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Desiring Machines

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Early in Pynchon’s V., during a brief flashback to the previous summer, while Benny Profane is working as the assistant salad man at a resort in the Catskills, he meets Rachel Owlglass–“meets” quite literally, as their introduction results from her nearly running over him with her MG. At the time, Benny is only able to make sense of their encounter by comparing Rachel with his boss, Da Conho, who appears to be in love with a machine gun: “Love for an object, this was new to him. When he found out not long after this that the same thing was with Rachel and her MG, he had his first intelligence that something had been going on under the rose, maybe for longer and with more people than he would care to think about” (23). Benny thus begins in a flailing way to understand that something in contemporary culture has produced a deep shift in the functioning of human desire, resulting in its redirection onto objects of a distinctly inanimate, and indeed mechanical, nature. In this we see that one of the key sites of anxiety about the relationship between humans and machines–in particular, the future disposition of the human body–is desire.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In fact, for many contemporary thinkers, Benny’s perception of this sub-rosa shift may not be far off. “Everywhere it is machines,” Deleuze and Guattari famously claim at the opening of Anti-Oedipus; “real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (1).[14] It is certainly machines with Fergus: a chemistry-machine plugged into a sleep-machine, a sleep-machine plugged into a television-machine. And it is machines with Benny, though as seen in the murderous MG, machines far less benign in their function. Such machines are, like all Deleuzian machines, double-edged in their implications: they redirect, break into, and stem flows, but they also produce and conduct flows, particularly of desire. There are machines that free and machines that capture, but everywhere in contemporary culture we find interconnections, links, couplings, assemblages.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 For Deleuze and Guattari, replacing the Freudo-Marxist “subject” with the notion of machines provides the possibility of escape from the oppressive cycles of deterritorialization and reterritorialization inherent both in capitalism and in its critiques, as well as an alternative to “molar” or totalizing thought, allowing for an unleashing of desire as a revolutionary force. In this shift from the humanist notion of subjectivity to the posthumanist machine, desire is freed from the Oedipal yoke, transformed from the Platonic expression of lack into a positive, productive flow. The machine in Deleuze and Guattari takes on many forms–desiring machines, organic machines, technical machines, social machines, abstract machines, and so on–but each use of the notion of the machine is intended to indicate that the barrier has fallen between the human and nature, between the human and the not human, between the subject and the object, emphasizing instead their intimate and functional interconnection. Desire, that most ostensibly human quality, is in this view inseparable from these assemblages: “Desire and its object are one and the same thing: the machine, as a machine of a machine. Desire is a machine, and the object of desire is another machine connected to it” (Anti-Oedipus 26). Human desire is in this view dependent upon the existence of machines in the broad sense: “Desiring-machines are the nonhuman sex, the molecular machinic elements, their arrangements and syntheses, without which there would be neither a human sex specifically determined in the large aggregates, nor a human sexuality capable of investing these aggregates” (294). Human desire is thus always already a machine, requiring interconnection with other such machines in order to function; without machines, there can be no desire.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This posthumanist perspective on the nature of the machine is by no means comforting, however, for a largely still-humanist culture. The relationship between the machine and desire, in a culture still determined to define the human in opposition to the machinic, is far more antagonistic, far more dangerous, than for Deleuze and Guattari, who spend relatively little time considering the ruptures and failures of interconnection. Even where such coupling succeeds, however, the machine in its humanist renderings produces, as with Fergus, not unleashed desire but the eradication of desire in a creeping inanimateness. That television is the particular source of Fergus’s inanimateness reflects the deep social anxieties that the new communications medium produced in the U.S. home. By 1955, the year of V.‘s present, television had found its way into two-thirds of U.S. homes, and anxieties about its role in those homes had begun spreading (see Spigel 1″“2). As Lynn Spigel indicates, the popular magazines of the late 1950s reveal multiple anxieties about television’s effect on the family, including the fear that the medium would contaminate the female members of the household through its representations of the public world and contaminate the male members of the household by subjugating them within the domestic sphere: “Television was depicted as the new patriarch, a threatening machine that had robbed men of their dominion in the home” (60). Moreover, Spigel demonstrates, these magazines played upon their readers’ fears that the machine was inappropriately interfering with matters conjugal, “show[ing] people how television’s libidinal imagery, and in particular its invocation of male desire, would disrupt the sexual relationship between man and wife” (119).[15] The threat of television thus rests in part in its ability to “invoke” male desire, disrupting the Oedipal channeling of that desire within the safe confines of the family. In this sense, television couples directly with the Deleuzian desiring machine of the unconscious, freeing desire from its societal regulation.[16] In its popular representations, however, television’s danger is more often imagined less as a revolutionary unleashing of desire than as a redirection of that desire onto unacceptable objects.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Desire in fact functions in the popular imaginary as one of those characteristics–like language, reason, and “soul”–that separates humans from machines. Thus in Pynchon’s V. Benny Profane imagines it, after the better part of a case of beer: “Inanimate objects could do what they wanted. Not what they wanted. Not what they wanted because things do not want; only men. But things do what they do, and this is why Benny was pissing at the sun” (26). Things do not want, and thus remain things. On the other hand, if inanimate objects “do what they do,” and if this serves as the justification for Benny’s urinary attempt to put out the sun, one begins to suspect the ultimate frustration of human desire. Only “men” want, only humans feel desire, and yet, unlike things, they apparently cannot do what they want. Human desire is thus cathected onto the machine as a substitute for a lost human agency, an agency that has been forfeited, it increasingly appears in V., to the machine itself. In the mechanical age, as Marshall McLuhan famously suggested, “man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world” (46), agent not of his own destiny, but of the devices to which he is so intimately bound.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Though both Pynchon and McLuhan here ostensibly intend “man” in its prefeminist “universal” sense, this unselfconscious norming of the masculine position with regard to the machine may in fact reveal precisely the kind of conservative attempt to regroup behind the humanist boundary I suggested earlier, here manifested as an attempt to reclaim masculine agency. Each case, while attempting to account for women under the umbrella of the male universal, instead unconsciously suggests that women may bear a different relationship therein. For Donna Haraway, this relationship between woman and machine may be developed into an affinity of political interests aimed at transgressing and dismantling the boundaries thrown up by Western, masculinist, capitalist culture. Similarly, in Deleuze and Guattari, for whom “becoming-woman” is a politically and personally radicalized position, the desiring interface with the machine may evade the constraints placed upon the self by a fully territorialized, Oedipalized society, constraints that include gender itself.[17] In Pynchon, however, as we shall see most clearly in the character of V., the implication is by no means such a progressive one; women, it is to be understood, are in substantive part responsible for the culture’s increasing mechanization. Whether, finally, Pynchon and McLuhan intend here to single out the masculine position as a means of separating out the feminine, or whether the invocation of “man” is an unthinking generalization, the point remains the same: the loss of agency thus feared in a machinic world is a masculine agency.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The relay created between this loss of agency and the rise of a mechanized desire raises two interlocked issues throughout Pynchon’s fiction, though perhaps most explicitly in V. and Gravity’s Rainbow: first, whether the dissociation from the powers of human agency implied when the body becomes or is treated as a machine will interfere with that body’s production and flow of desire, both sexual and otherwise; and second, whether mechanical desire is itself an objectifying force capable of transforming other human bodies into machines. To return to Benny Profane, for starters: as our observer of the Whole Sick Crew’s decadent meanderings toward inanimateness, Benny stands outside the object lust revealed in Da Conho’s relationship with his machine gun and Rachel’s love for her MG. Rachel attempts to explain this desire to him as strictly akin to masturbation: “a young girl has to take her virginity out on something, a pet parakeet, a car–though most of the time on herself.” But Benny doesn’t buy it: “There’s more. Don’t try to get out of it that way” (V. 384). He finds himself bewildered by this attempt to escape the animate, in part because of the hostility he believes objects hold toward him as a “schlemihl,” something “he’d known about for years. Inanimate objects and he could not live in peace” (37). But far from creating for Benny a privileged position outside the Crew’s decadence, his schlemihlhood is an inverted image of machinic desire; by imagining things being persistently “out to get” him, Benny attributes to those hostile objects surrounding him far greater agency than he does to himself. Thus, while his desire may still take a human object, his relationship to machines is in fact more troubled than either Da Conho’s or Rachel’s.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Moreover, as he reveals in his getting-laid theory of history, the flow of Benny’s own desires suffers from a different kind of encounter with the mechanical. He imagines his theory to be a further outgrowth of the traditional Marxist notion that “history unfolds according to economic forces,” the new development in Benny’s idea being that “the only reason anybody wants to get rich is so he can get laid steadily, with whomever he chooses [ . . . ] anybody who worked for inanimate money so he could buy more inanimate objects was out of his head. Inanimate money was to get animate warmth, dead fingernails in the living shoulderblades, quick cries against the pillow, tangled hair, lidded eyes, twisting loins . . .” (V. 214). Benny’s drive toward the animate rather than the inanimate is clear, and yet this “animate warmth” is deceptive. Without realizing it, both through his equation of desire and economics and through his segmentation of the desired body, he has recast the object of his desire as an object, a living fetish.[18] The lover, once purchased with one’s inanimate paycheck, takes on the mechanical form of the commodity, no longer human but an amalgamation of parts, beginning, as in Benny’s litany, with “dead fingernails,” the inanimate outgrowth of life.[19] Though unable to articulate precisely what the problem is–and thus unaware that his desire has become just as mechanized as that of those around him–Benny is at least dimly cognizant of the result of this objectification, the absence of real human interaction in sexual encounters. It is for this reason that he resists getting sexually involved with Rachel, finding himself

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 unwilling to see her proved as inanimate as the rest.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Why that last? Only a general desire to find somebody for once on the right or real side of the TV screen? What made her hold any promise of being any more human? (359)

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Benny’s desire for Rachel may in fact be a desire for the machine, in a loose sense, if television’s mechanicity has drawn her too far into its orbit. The medium thus, as argued by the popular magazines of the age, corrupts human desire by channeling it toward inappropriate objects, and by objectifying the more appropriate human subjects.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, we encounter a more extreme version of this mechanical corruption of human sexuality and desire. Tyrone Slothrop finds himself at the center of what appears to be a vast technological conspiracy in which humans exist only to reproduce and guide machines, in which the most basic responses and behaviors associated with the human are in fact mechanically contrived, ending finally in a complete disposition of “man” by machine. Slothrop has himself been engineered in a most literal sense, the subject of some only partly explained scientific experiment. This experiment echoes Kurt Mondaugen’s comment to Lieutenant Weissman in V.: “Politics is a kind of engineering, isn’t it. With people as your raw material” (242). Slothrop in fact serves as the raw material of a project that appears political in nature, one bound up with World War II and Germany’s quest for dominance over Europe. But, as we discover late in the novel, the question remains whether technology, not politics, has actually been running the show, including the war, including Slothrop’s engineering. The war, we are told by one narrative voice, “was never political at all, the politics was all just theatre, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated by the needs of technology . . . by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques” (521). This conspiracy, if in fact it exists, has served as the driving force for a series of self-justifying experiments conducted with an utter disregard for their human ends. The development of the V-2 is only the most prominent of those projects; we are similarly told, with regard to Slothrop’s engineering, that “back around 1920, Dr. Laszlo Jamf opined that if Watson and Rayner could successfully condition their ‘Infant Albert’ into a reflex horror of everything furry, even of his own Mother in a boa, then Jamf could certainly do the same thing for his Infant Tyrone and the baby’s sexual response” (84). To what end, of course, we are never told. We are, rather, left with Jamf performing this conditioning because he “could,” serving the technology of human engineering.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Of course, technology has a response to this accusation: “All very well to talk about having a monster by the tail, but do you think we’d’ve had the Rocket if someone, some specific somebody with a name and a penis hadn’t wanted to chuck a ton of Amatol 300 miles and blow up a block of civilians? Go ahead, capitalize the T on technology, deify it if it’ll make you feel less responsible–but it puts you in with the neutered, brother” (GR 521). Remembering that the war has been described as a conspiracy between humans and technology, the voice of technology here has a point; each party must assume some responsibility, and human responsibility in this case rests squarely in desire. Any less an admission than full human partnership in this enterprise reproduces what Neil Postman refers to as the “agentic shift,” whereby human responsibility is foisted off onto more abstract, less human agents.[20] “When this happens,” Postman warns, “we have relinquished control, which in the case of the computer means that we may, without excessive remorse, pursue ill-advised or even inhuman goals because the computer can accomplish them or be imagined to accomplish them” (Technopoly 114). Thus, as with Jamf’s experimentation on the Infant Tyrone, carried out because he “could,” the displacement of desire into mere ability contributes to the loss of agency experienced throughout the culture.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Given this vacuum of human agency, the reader of Gravity’s Rainbow should recognize the precise nature of the danger in technology’s relegation of its addressee to the realm of the “neutered.” The sexual function, the sexual response, and the force of desire provide the loci of the novel’s clearest representations of human engineering. Just as Pointsman manipulates Brigadier Pudding’s psychosexual aberrations into a profound despair to keep him out of the way of Pointsman’s other experiments (see 231″“36), Weissman’s cruelty has conditioned Gottfried’s sexual responses to bind Gottfried more closely to him and to the rocket, as Gottfried himself is all too aware: “the word bitch, spoken now in a certain tone of voice, will give him an erection he cannot will down” (103). As Gottfried’s stimulus itself indicates, of course, this “neutering” may more accurately be described as feminizing; the masculine sexual function is throughout the novel diverted from its “proper” expression of dominance and self-control into passivity and masochism. In each case, the conditioning of the self, the technologizing of the human, produces not only a destruction of individual agency but also specifically a perversion of masculine desire into a feminized lack. It is of course no accident that Katje Borgesius is implicated in both men’s “neutering,” the tool of Their machinations. Just as Weissman wields Katje’s role as Gretel to push Gottfried’s Hansel into the oven, the rocket, and just as Pointsman uses Katje as Domina Nocturna to neutralize Pudding, so Katje is finally used as one of the last instruments in Slothrop’s own conditioning, which begins with Jamf and the Infant Tyrone and works inexorably toward the ultimate rocket, the 00000.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The connection between Slothrop and the rocket has lingered in the novel’s background all along, from the first stirrings of Slothrop’s erection at “6:43:16 British Double Summer Time” (GR 26), the moment of the falling of the first V-2 on London, to the revelation of the significance of Slothrop’s sexual map of London and Roger Mexico’s V-2 Poisson distribution:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 It’s the map that spooks them all, the map Slothrop’s been keeping on his girls. The stars fall in a Poisson distribution, just like the rocket strikes on Roger Mexico’s map of the Robot Blitz.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 But, well, it’s a bit more than the distribution. The two patterns also happen to be identical. They match up square for square. (85)[21]

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 But it is not until the beginning of book 3 that Slothrop comes to a dawning awareness of his machinic state. He has obtained documents that detail a business transaction between Jamf and Lyle Bland, a former board member of the Slothrop Paper Company. As Slothrop reads, he notices:

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 He is also getting a hardon, for no immediate reason. And there’s that smell again, a smell from before his conscious memory begins, a soft and chemical smell, threatening, haunting, not a smell to be found out in the world–it is the breath of the Forbidden Wing . . . essence of all the still figures waiting for him inside, daring him to enter and find a secret he cannot survive.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Once something was done to him, in a room, while he lay helpless . . .

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 His erection hums from a certain distance, like an instrument installed, wired by Them into his body. . . . (285)

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The image of the wiring of his penis is all too appropriate: Slothrop was sold as a baby to IG Farben; the haunting smell, he begins to suspect, is Imipolex G, described as “nothing more–or less–sinister than a new plastic, an aromatic heterocyclic polymer, developed in 1939, years before its time, by one L. Jamf for IG Farben” (GR 249). The purposes behind this particular plastic, somehow connected to the V-2, remain unknown for some time, but the material does conform to “plasticity’s central canon: that chemists were no longer to be at the mercy of Nature” (249). Certainly Laszlo Jamf was not; nor, for that matter, is Tyrone Slothrop, who appears instead to be at the mercy of Imipolex G.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 What is curious about Imipolex G, however, particularly given this relationship with Slothrop, is that it is “the first plastic that is actually erectile. Under suitable stimuli, the chains grow cross-links which stiffen the molecule and increase intermolecular attraction” (GR 699). In fact, given the “conditioned” nature of these chemical erections, the plastic itself appears to be a polymerized, if not to say cyborganized, Slothrop–Slothrop recreated as plastic. This suggestion has the potential to stand the relationship between Slothrop and Imipolex G on its head, inverting cause and effect much as deconditioning “beyond the zero” would. Was Slothrop conditioned into infantile erections not as a reaction to the presence of Imipolex G, but rather so that Jamf might study the erectile phenomenon and thereby create the plastic in question? The relation of conditioning and plastic is never fully clarified; in any case, having been engineered by Laszlo Jamf into evidencing an erection in the presence of this “conditioned stimulus,” and then having been “deconditioned,” whether accidentally or intentionally, to a point “beyond the zero” (85) at which the stimulus-response pattern happens in reverse–having been so deeply engineered, Slothrop’s penis seems his “own” in only the most attenuated sense.[22]

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In both V.‘s Benny Profane and Gravity’s Rainbow‘s Tyrone Slothrop, then, the reader encounters a represented falling off of human agency in the face of contemporary technologies, a dehumanization that results directly in a misdirection or deterioration of the “natural” functioning of sexuality and desire–most particularly masculine sexuality and desire. This relationship is complicated, however, by a further outgrowth of the relationship between humans and machines: the individual longing to efface all traces of human agency, to achieve a more machinelike state. This desire for a dehumanized, inanimate equilibrium, seen most pointedly in Fergus’s transformation into a remote control, is repeatedly represented in both Pynchon and DeLillo as a consequence of the too-close relationship between “man” and machine, leading not simply to the objectification of man by machine, or of the human individual in his encounters with dehumanized others, but instead to a kind of self-objectification in which the subject comes to understand itself and desire a deeper existence as a machine.

  • [14] I am, in what follows, interested solely in Deleuze and Guattari’s representations of the machine in relationship to those representations in Pynchon and DeLillo. For a more thorough reading of Deleuze and Guattari, as well as an extended Deleuzian reading of both authors, particularly in their mobilizations of the assemblage as a writing machine, see Johnston.
  • [15] One should note, of course, that the notion that such magazines could “show” their read- ers that this disruption of desire “would” take place is, as noted earlier, based in one of the key fallacies about the medium: its audience’s helplessness before its manipulations. As John Fiske argues, actual television viewers are less passive than their popular depictions would make them appear; television “does not ’cause’ identifiable effects in individuals; it does, however, work ideologically to promote and prefer certain meanings of the world, to circulate some meanings rather than others, and to serve some social interests better than others” (Television 20). Just as television’s representations “promote and prefer” particular ideological positions, so do representations of television. One of the social interests served by the representation of television’s libidinal danger is precisely the traditional family, which reasserts its control in the face of danger.
  • [16] To state that the coupling of television with the Deleuzian desiring-machine of the unconscious frees desire from its societal regulation is not to suggest that Deleuze and Guattari themselves read the medium as revolutionary, or even benign; as they argue in A Thousand Plateaus, the televisual machine is ultimately a machine of societal capture, rather than release: “one is subjected to TV insofar as one uses and consumes it, in the very particular situation of a subject of the statement that more or less mistakes itself for a subject of enunciation (‘you, dear television viewers, who make TV what it is . . . ‘); the technical machine is the medium between two subjects. But one is enslaved by TV as a human machine insofar as the television viewers are no longer consumers or users, nor even subjects who supposedly ‘make’ it, but intrinsic component pieces, ‘input’ and ‘output,’ feedback or recurrences that are no longer connected to the machine in such a way as to produce or use it. In machinic enslavement, there is nothing but transformations and exchanges of information, some of which are mechanical, others human” (458).
  • [17] Brian Massumi acknowledges that the position of “becoming woman” is “sexist,” as “the burden of change is placed on women, since it is their cliché that is singled out” (89).
  • [18] On the role of the fetish in V., see Hanjo Berressem: “In V. this Law-of-the-Machine takes over both the individual and the cultural field, annexing the body in both dimensions. The fetish, all workforce or all sign, is the signifier by which the culturally determined, sexual economy is inscribed onto the body via the semiotic code. It is the relay by which Baudrillard’s ‘symbolic ambivalence’ is replaced by a digital, phallic economy. The fetish as a signifier finally comes to designate the desire of the semiotic code itself “ (71″“72).
  • [19] This array of parts may be opposed to the Deleuzian “body without organs” in its hyper-organization, rather than the dis-organization of the body without organs.
  • [20] Postman borrows the term from Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority. See Technopoly 114.
  • [21] The question nonetheless remains whether the map is actually an accurate representation of Slothrop’s conquests, or whether it is fictionalized; as the investigation proceeds, certain of the women on the map are found not to exist, and Slothrop himself admits to fabricating some of the stories he tells his office mate, Tantivy. Whether the map is in fact mimetic in its relationship to Slothrop’s reality does not obviate its importance, however, as fictionalized desire (or the desire of fiction) would thus be represented as having an equal force in the world as fact, a notion that would suit the novel just fine.
  • [22] See Stephen Dodson-Truck’s musical number, “The Penis He Thought Was His Own,” which ostensibly refers to his own impotence but nonetheless attempts to convey to Slothrop “a terrible secret, a fatal confidence” (Pynchon, GR 216).
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