hysterical sublime

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Fredric Jameson (b. 1934)


Immanuel Kant (1724—1804) German philosopher


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Fredric Jameson's suggested term for a reformulated vision of the sublime (in Kant's sense) focused on technology rather than nature. Kant defined nature as sublime because it consistently exceeds the capacity of human concepts to grasp either its particularity or its generality. More practically, the caprices of nature (e.g. variable soil quality, water supply, and so on) are, as Marx recognized, what must be overcome in order for human society to be able to satisfy its elementary needs. Until the middle of the 20th century, then, nature has been feared and admired in equal measure because of humanity's seeming inability to control its forces. But with the rapid advances technology made in the second half of the 20th century nature's pre-eminent position in western metaphysics began to slide and technology took its place. At first, machines like steam trains and motor cars made humans seem equal to or greater than nature, but with the advent of digital technology a new type of machine emerged that proved difficult to respond to cognitively: the awesome capabilities of computers are beyond question, but as physical objects they are rather unimpressive. We get no sense of what a computer is capable of simply by looking at it, so from a representational point of view what is always the most significant about computers is the vast network of other computers they are able to tap into. The image of a global matrix of interlocked machines from humble handheld mobile phones to orbiting satellites is, Jameson suggests, a new form of the sublime because technology is presented as exceeding human capacities and categories. Jameson's key exhibits are drawn from cinema—e.g. The Parallax View (director, Pakula, 1974)—but he also acknowledges the importance of literature, particularly cyberpunk, in developing this notion. The hysterical or technological sublime is a constituent component of Jameson's account of postmodernism and a vital precursor to his later notion of a geopolitical aesthetic.

Further Reading:

I. Buchanan Fredric Jameson: Live Theory (2006).F. Jameson The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992).F. Jameson Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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