restricted access Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk (review)
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Reviewed by
Joseph Tabbi. Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995. xii + 243pp.

Critics seeking to define the “postmodern” have frequently been attracted to the notion of the sublime. In its psychologized, eighteenth-century form, the sublime is an aesthetic category well suited to address paradoxical, transgressive experiences of pleasurable pain—experiences that seem to refer back to a fundamental inadequation between a representation and what it seeks to represent. In part, as Burke suggested, one’s pleasure in the sublime derives from the fact that, while gazing on the dizzying abyss from behind the guard rail, one is still happily alive and not really in danger at all; however, the rapture of such moments also seems to have to do with the intensity of the acts of (failed) identification through which we confront death as a pressing, but radically unimaginable, event. Theorists of the postmodern have understandably found such lines of thought useful when considering the kind of aesthetic pleasure obtainable from representations of the overwhelming complexity of postwar technology. Images of “some immense communicational or computer network,” as Fredric Jameson puts it, replace the alps and canyons of eighteenth-century aesthetics, while a decentering sense of the endless flow of simulacra substitutes for an intuition of the annihilating power of the natural world.

As his subtitle indicates, Joseph Tabbi understands the “postmodern sublime” as a question concerning technology, more specifically technology’s representation in fiction. Most of the novels he discusses are “about” technology in some obvious way: there are two chapters on Mailer (Of a Fire in the Moon, An American Dream); two on Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow); two on McElroy (Plus, Women and Men); one on DeLillo (Libra, Mao II, Ratner’s Star); and a concluding chapter on cyberpunk (mainly Gibson) and the avant-garde-punk fiction of Kathy Acker. Tabbi explains his selection of texts as representative of writers who “carry on both the romantic tradition of the sublime and the naturalist ambition of social and scientific realism” in the postmodern era; his book proposes to explore “a simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from technology, a complex pleasure derived from the pain of representational insufficiency” which all of these authors, in their various [End Page 852] ways, manifest and make available. The topic is an important and exciting one. Its successful negotiation, however, requires the critic to juggle a number of terms that have elicited a lot of sophisticated commentary—most obviously, of course, the “sublime,” “technology,” and the “postmodern.” Tabbi’s book offers many fine individual moments of critical insight, but, because its key terms remain severely undertheorized, Postmodern Sublime falls short of its potential.

Though he alludes approvingly to Donna Haraway’s work on several occasions, Tabbi is firmly humanist in his presuppositions and procedures. Throughout the book his main concern is with the ego and its capacity for socialization and sympathetic expansion and with language considered as a communicational and referential activity, scrabbling for purchase on a “reality” epitomized, here, by technology. The result is a notion of the sublime that remains essentially empiricist and a notion of the postmodern that, so far as I can see, adds up to little more than a historical “period” in the most empirical sense. It is certainly Tabbi’s prerogative to argue such positions, but one could have wished for more overt and sustained arguments: it is not always clear that he realizes the degree to which critics like Haraway or Jameson would disagree with him. His allusions to the “realist” and “naturalist” traditions are similarly unargued: indeed, at times one has the impression that Tabbi understands realism to mean little more than a referential use of language. An acquaintance with critical studies of naturalism such as Mark Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines clearly would have helped here.

Since my space is limited, let me comment briefly on the most central, and most glaringly underconceptualized term in this book: “technology.” Far from being the site of what Tabbi calls “nonverbal reality,” technology is bound up, historically at least, with notions of what language is (for Aristotle, language epitomizes techne). Though many quite different approaches to this...