The Immachinate Conception: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, A.I. and the Modern ‘Black Box’ God

Contrary to what we like to believe today, humans quite easily fall into obeying others, and any sufficiently advanced AI is indistinguishable from God. People wont necessarily mind taking their marching orders from some vast oracular computer.
—Pedro Domingos, 
The Master Algorithm[1]

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they dont have to worry about answers.
—U.S. President Joseph Biden,[2] quoting ‘Proverbs for Paranoids’, Gravity’s Rainbow[3]

I. Introduction          

Anyone brave or foolish enough to read daily news headlines[4] will soon be confronted by a bombardment of references to A.I.: Chat GPT most prominently, but equally wicked this way comes Whisper,[5] A.G.I. (Artificial General Intelligence), O.I. (Organoid Intelligence)[6] and brain-computer interfaces like Neuralink. How to do, or be, amidst such tech? Just how ‘wicked’ is it? How do we even begin to ask the right questions about A.I., inquiring into its ontological status in relation to that of humans, attending empirically to its current and potential applications that blur lines between human and machine intelligence, and considering how the disciplines of theology and art contribute to our understanding? What I will explore in the following is how Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), helps us ask precisely such questions, interrogating the arc—and covenantal ‘ark’—of modern technology.

Broadly, Gravity’s Rainbow participates in a tradition of dystopian literature[7] running through George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), along with the paranoid cyberpunk works Pynchon helped inspire like William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), the Terminator (1984-2019) and Matrix films (1999-2021), and TV series Black Mirror (2011- ). Much like the aforementioned fiction, Pynchon’s Second World War-set novel concerns humanity’s efforts to dominate and control both people and planet via technology. As regards A.I., Pynchon’s narrative emphasises the role of cybernetics,[8] ancestor to personal computing, the Internet and A.I.. By doing so, Gravity’s Rainbow reckons with cybernetic technology’s sublimity regarding its capacity to hybridise humans with the technologically-transformed ‘natural’[9] world, such that the ontological separability (or ‘purity’) of humans, non-human nature, and machines, is starkly called into question.[10] In this way, Pynchon creates an imaginative space in which to consider the perils and possibilities of human-A.I. being and interaction.

With Pynchon’s characteristic ‘serious unseriousness’[11] a constant leaven, Gravity’s Rainbow portrays human-tech hybridisation in predominantly negative terms as dystopian ‘immachination’—a diabolical ‘integration’ or ‘synthesis’ of the organic and inorganic in the direction of ‘eternal death’, not life.[12] Both this work and later Pynchon novels, however, also inscribe alternate possibilities for ‘integration’—namely, communitas, a harmony between people, creation and the divine coextensive in many respects with Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ community.[13] The latter makes Pynchon perhaps the ‘most exciting religious novelist of our times’,[14] for not only does he convey the ‘spiritual agony’[15] and physical annihilation potentially resulting from human-machine ‘integration’, but also envisions the inextricably religious possibility of ‘integration’ as communitas—a living connectedness modelled by Franciscan spirituality, certain non-Western and indigenous peoples,[16] along with various counterculture communities in the modern Western world.[17] Such communitas is Pynchon’s ever-fragile hope against immachination.

II. Gravity’s Rainbow as Postmodernist Allegory

On one level, Gravity’s Rainbow is about an American lieutenant’s hunt for a special V2 rocket through 1944–45 Europe. However, just as Herman Melville’s Ahab chasing the white Leviathan in Moby Dick (1851) is much more than a hunt for a whale, so too is Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s search more than the hunt for a rocket.[18] Slothrop’s name, evoking John Winthrop, seventeenth century Puritan visioneer of America as ‘shining city on a hill’,[19] is our first clue that Slothrop’s story is an allegorical quest like that in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Or rather, an ironised, postmodernist version of such. That’s because his quest is not exactly for God, like Bunyan’s. Rather, Slothrop’s quest for the Rocket is for something like a terrible human-made God, one that distills into human hands the sovereign power of the Puritan Calvinist’s God. In this manner Gravity’s Rainbow updates Melville’s tale of American Puritan madness, that which—like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick—seeks to dominate both Creator God and the ‘Creation’ (or ‘Nature’) by ‘hook[ing] the Leviathan’, God’s creature/monster in Job.[20]

As with the Whale, Pynchon’s Rocket is highly polysemic, associated as it is with a church steeple, male phallus, female matrix (womb), and the technological capacity to render the Creation utterly plastic and malleable. The Rocket is both what ‘saves’ humans from earth (via rocket ship) and what destroys people and earth (as rocket weapon or nuclear bomb); as such, it becomes a ‘gnostic’ technology by promising to save chosen elites (or ‘Elect’) while leaving the material world a damned (or ‘Preterite’) wasteland.[21] How do we interpret the Rocket and Slothrop’s quest with regard to such a wealth of associations?

Deborah Madsen argues that the notion of ‘postmodernist allegory’ best makes sense of the novel’s complex interface with such a diversity of material. Madsen explains that classical allegory seeks to establish semantic unity between sign and referent by unifying ‘the multiplicity of earthly signs’ with ‘the sacred One’.[22] Madsen then shows how Protestant Christian allegory (like Pilgrim’s Progress) generates unity between its allegoric narrative and the Bible, the written Word, which is Protestant allegory’s particular ‘pretext’.[23] Beyond Protestant allegory, however, is postmodernist allegory. Here, there is no longer a single pretext like the Bible but rather a plurality of pretexts (or pretextual discourses). In Pynchon, for example, such pretexts include ‘cybernetics, thermodynamics, Weber, Rilke and Jung’.[24]

As postmodernist allegory, Pynchon’s narrative not only relativises such pretexts—including that of deconstructive postmodernist readings[25]—it also serves a potentially ‘reconstructive’ end by generating a more diverse discursive ‘commons’, effecting thereby the kind of unity-in-diversity (not uniformity) vital for true communitas.[26] In turn, I suggest that such a discursive commons enables perception of the ‘prophetic’ significance of Slothrop’s quest, as an allegory of Western humanity caught between catastrophic ‘Rocket religion’ and communitas. His journey is, in these terms, a quest for the Rocket as (un)Holy Grail. Such is his quest and that too of the reader, who inhabits the ‘world in front of the text’ (Paul Ricoeur).[27] Like Slothrop, readers of Gravity’s Rainbow must face their desire for a saving gnosis, perhaps even for the ‘techgnosis’ of technology, or ‘technique’.[28] Slothrop’s ‘pilgrim’s progress’ is towards the ‘holy centre’, source of his world’s ‘predestined’ character, the awful holiness at the heart of modernity and its gnostic Rocket faith.

Like all religion, this involves religare (to bind, yoke together), and the Rocket’s religare is to bind all to the ‘transcendent’ powers of cybernetic Control, that horrifically human-made sovereign, determinist, Calvinist ‘God’. Yet more, this God has an ark too. The Rocket’s ‘ark of the covenant’ is its parabolic arc through the skies, its ‘rainbow’ arc promising ascent to the heavens but delivering descent to death, the falsely salvific ‘ark’ of modern progress. Its covenant promises prosperity. Its method is rationalisation, differentiation, and analysis. And by such means it renders everything an infinitely malleable ‘plasticity’—divided, ‘purified’, synthesised, controlled…and dead.

As we learn, however, Slothrop ultimately abandons his quest.[29] Given that his quest figures that of the reader, too,[30] it may be read hopefully as one in which, like him, we readers might likewise reject such attempts to approach and understand the technological totality of the Rocket ‘God’ as a vain gnostic quest for deliverance through ‘saving knowledge’ of techgnosis,[31] always only for the ‘Elect’ elites anyway. Slothrop’s ‘pilgrim’s progress’ is thus to abandon gnostic pilgrimage, flee the ‘salvation’ of the Elect, and join the ‘passed over’ Preterite and their communitas.Therefore, strangely, through Pynchon’s diverse discursive commons, being ‘passed over’ is akin to an experience of grace, not damnation—and ironically not unlike that grace given to oppressed biblical Hebrews, who were ‘passed over’ (not destroyed) by the angel meting out God’s judgment in Exodus.

Lest we fail to appreciate how vital is this ‘grace’, a complex sequence towards the end of the novel highlights the deadliness of immachination. In this episode, a child, an ‘Isaac…under the blade’, is strapped into a rocket—depicted as womb of his mother and a lover—and sent to Los Angeles to deliver a nuclear bomb. The image is that of an Isaac/Christ lamb promised ascent to the heavens, re-entering a womb to be ‘born again’, but actually descending to bring annihilation, a slaughtering lamb.[32] It is, in short, not an image of miraculous new life, not an ‘immaculate conception’ so to speak, but its opposite: the modern Rocket-God’s immachinate conception[33]

III. A.I. as Rocket?

Given such an allegorical reading of the Rocket, to what extent is it valid to find analogies between it and A.I.? Are A.I. technologies problematically ‘gnostic’ like the Rocket? Is Gravity’s Rainbow’s warning about ‘immachination’ relevant to, say, Elon Musk’s plan to meld human and artificial intelligence via the brain-computer interface Neuralink, which he suggests will be necessary for human survival if we are not to become as insects in relation to superintelligent A.I. ‘demons’?[34] Might Neuralink be a real-world ‘Rocket techgnosis’? How might the novel help us examine other contemporary applications of A.I., beyond the particular fears and concerns of its Cold War milieu?

I would like to gesture to a few answers through essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn. Especially helpful is O’Gieblyn’s recent book, God Human Animal Machine (2021), which considers current technologies and the strange transpositions of theology that Pynchon notices. For instance, she shows how Nick Bostroms simulation theory repeats anthropocentric creationist ideas and, similarly, how futurist Ray Kurzweils transhumanist vision of humanity becoming ‘godlike’ ‘spiritual machines’ is a high-tech transformation of Christian eschatology.[35] Perhaps most strikingly in relation to Gravity’s Rainbow, O’Gieblyn argues that our relationship with A.I. is, oddly, coming to bear uncanny resemblance to John Calvin’s conception of the relationship between humanity and God. She illustrates this with reference to A.I.’s recent application to the legal system, as with the use of ‘predictive policing’, whereby police forces are allocated based on algorithms analysing data, and also with reference to a recent case where a criminal sentence was determined by an algorithm.[36]

In such instances, O’Gieblyn argues, humans are relating to A.I. as they would to an absolutist, authoritarian judge, an opaque ‘black box’ whose judgments are inaccessible to human comprehension and immune to questioning. O’Gieblyn’s claim is that such a ‘black box’ approach to A.I. is basically that which is enjoined by Calvin: an injunction to trust and obey A.I. as one would Calvin’s inscrutable, voluntarist, sovereign God.[37] She explains how such a God is very much the ‘modern’ God made possible by medieval nominalist theology—that which rejected universals and Aristotelian teleology, and was transmitted through Luther and Calvin.[38]  O’Gieblyn’s astute analysis of such troubling, contemporary currents in A.I.’s conception and application very much echoes what Pynchon narrates in Gravity’s Rainbow.

IV. Conclusion

As a modern apokalypsis (revelation) of humanity’s ‘immachinate’ union with an authoritarian, black box ‘God’, nevertheless Gravity’s Rainbow embeds plentiful ambiguities which may portend more than inevitable disaster. Against the doom of ‘Rocket religion’ there remain possibilities for life-giving integration, that alternative religio of truly diverse communitas. Such a vision is evoked poignantly at a wartime Advent church service, in which worship that seems ever on the verge of being an empty ritual rather attains joyful reality:

this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping three- and four-fold, up, echoing, filling the entire hollow of the church—no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward—praise be to God!—for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the path you must create by yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home….[39]

Elsewhere, Pynchon describes this church service as one expressing hope for true spiritual change, ‘a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are’.[40] Such a ‘turn’ is that which is ultimately necessary, integral to any possibility that we and our technologies, including A.I., might become part of a lively integrated world rather than a deathly immachinated one. What exactly might the former mean, in relation to the A.I. of today and of tomorrow? Whatever the answers might be, the questions that enable us to see and respond—and to ask yet better questions too, as a ‘reaching’ for a God of whom we might inquire, in whom we might rest, and through whom we might act[41]—are made possible by art like Gravity’s Rainbow.

 


[1] Quoted in Meghan O’Gieblyn, God Human Animal Machine: Technology, Metaphor and the Search for Meaning, Apple e-books (New York: Doubleday, 2021), 383.

[2] Then Vice-President Biden quotes Gravity’s Rainbow in a speech delivered 17 September 2014. Andrea Melendez, ‘Biden: “The middle class is in real trouble”’, The Des Moines Register online. Accessed 16 March 2023. https://eu.desmoinesregister.com/videos/news/politics/2014/09/17/15799477/

[3] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Penguin, 2006), 255.

[4] Like this one about A.G.I., John Kendall Hawkins and Sandy Boucher, ‘Futurists predict a point where humans and machines become one. But will we see it coming?’, The Conversation, 13 March 2023. Accessed 14 March 2023. https://theconversation.com/futurists-predict-a-point-where-humans-and-machines-become-one-but-will-we-see-it-coming-196293.

[5]OpenAI’s open-source speech-transcription program’. James Somers, ‘Whispers of A.I.’s Modular Future’, The New Yorker, 3 February 2023. Accessed 16 March 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/whispers-of-ais-modular-future?utm_source=pocket-newtab-global-en-GB.

[6]Organoid intelligence’ (OI) describes an emerging multidisciplinary field working to develop biological computing using 3D cultures of human brain cells (brain organoids) and brain-machine interface technologies.’ Smirnova, Lena, et al. ‘Organoid intelligence (OI): the new frontier in biocomputing and intelligence-in-a-dish’. Frontiers in Science. 28 February 2023. Accessed 20 March 2023. https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/science/articles/10.3389/fsci.2023.1017235.

[7] Or, refigures dystopian literature into something else, comically dramatising how utopian hopes are relentlessly cancelled by or transformed into dystopian realities, yet always maintaining space for ‘subjunctive’ imaginings, dreams, and fantasy in their potential to become realities.

[8] Cybernetic science, defined by Norbert Wiener as ‘the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine’, was originally developed during the Second World War as a means of developing anti-aircraft missiles, but was also extended to predict the behaviour of human pilots. Cybernetics renders all in terms of information and data, putting both organic and inorganic objects on the same ontological plane. David Porush helpfully discusses how Pynchon and other writers interact with cybernetics in Porush, The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1985).

[9] Or given, created world.

[10] One may, in this respect, see the novel as highly congruous with Bruno Latour’s theorisations of modern ‘nature-cultures’, i.e., the many hybrids of human culture (realm of subjects, politics, and power) and non-human nature (realm of objects, experimental science, and knowledge) that proliferate in modernity. See Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), as well as Donna Haraway’s discussions of the cyborg (cybernetic organism) in Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991). Similar to Latour, Pynchon narrates a world that is not quite ‘modern’, attentive to the many (often highly comical) ways in which high-tech Western societies remain within the ‘anthropological matrix’ of the pre-moderns yet are unable to recognise this. In this manner, Pynchon, like Latour, helps us ‘reopen the question of God’, evaluating the religious dimensions of modernity and its ‘crossed-out God’. Probing theological analysis of these currents are found in Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology: Humans, Technology and God (London: I. B. Tauris, 2018), and Craig M. Gay’s Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018).

[11] Tony Tanner, American Mystery: American Literature from Emerson to DeLillo (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2000), 234.

[12] Pynchon suggests that much modern technology yields ‘death-transfigured’, a kind of ultimate or ‘eternal’ death. This is symbolically expressed by the circular ouroboros—symbol of nature’s self-renewing ‘circle’ of life, by which death leads to life—opening out to become a parabola, like the one-way arc of a rocket, by which death only leads to death.

[13] Sociologist Victor Turner explains communitas as an often liminal, spontaneous, immediate, unstructured ‘happening’ of community and interdependence, which also tends to generate religion and art. Turner construes communitas as an alternative to both Emile Durkheim’s social-structural ‘solidarity’ and of Thomas Hobbes’ ‘war of all against all’, but rather reflects Martin Buber’s understanding of dynamic interpersonal relationship. See Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Routledge, 2017 [1969]), 131-47.

[14] John A. McClure, ‘Postmodern/Post-Secular: Contemporary Fiction and Spirituality’, Modern Fiction Studies 41: 1 (Spring 1995), 153.

[15] Joseph Slade, ‘Thomas Pynchon, Postindustrial Humanist’, Technology and Culture 23:1 (January 1982), 61.

[16] In a 1969 letter to Thomas F. Hirsch, Pynchon describes this positive ‘integration’ through discussion of the interwoven religious and social organisation of the pre-colonial African Herero people. Published with Pynchon’s permission in David Seed, The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 240–243.

[17] Most especially as seen in that of the 1950s Beat writings of Kerouac et al. and 1960s counterculture movements following in their wake. For insightful exploration of Pynchon’s interaction with the Beats and counterculture communitas, see Joanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2014).

[18] Slothrop is also one of hundreds of named characters (!), and so we must qualify any reading that focuses too exclusively upon him. However, as my discussion hopefully demonstrates, his narrative thread is typically considered among the most central to the novel as a whole and brings to the fore Pynchon’s major themes and concerns with respect to questions of A.I., and technology more generally.

[19] A conception notably popularised in the 1980s by the actor/president Ronald Reagan.

[20] That is, in a reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick as a kind of ‘midrash’ on the book of Job (cf. Job 41:1), in which Ahab incarnates the ‘Puritan’ American drive to conquer both the American wilderness as the Whale—sometimes taken to symbolise ‘Nature’ or Creation itself—and God as well, harpooning the Whale to get to God. See Catherine Keller for a fascinating theological reading of Moby-Dick as midrash on Job in Keller, ‘“Leviathanic Revelations”: Melville’s Hermenautical Journey’, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (New York: Routledge, 2003), 141–54.

[21] Dwight Eddins develops this brilliantly, drawing upon Eric Voegelin’s analysis of gnosticism. Eddins, The Gnostic Pynchon(Bloomington: Indiana University, 1990).

[22] Deborah Madsen, The Postmodernist Allegories of Thomas Pynchon (London: Leicester University, 1991), 2–9.

[23] The Word which ‘is assumed to articulate the sacred through its language and to reveal the way divine authority is made known in the material world’. Ibid., 10.

[24] Ibid., 5.

[25] The classic reading of Slothrops Rocket quest as an ironic holy centre approachingwhich, as such, subverts epistemological quest narratives for reunion with a single holy centreor sacred Onethat would guarantee epistemological authority. Madsen, 24–25.

[26] Christian P. Haines also makes a version of my argument in his look at American narrative in Haines, A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons (New York, Fordham University, 2019).

[27] Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II, trans. Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson (Evanston: Northwestern University, 2007).

[28] Pynchon refers to the Rocket as ‘the most immachinate of techniques’ in Gravity’s Rainbow, 742. Pynchon’s expression reflects the thinking of Jacques Ellul, who defines technique as ‘the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity’. Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Knopf, 1964), xxv.

[29] Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 636–38, 752–55. Notoriously ambiguous, Slothrop’s ‘disappearance’ from the narrative can be read alternately as a metafictional salvific escape from ‘The Book’ (Gravity’s Rainbow) and the powers of Control and determination of his story by the ‘Author-God’ (Pynchon); as a self-dissolution that implies inevitable failure for all who would try to ‘become natural’, go ‘off the Grid’, and/or somehow resist the powers, as did the counterculture of the 1960’s; an Orphic or Christlike sparagmos (scapegoat sacrifice); or some combination of these options and related formulations.

[30] In postmodernist allegorical fashion, as attested to by Madsen and others.

[31] See Erik Davis, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (New York: Harmony Books, 2004).

[31] ‘[T]he 00000 [rocket] is the womb into which Gottfried returns. […] The two, boy and Rocket, concurrently designed. Its steel hindquarters bent so beautifully…he fits well. They are mated to each other […]’. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 764–65; 775.

[33] To the best of my knowledge, and that of Google, it appears I must take full responsibility and blame for this word play.

[34] Matt McFarland, ‘Elon Musk: “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon”’, The Washington Post online, 24 October 2014. Accessed 21 March 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2014/10/24/elon-musk-with-artificial-intelligence-we-are-summoning-the-demon/.

[35] O’Gieblyn, 94–97; 259–264.

[36] 34 year-old Wisconsin man Eric Loomis was given a six-year sentence. 372–76.

[37] O’Gieblyn, 392.

[38] And, further, was responded to by Descartes, for whom this ‘black box’ God’s sovereignty was transposed to self-assertive ‘autonomous’ humanity, thereby birthing modern philosophy and humanism. O’Gieblyn draws upon the influential 1966 work of philosopher Hans Blumenberg, who traces a path from nominalist theology through Protestant theology and the Enlightenment to modern science and disenchantment. Ibid., 385–90.

[39] Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 139.

[40] Ibid., 136.

[41] ‘One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple’. Psalm 27:4 KJV

Author

  • (Associate Editor) is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, under the supervision of Gavin Hopps. He is researching the theological implications of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon (1937- ), exploring his work as post-secular literature, and in relation to the Gothic tradition.

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