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GOTHICIZING THE WEB/REFRAMING THE SUBLIME

Ognyan Kovachev

web

The mesmerizing prophesy "Ceci tuera cela", cast by the archdeacon Claude Frollo, inscribed in Victor Hugo's historical Gothic novel Notre Dame du Paris both an epitaph and a laud. The omniscient author as well as the villain-priest certainly knew well that sometimes words have two (and even more) meanings. The enigmatic phrase and the mysterious sign Anangke on the wall of the high-vaulted Gothic cabinet, remained dramatic tokens of crucial technological changes, provoking repetitive power/knowledge turns on the European social and cultural scene. In the times of the archdeacon Frollo the discussed metaphor of murder denoted the fast advent and dissemination of the newborn printed book. It was quickly displacing the "stone book" of Architecture from the site of human fictionalizing. In the lifetime of Hugo the electricity step by step penetrated and irradiated human mental and physical activities. The electrification of the camera obscura, where the play of the Real and the Imaginary took place, brought into being both literary monsters as Merry Shelley's "hideous progeny" and new media, such as the photography, and later on - the cinema. Nowadays the spectacular outburst of new information and communication media awakens the specter of the Blakean rage against the machine as well as other Gothic dreadful ghosts, walking on the wild side of technical progress. Does the triumph of the computers and the Internet resurrect a Benthamian Panopticon of visibility, surveillance, and subjection? Or it becomes a weapon for the strike back of the Gothic Empire?

The aim of my essay is to observe the play of the Real and the Imaginary, actualized in a parallel dimension of cognitive and aesthetic ruptures. They are caused by two disparate phenomena: the Gothick Literary Revival (1764-1820) and the World Wide Web culture nowadays. Besides their external dissimilarities the two phenomena have important common places. Both the Gothick and the Web can be described as hosts of fictions haunting multidimensional architectural metaphors: the Gothick edifice and the Web site. My observations are directed at naming and visualizing the modifications of such a powerful ghost-fiction as the Sublime. They are based on the back-and-forth oscillation between its (pre)romantic Burkean mode, the Kantian and the Romantic ones, and the (post)modern technological frames.

The first heyday of the Gothic aesthetic is most often explained by means of double negative dialectic. It is grasped as an ideology of resistance simultaneously to the Augustan classicism and the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) in Britain. To this negativity should be added that the Gothick fiction is not ontological in the classical or the Cartesian sense. The paradox of its originary scene both mystifies and erases the traces of its origin. The Gothick is not self-conceived or self-made in the Enlightenment mode, because it invents its inception in the forgotten/hidden from the community's history or the individual's unconscious medieval past. But it has no real predecessors actually, and this lack is displayed by the Gothick writing's well-developed self-consciousness about the ways of its own imagining. The late eighteenth century Gothick writers share unanimously the conviction that their fictions are intended to revivify the "air of the miraculous", filled with "miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events". This air is the differentia specifica of the Gothick Romance. It doubles the negation in its fictionalizing acts, being simultaneously a radical boundary-crossing of the Present and a pretending for probability representation of an imaginary Past. But what are its specific historical criteria for verisimilitude of the Unreal? The Gothick writing comprises a multitude of fictions of the invisible, the untouchable, and the unheard, which constitute the presence of the negated and yet remain ungrounded. How does it achieve upon the reader the effects of what Fanny Burney calls "the sublimity of the Marvellous"?

The rise of the Gothick more than 200 years ago can be defined in terms of Wolfgang Iser's literary anthropology as a new kind of explanatory fiction, which grants primary importance to the instruments of fantasy and imagination. By means of them human beings stage out the strife between Nature and Culture crucial for the late 18th and the early 19th century. This accent allows for describing the Gothick fiction as subversive towards the Augustan rationalism and "high" literary canons. The Gothick fiction also acts as an anti-hierarchical and decentering agent disguised in the trappings of a faked or mock medievalism. As a result of the epistemological shift the inability of the Gothick writers/readers "to be present to themselves" is being transformed into a desire to produce uncanny fictions, in which the Imaginary considerably transgresses and even conquers the realms of the Real. This kind of fictionalizing of the unnamable in my essay is referred to as "Gothicizing". My use of the term oscillates in a multi-referential semantic frame. In the temporal sway back and forth it certainly retrospects and interweaves tropological branches of its Gothick aesthetic and orthographical roots. But its most valuable literary anthropological functions are i) the radical intensification of boundary-crossing between what we think we are and what we avidly/anxiously desire to be, and ii) the heightened self-awareness of this self-divided transgressivness. The Gothic represents a constant act of negation of the accepted version of the world and thus shares common areas with the aesthetic and epistemological fictions of the Supernatural, Fantasy, and the Uncanny. Its ultimate borderline is the Sublime. In "The Significance of Fictionalizing" Wolfgang Iser states that "Fictionalizing begins where knowledge leaves off, and this dividing line turns out to be the fountainhead of fiction by means of which we extend ourselves beyond ourselves." Charted this way, the Gothicizing acts belong to the panoply of shades of the dark Imaginary. They provide an inverted perspective, envisioning and exploring the uncanny, dreadful, and terrifying-horrifying incursions of the Unreal into human aesthetic and psychological Reality.

The Sublime is not a strictly outlined aesthetic/psychological realm but rather a welter of receptive possibilities and theoretical frames. The version proposed by Edmund Burke is most influential precisely in the time of the Gothick Revival. Burke's concept is notable for two things: the identity of "sublime" and "terror" that it postulates, and its essential duality, causing this identity. In a peculiar blend of the receptively inclined Pseudo-Longinus's treatise Peri Hupsous and the Eighteenth century Hobbesean-Lockean associational theories Burke derives the sublime experience out of "whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects." He associates his conceptual double of the Terror-Sublime with such conflicting "passions" as pain, pleasure, grief, joy, love, rage etc. All these affective dualities are intense metaphors of the desire for overstepping the accepted version of the world. Burke's Sublime is fictionalized by means of discontinuity and repetition, and is nurtured by an excess of signification. In his taxonomy the most powerful effect on man of the natural Sublime is the sense of Astonishment. It is centered on the full mental appropriation of the object and therefore the impossibility of reasoning. Thus the terrible and uncanny Burkean Sublime paradoxically happens to the individual in a fracture between the excess of signification and the inadequacy of representation. It creates a kind of 'virtual reality' experience in between Nature and Culture by simultaneously overstepping and merging their limits.

The Gothick writers adopt the basic principles of Burke's aesthetic simultaneously with Kant. They recognize their stories, tales, and romances, and newly built castles, abbeys, and gardens as both an artful medievalizing and a materialization of human dreads, desires, and dreams. From Walpole to Maturin, they all define the dream as the immanent source of their literary terrors/horrors. Although not explicitly, the Gothicists obviously share with the German philosopher the common notion that the Sublime may have its causes in the external nature but is a phenomenon of the human 'inner nature'. "Sublimity" writes Kant in the Analytic of the Sublime "does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind." We can hardly say that either the Gothick or the Kantian Sublime was emptied of any essentialist nuclei, but what is really important to highlight is that they both proceed in a state of unusually active self-consciousness.

And here I shall allow myself the vanity of an excursus on some (in)visible textual interference between Kant and the Gothick writers. While the dialogue between Burke's Enquiry and Kant's Analytic is explicit and has become an object of theoretical discussion, this does not hold true for the relations between Kant and the Gothick writing. There are no mutual references and no traces of intertextuality or anxiety of influence between them. So my surprise becomes understandable when I recently found out that Horace Walpole in the second edition of The Castle of Otranto (1765) and Kant in Traeume eines Geistersehers (1766) use for their epigraphs almost identical adaptations of verses from the Ars Poetica of Horace. We know from Dr. Johnson that to read Gothick romances in the late eighteenth century is a secret shameful pleasure, but Kant's silent borrowing announces the intercourse of the then mutually exclusive discourses. What Kant did might be defined in Iser's terms as an act of ironical self-disclosure. In this act his philosophical discourse incorporates a literary world in order to reject it, but can't transgress its own discursive boundaries. Thus Kant remains within the discourse of metaphysics with his proper rival in the face of Svedenborg. But that is not the whole story. In 1796 Mathew Gregory Lewis used for the epigraph of his notorious Gothick novel The Monk the same lines from Horace's Epistulae (II, ii, 208-9) as Kant in the Second Part of his treatise:

Dreams, magic terrors, spells of mighty power
Witches, and ghosts who rove at midnight hour.

Lewis is probably the best British Gothick connoisseur of Germany and German literature but his duplicated epigraph hardly aims only to testify erudition. The triple dialogue between the Gothick and the Kantian writing can not be explained as a mere coincidence. In the matrix of the grand narratives and their subversion it is to be read as an episode of the hidden European literary and intellectual history. When the inadequacy of interpretative plots of the Real results in doubling the effects of the Imaginary then both literature and philosophy paradoxically reinforce their faculties of worldmaking by acts of negation.

The Sublime of Kant and the early Romantic poets adopts key Burkean characteristics as vastness, immeasurableness and obscurity. It results from inadequacy of perception and signification, from momentary falling into an interpretative void or inability to fictionalize. But when Kant frames the Sublime as a presentation of the unpresentable and Coleridge describes it as a suspension of disbelief for the moment they postulate a crucial difference. The experience of the Sublime as well as the Coleridgean Imagination and Fancy does not mean any more 'to suffer passively in the fearful asymmetry between the Human and Nature'. The “object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas” becomes a faculty, which is performed in various acts of fictionalizing. In rational judgements, artworks, contemplative bliss or self-destructive overreaching the Kantian/Romantic Subject strives to determine the indeterminate by experimental power/knowledge systems. The Sublime undergoes a constant metamorphosis and yet retains its transcendental character.

The last two centuries witness an irreversible devaluation of the numinous. In the place of the uniformed ideologies imposing totalling worldviews comes the cognitive and aesthetic play of the heteromorphous Other, which is materialized through more and more perfect and complicated technology. This complication provides for a change of the object and the source of the sublime but the interrelations remain awkwardly similar. As Joseph Tabbi writes, "the pattern of attempted apprehension and imaginative collapse [...] in nineteenth- century engagements with nature can be seen in our imaginative engagements with technology." The pleasure-and-pain affect of the postmodern "sentiment of the sublime" again emanates from "representational insufficiency." In the (post)industrial "today" the grand substitution of Nature by Technology has gone far away from the early Industrial and Gothick Revival age. The substitution is staged out as a process of fragmentation and rearrangement of Reality, a highly intensified play of similar/different language games. Their unceasing reverberations outline curious homologies between such disparate discursive systems as the foundational premodern alchemical discourse and the postmodern technological one. They both represent an outer processing of natural/technological components and manifest inner spiritual/psychic processes in a back-and-forth play of analogies. And again the overabundance of signifying possibilities paradoxically causes inadequacy of representations.

The new vision of the wide World, which the Web creates, is habitually designated with different names of the Unreal. It is a peculiar paradox to observe how this (in)human institution - the pride of modern science and technology - repulses many people as a debilitating or diabolic invention, or at best as a grotesque artifact and make-believe. The quintessence of human rationality and positively constructed Reality engenders a variety of irrational responses and provokes the Unreal to make its inroads. But it is this indispensable prerequisite from which begins our Gothic fictionalizing of the Web: the initial stage of defamiliarization or Astonishment in Burkean terms. After the first seven years of its existence the WWW often evokes metaphors like a disproportionate giant infant, or a monstrously branched out labyrinth of sites, links, extensions, hypertext and hidden texts, and anonymous signatures of the (in)visible. At first sight the Web's structure reminds Die Krake of imaginative logic, sketched by R. Caillois. In my genealogical retrospection both the corporeal and the spatial metaphor are re-visions of the flickering but undying out brief candle of the Gothic Imaginary.

Another striking analogy provides the fact that the Web has already created a virtual community of experts and users just as the Gothick literature has formed an ideal community of readers. Both communities are heterogeneous in themselves but what they have in common is a characteristically Gothic ambiguity and receptive anxiety, resuscitated by the virtual reality of the Web. The computer and Internet Sublime is activated by two aporias: i) how can the inorganic become organic and ii) how can everything become visible. The two heralds of the Uncanny invest themselves in the indirect clash of two 'inventions', which represent emblematic occurrences both today and in the Gothick past.

The metamorphosis of the first one - the hideous/brave electronic Promethean progeny - can easily be traced back to the archetypal creation through electrification of Merry Shelley's Frankenstein. But is the clever machine condemned to passive submission or it can improve and be able to think and act on its own? Their is no "concord fiction" (in the terms of Frank Kermode) to answer positively the second part of this question. Fictions of self-conscious technical creations - just like that of Dr. Frankenstein's creature - give birth only to dire harbingers of death. But is the insistence on a total Otherness of the machine and the subsequent human separation from it the best way to get rid of our technological paranoia? Joseph Tabbi and Donna Haraway propose the median way: "not to separate ourselves further from the machine, but to make technological mechanism the site of an aesthetic embodiment (italics mine) where mind and world are neither opposed nor merged."

The already mentioned Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham epitomizes the second one. This construction was designed for public buildings, such as hospitals, prisons, schools, which are sites of power relations. The all-visible structure embodies the Enlightenment social and institutional projects in a hierarchical model of power with clearly opposed center and periphery - a big circle with rooms around a central watchtower. In the late Eighteenth century the Panopticon was an exemplary architectural opposite of the Gothick building. It dispelled all shadows and allowed the human gaze to reach any place within the walls: no underground labyrinths, no secret passages, no locked rooms, and winding staircases. The individual, subjected to surveillance, inhabits a more and more lucid and controllable world. But the Panopticon had enough ideological premises and social preconditions to invert the represented positive values, as Foucault discussed this effect in "The Eye of Power". According to him the consequence of the inversion is a transformation of surveillance into self-monitoring, or what he calls "internalization of power". But the Panopticon effect allows an even more radical shift of positions. The observers and the observed, the doctors and the patients, the governors and the governed - they all supervise each other. "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" was the question that William Godwin put in the epigraph of his political Gothic novel Caleb Williams. Nowadays the visual media and the Internet make possible a final reversal - in their Panopticon one representative person or world may be observed by the anonymous and invisible for him majority. The twin heralds of the technological Sublime - the inorganic/organic and the invisible/visible - are vital sources of intellectual uncertainty. They both indicate the interplay between the Inner mental/electronic world and the Outer supposedly real world.

In the long run from the Gothick to the Web the Sublime has passed through various frames: The Burkean, the Gothick, the Kantian, the Romantic, the Lyotardian and the technological ones, to mention a few of them. Whether in the former more private and transcendental modes, or in the latter predominantly public and existential ones, it haunts the deferral between the expectations and their fulfillments. The Sublime anxiety always remains a sort of negative pleasure, wavering between the terror of the coming privation and, in Lyotardian terms, "the threat of nothing further happening". But the postmodern condition, whose epitome became the Web, effaces significantly the (pre)Romantic oppositions between metaphorical descriptions and technological processing of information. The Gothicizing of the Web then stages that non-coincidence of Map and Territory which intensifies our experience of the limits of the Virtual; just as literature, in the words of Wolfgang Iser, "makes the interminable staging of ourselves appear as the postponement of the end".

 

 

© Ognyan Kovachev, 2000
© E-publishing LiterNet, 19. 02. 2000
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