In Joseph Slade’s “Thomas Pynchon, Postindustrial Humanist,” the barriers between man and machine are redefined and blurred. Slade argues that Pynchon sees technology as the product of man’s desire to make sense of nature and create order out of chaos, a product that accomplishes neither of those two goals. If anything, technology in the modern world, as exemplified in Gravity’s Rainbow, becomes more mysterious and terrifying as it progresses. For Slade, what Pynchon is putting forward in Gravity’s Rainbow is that man should recognize that he is not so different from the machines he has created, and that to get rid of the duality between man and machine is to accept a modern view of human nature and how we interact with the world around us. Slade believes Pynchon “eliminates the discontinuity between man and machine, but claims that another discontinuity…remains, between machine and nature” (61). Stating such a claim about Gravity’s Rainbow not only offers a critical view of what the forces of man and technology are capable of, but also gives a new definition of what humanism is in the modern world.
Slade’s argument rests largely in a historical view of human thought. The “discontinuity between man and machine” that I mentioned earlier is the fourth discontinuity in a line of scientific revolutions, “after each of which man had difficulty mustering a belief in the continuum of nature” (56). The Copernican revolution showed us that we weren’t at the center of the universe, the Darwinian revolution taught us that man wasn’t so high and mighty a creation above other animals, and the Freudian revolution brought to our attention that our thoughts aren’t that independent or rational. Finding and believing in the resemblance of humans to cybernetic systems, Pynchon “stresses that the relationship between the individual and his environment is that of an information-processing system” (59). Technology is the means by which we not only understand nature, but interact with it as well. Slade opens up a religious-historical argument in his defense of technology’s continuum with nature by going back to its early uses of “demystifying the universe by means of rationalization and secularization” that “denied the sometimes entropic, always paradoxical operations of nature” (64). What Pynchon does in the novel, in turn, shows that technology follows the flow of nature by also being paradoxical, entropic, and completely mystifying. Slothrop’s conditioned response to the German rockets makes him the “first wholly ‘natural’ cybernetic system,” but exposes the paradoxical nature of technology when he seems to escape control from this response (59). The sheer amount of scientific jargon, from Pynchon’s references to drugs to dyes to psychological experiments to statistics to rocket engineering to Kekule’s discovery of the benzene ring structure and many of the parts where we all got lost in the more technical aspects of the work show how much more our own technology seems to surpass human capabilities. Slade asserts that “formulas appear t o fragment reality rather than to render it whole…it may very well be that the world is mathematical, yet man does not always experience it that way” (60). Here, in Gravity’s Rainbow, is the “re-mystified,” postindustrial world that technology has created.
How does aligning ourselves with technology as the latest transformation of the way mankind views itself and nature make ourselves humanists, though? Slade concedes that “humanists generally deny that man is a machine, whether that machine be a system or not” (58), but deviates from them by saying that man already lives in a cybernetic system with many machine-like structures and thinks in these mechanical terms. The corporations are clear power structures in the novel, but natural structures, like molecular and linguistic ones, also shed light on the idea of men being built as thinking machines. The next humanistic hurdle would be asking if we have a sense of free will, if we are to believe that there should be no duality between man and machine. Slade asserts “man the machine has created a world in his own image” (65). We are responsible for the deeply cybernetic system we live in; our past has built upon itself to make the postindustrial human view the natural world through a technological lens. Moreover, Slade believes humans have an upper hand in this world because “confronted with ambiguity, a computer will yaw into oscillation; human beings need not—if they stake out that middle ground” (67). Because we are able to use these moments of ambiguity and chaos to assert ourselves as individuals, Slade believes we do not suffer much of a loss of our free will by redefining man as a machine.
Slade’s approach to Gravity’s Rainbow easily skewed my perception of how to read the novel under these manmade, “artificial” systems and structures. I often find the densest passages to be the most scientifically rigorous (outside of the statistical debates), and wasn’t sure what to do with the amount of allusions to mathematics—I usually wrote them off as pertaining solely to the overarching debate of determinism in the novel, and also separated the science from the present events and characters, believing the scientific discussions to be either background or plot devices to keep the story moving forward. The idea of science itself as a debate and how it enmeshes itself with the fate of humanity outside of the war brings in much more complexity of how to live in this postindustrial world than, say, statistics versus Pavlovian psychology. On that note, Slade mentions Roger Mexico and his role as a statistician using binary variables as symbolic of how close our cybernetic world plays jumprope with the line between order and disorder. Roger’s quote early on in the novel of everyone being “equal in the eyes of the rocket” takes on a very different tone when taking into account how the rocket is not merely a machine, but one programmed by larger systems and structures that are controlled by men (and the obvious connection to the basically organic Imipolex G) (Pynchon 58).
Something about the paper’s brushing past the problems of freedom and death and ethics and morality left me waiting for more, however. Slade very quickly glosses over the fact that even if we, as individuals, are aware of our own functioning and programming, we aren’t sure of “who or what is in control and not whether [we] are true automata or mere servomechanisms” (59). While the choices we are given when there is ambiguity (synonymous with “entropy” in this essay) are still ours to make, I feel like the question of whether we are ever in true control (which is kind of solipsistic and somehow, to me, not very Pynchonian) of what we choose to become or if we’re just cogs in a machine still goes unanswered in this larger debate of postindustrial humanism. The rest of the essay gives a very optimistic view of choosing to see “man the machine” instead of “man versus machine” in terms of how to compromise living in a world where machine and nature should not be labeled as a dichotomy, but is this natural metaphysical transformation really so humanistic when free will is so limited? I don’t disagree with any other part of the essay, but it makes me question whether true humanism itself can even survive in this postindustrial world.
Slade, Joseph W., “Thomas Pynchon, Postindustrial Humanist,” Technology and Culture 23.1 (January 1982): 53-72.