“Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail”

Citation: “Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail.” Representations 32 (Fall 1990): 75-113.

Beginning of essay (pp. 75-77):

Release 1.0

I struck, and struck again,
And, growing still in stature, the huge cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still
With measured motion, like a living thing
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the willow-tree.
.      .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .
after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts
There was a darkness–call it solitude
Or blank desertion–no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind.

—-William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805)

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void. . . . the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there . . .

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation . . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . . .”

William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

To imagine Wordsworth with his hands on a personal computer is to glimpse a descent, as if of software, from the romantic release of imagination to its various postmodern releases. Cyberpunk, for example. Romantic imagination is the source code (by way of Edgar Allan Poe, the Beats, Thomas Pynchon, and others) of Neuromancer, the novel that marked the emergence of the “cyberpunk” or “mirrorshades” movement in postmodern science fiction. The comparison is vulgar, but precisely so. Perhaps only our vulgate bards match the original banality, the transcendental everydayness, of the poet of Lyrical Ballads.

Transcendence is the issue. Romantic imagination was a mediation between the worldly and otherworldly whose definitive act was the simulation of transcendental release. In such spots of time in The Prelude as the Boat Stealing or Snowdon episodes, Mind was the visionary medium that coded the world as otherworldly. But the dark ricorso of such simulation was what Geoffrey Hartman (in his book on Wordsworth) called the “return to nature.” The thief in the boat turns back from transgressive transcendence to a Platonic cave of legitimacy. The poet on Snowdon views a cloud-video “perfect image of a mighty mind” but then corrects the simulation, turns it at last into an ode to duty: “hence religion, faith, / . . . Hence truth in moral judgements; and delight / That fails not, in the external universe.” Transcendence is recuperated within the banal–the denotative banal of commonplace experience, perhaps also the connotative and ideological banal: the trite, hackneyed, contained, bourgeois.

Just so, neuromantic imagination simulates release. The visionary medium is now Mind in direct interface with silicon (and secondarily with a kaleidoscope of synthetic drugs updating romantic opium); and the function of the synthetic imagination is once more to allow the world–now corporate, multinational, informatic–to feign the otherworldly. Fashioned in much the same mold of existential theft as Wordsworth’s boat stealer, the hero of Gibson’s novel, Case, is an outlaw, a “cowboy” hacker riding “viruses” into bright corporate databases. Gliding in cool stealth along datapath traceries of the corporate network, Case is Kerouac on the road, Slothrop in the Zone, the Street that jinks between corporation headquarters. But at last, this thief also ends in the double bind of transgression become legitimation. In the great legitimation crisis of the novel, he raids an evil corporate colossus that is the postindustrial imagination of Milton’s Pandemonium. The resulting subversion is transcendental, apocalyptically so–but also, we recognize, indistinguishable in outcome from what economic journalism calls a “minor correction” of the market: a corporate raid, a takeover, a taking care of what Case–in his street talk–has all along called “biz.” In this novel, too, transcendence is ultimately banal, which in postmodern science fiction often means that it is parasitic upon a mock-Japanese ideology of ordinariness: corporation consensus, performativity, zaibatsu rectitude. In Gibson’s drug-sharp image of his hero bunching his fingers in cold withdrawal from his keyboard (in the electric “Japanese night”), we recognize a consummate need for the corporate grid.Once we insulated ourselves from reality in universals and totalisms. Now we wrap ourselves in detailed layers of context as thick and multiform as cotton or Gibson’s temperfoam. If I had to put my criticism of high postmodern cultural criticism in brief, it would come to this: “context” is not the same as “culture.” Context throws over the surface of culture an articulated grid, a way of speaking and thinking culture, that allows us to model the scenes of human experience with more felt significance–more reality, more practicality, more aesthetic impact–than appears anywhere but on the postmodern version of romantic “nature”: a screen. (pp. 98-99)

On one great screen, then: romantic “unknown modes of being.” On the other: “cyberspace” or, in other cyberpunk idiom, the “matrix,” “network,” “grid,” “Plateau.” The media of dependency in both instances is the same: an ecstatic mind caught in an endless loop between transgressive transcendence and corrective legitimation. Transcendence is a goto routine of the imagination that goes nowhere.

But a detail: what about that insistent “willow-tree” in Wordsworth (thrice mentioned in the Boat Stealing episode)? Or the “temperfoam” in the passage from Gibson? What do these ultrabanal details embedded in the routine of transcendence–together with a whole manifold of arbitrary particulars elsewhere in these works–offer the romantic or neuromantic imagination? Haiku, after all, shows how little is needed to simulate a world. Why does the vision of One Life or One Matrix need such a level of detail in its simulation of release from the world? Why not be content with a more select repertory of motifs or images adequate for simulation: Wordsworth’s imagery of “darkness,” for example, or Gibson’s of “bright lattices of logic . . . like city lights, receding”? Or is it the case that gray background–neutrality, static, the noise between channels–is the very possibility of romantic/postmodern simulation? The meanest flower that blows as well as such routine products of materials science as temperfoam: Is this the stuff of under-allegory, under-symbol, or, perhaps, the most hallucinatory of all simulations, “context”?


Overview: The Rhetoric of Detail

I wish in this essay to criticize cultural criticism in what may be called its high postmodernist forms: cultural anthropology, new cultural history, New Historicism, New Pragmatism, new and/or post-Marxism, and finally that side of French theory–overlapping with post-Marxism–that may be labeled French pragmatism (i.e., the “practice” philosophy and/or semiotic “pragmatics” of the later Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, Jean-François Lyotard). These aggressively “new” forms of contextualism do not exhaust the field of postmodern cultural criticism, and a fuller study would need to include the different emphases of ethnic, gender, and area studies as well as of British cultural materialism. But for now we can stay high. “High” distinguishes neither the theoretical from the practical, the high cultural from the populist, nor the neoconservative from the leftist. Rather, it indicates a shared mode of cultural engagement that undercuts all such polemics dividing the field to project an increasingly generic discourse of contextualism. This mode of engagement may be called detached immanence. Detached immanence amid worlds of context is the distinctively postmodern, the “new,” in cultural criticism . . . .

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