itself” (Fisher 2016, 22).

The second division of the Gothic is generic, separating two modes of Gothic writing, and two types of Gothic plot. My study of Schopenhauer placed him within the context of only one of these traditions, namely that of Gothic horror or the masculine Gothic. In his investigation into the limits of knowledge, Schopenhauer writes a veritable Schauerroman—or shudder novel—that follows thought down through the catacombs of the noumena, where the seemingly discrete and free human subject is revealed as the puppet of a monstrous and exterior will. The end of self-knowledge for Schopenhauer is the horrified realisation that “‘we’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces [and that there] is no inside except as a folding of the outside” (Fisher 2016, 11-2). The question then remains, if the outside has thus far signalled either horrified abjection or the ascetic embrace of death, what thinking subject can possibly pass through the Gothic topography and return to tell of it?

Continue reading “A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought (Part III)”

Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought (Part II)

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Contents
Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought
Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought
Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought

According to Eve Sedgwick’s The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, the Gothic form is composed of three principle components—the inside, the outside, and what divides them. The inside and outside may be geographical, architectural, moral, or psychological, just as the boundary between them may be composed of brick, earth, fabric, or something more socially malleable. The present essay proposes that this inside-outside disjunction may also be conceived transcendentally, as a means of describing not only empirical instances of isolation and repression but also the grand enclosure of the transcendental subject away from “the unthinkable and unspeakable regions beyond possible experience” (Fisher 2001, 223). Additionally, with this tripartite topography of the Gothic in mind, there remains the question of how these elements interact with one another, and how their composition in the Gothic scene develops into a model of thought. What follows are five principles on the workings of the inside-outside disjunction accompanied by examples from Schopenhauer to lead us through the dark passageways of thought, toward a final horrific confrontation with the outside. Continue reading “Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought (Part II)”

The Powers of Terror: Toward a Gothic Image of Thought (Part I)

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Snake-bound Osiris figurine at the Museo Nazionale Romano (Terme di Diocleziano).

Contents
Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought
Part II – Subterranean Passages: The Gothic Structure of Thought
Part III – A Deep Anonymous Murmur: The Gothic Subject of Thought

Part I – The Powers of Terror: Toward A Gothic Image of Thought

They told me that the night and day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to enclose me up;
And they enclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red, round globe, hot burning,
Till all from life I was obliterated and erasèd.
(Blake, “Daughters” 53-7)

The Gothic formula isn’t hard to spot. Characters cycle through a handful of archetypes: the wicked priest, the young lovers, the veiled virgin and the men who covet her, the demonic seductress, the wandering damned, and the list goes on. At the level of plot much is the same: imprisonment, live burial, profaned sanctity, hidden parentage, broken taboos, and shocking reveals are all to be expected. But what unites these disparate elements under the single and pre-eminently recognisable title of the Gothic? In The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick proposes an answer to this question in the formulation of a “particular spatial model” which unites the core structures and themes of the Gothic style. This spatial model is comprised of three components, “what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them,” which severs the individual self from something crucial to it (Sedgwick 1986, 12). This desired object can lie outside the self, or it can be hidden impossibly within, what is essential is the third component, the force or barrier which imposes that separation. Prisons, veils, and secret identities all come naturally to this structure, as all have to do with the intimate yet severed relations between insides and outsides. Continue reading “The Powers of Terror: Toward a Gothic Image of Thought (Part I)”

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”

“Down, Down, and Gone:” Gothic Cyberspace in Bleeding Edge

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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”