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Terror's Abduction of Experience: A Gothic History

From: The Yale Journal of Criticism
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 179-206 | 10.1353/yale.2005.0011

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The Yale Journal of Criticism 18.1 (2005) 179-206

A Gothic History

Matthew Wickman

In his 1995 study The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge, David Simpson rehearses Walter Benjamin's famous pronouncement that "the art of storytelling is coming to an end" and then asks, incredulously, "What . . . has happened? Benjamin was writing about the end of an oral tradition whose fullness we have certainly not recovered. Nonetheless, it now seems that everyone is telling stories, and professing the ability to exchange experiences." This latter phenomenon, the "exchange" of "experiences," rests at the heart of the matter, for Benjamin treated storytelling (and, elsewhere, a great many other rituals) as palimpsests of the elusive category of experience whose quality he believed had been decaying since the Enlightenment. "[E]xperience has fallen in value," he elegiacally observed.

And it looks as if it may fall into bottomlessness . . . . For never has experience been more thoroughly belied than strategic experience was belied by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on horse-drawn streetcars now stood under the open sky in a landscape where nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and, beneath those clouds, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.

No longer deemed adequate to an understanding of the complexities of modernity, experience increasingly reflected for Benjamin a general condition of alienation, both between and within individuals. As Simpson remarks, by the mid-1990s these phenomenological gulfs had begun paradoxically to serve as an impetus rather than an impediment to storytelling.

Simpson's evocation of Benjamin indicates that the problem of experience, though hardly new, seems newly enigmatic. His intervention into that problem foregrounds the phenomenon of cultural studies, whose passionate celebrations of culturally diverse experiences were at their zenith in the mid-1990s. There is another, perhaps more current, aspect to the problem of experience, however, which bears a more sinister visage. In the wake of 9/11, one frequently encountered arguments stipulating that political terror had already become a general condition rather than a catastrophic exception, and that capitalist self-interest had resulted in the volatile mixture of global alienation and access to technology which made Ground Zero the uncanny underside of everyday life. Given the post-apocalyptic ethos that these arguments typically cultivated, their correlative faith in the perdurability of human experience rarely achieved equal attention. And yet, such faith was implicit. As an ostensibly underlying reality, terror evokes a conception of collective experience in that it identifies a public condition that is also a private feeling—an interpersonal conviction that is also a sensation—which connects us with a history of which we are otherwise unaware. This means that if terror is indeed "our" reality, catastrophically revealed by 9/11, then terror also, in an oddly reassuring way, binds us to each other and reunites us with our past. The logic here is one of mourning: if technological revolutions at five-minute intervals isolate us in our supermodernity, then the terror these revolutions inspire restores our sense of kinship with our fellow mourners as well as with the forgotten (i.e., the premodern) masses who came before. As with the aporia on which Simpson comments, there is a connection here to Benjamin and to his era, inasmuch as this implicit fund of experience strongly resembles the modernist aesthetic of shock—here, terror-as-startling-disclosure—which Benjamin lauds in early 1930s essays which culminated with "The Storyteller." In essence, terror's shocking characteristics accommodate an image of collective experience uniting us across our differences.

Inspired by the conundrum on which Simpson reports, I too have a story to tell—a strange, surprising adventure about the decay of experience and about its resurgence in historical conceptualizations of terror. Presenting only a narrow episode of a much larger saga, I focus on an affective and philosophical connection between the gothic fiction of Britain's late eighteenth century and French surrealist art and theory of the 1920s and '30s, each of which accord terror (and "horror," terror's corollary) a regenerative...



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