The Virtual Sublime



Preface:

To discuss the sublime is, in many ways, a paradoxical gesture, since such a discussion involves an analysis of the unanalyzable. And this elusiveness, implicit in the very nature of the sublime, makes it an unwieldy tool. This paper does not attempt to derive from the sublime some sort of set of rules to be used in literary criticism and then to apply this construct to a particular narrative or narratives. Nor have I attempted to create in its pages an artefact which will replicate the experience of the sublime for its reader.

Rather, the driving force behind this paper is an effort to see how some of the ideas played out in various discussions of the sublime, particularly Kant's and Lyotard's subsequent reading of Kant, are positioned in the subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk, specifically in two specific works, Neuromancer and Snow Crash, in the assumption that they are representative of the genre as a whole. Furthermore, since cyberpunk has been labelled as the most postmodern instance of science fiction, my question is whether the notion of the sublime which moves in these texts under scrutiny is a postmodern sublime and furthermore, whether the manner in which this sublime is played out then allows some extrapolation of how critical discussion of the sublime, which I see as following a distinct historical progression, will be able to shift to meet the demands of a society changing with increasing rapidity, a change impelled primarily by the evolving sophistication of technology.

I. The Sublime and Postmodernism

In talking about the sublime, different philosophers have, generally speaking, oscillated between two distinct notions. Although the sensations are very similar, their primary focus differs in terms of emphasis. The core of the first is a claim of transcendance, of moving beyond the limitations of human existence, while that of the second is an analysis of the transaction taking place within the aesthetic experience. Seen from the vantage point of the first, the sublime is a moment which can best be deciphered either in religious language or else in the terms of the psychoanalytic, a step which seems infinitely preferable for the ends of this paper. Simply put, the self, confronted with something larger and/or more powerful than itself, fears annihilation. But even as the self cowers in the moment of that threat, it becomes aware that the threat is an empty one, that the annihilation will not take place. Suffused with a sudden flush of pleasure at the realization, the self experiences a moment like the giddy ride of a roller coaster, plunging wildly from vast heights while safely strapped in. Or else the moment in which the threat of annihilation occurs may take the form of an awareness of inadequacy, in which the ego trembles as though about to be crushed. Faced with the vast, the thing whose magnitude is incomprehensible, and the even more devastating notion that the self is incapable of comprehending something, the self performs an adept compensatory move. Despite the immensity of the mountain, the magnitude of the mathematical, the self manages to convince itself that its finitude is not in fact really finite, since by holding the idea of such vast things within itself, it also partakes of that vastness. In that moment, overwhelmed by excess on the part of the object, the mind executes a neat sidestep of metaphor, convincing itself that the act of holding something in the imagination is the same as being that object. The pain of terror mixes with the pleasurable relief of knowing oneself safe in the face of that terror.

The claim of transcendance made by the sublime is that, as Thomas Weiskel notes in The Romantic Sublime, "man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human." (3) Whether this transcendance is self delusion or situated somewhere else seems unimportant, since to push that question farther is to move it into the realms of unanswerability. The important notion to be stressed here is the idea that human limitations do not necessarily constitute absolute prisons, that these prisons can be escaped via the vehicle of the sublime.

The identification of the experience of the sublime as a moment of conmingled pleasure and pain comes into play as well when thinking of the sublime as inextricably linked with an aesthetic experience. Here, the very impossibility of representing the "real" world becomes the thing which is represented, transmuting the pain of being unable to represent that world into triumph at being able to convey the shadow of the experience of trying to represent it. The sublime becomes a moment in which the world is immanent, but the message of that immanence is that it is absolutely unknowable, and only the fact of its unknowability can be known. An intimation of a patterned world appears, a shadow of the possibility of being able to know it, and the fact of its existence, coupled with the fact that such a scrap is all one will ever have by which to know the world, creates an ineffable mixture of pleasure and pain. The infinite object is the world and the sublime moment is a moment of transcendance through aesthetic experience, sometimes conflated with or cloaked by words which evoke spirituality. Lyotard distinguishes between the two, calling the desire for immanence a nostalgic sublime, a romantic striving for communion with the Universe, and distinguishing it from the sublime which focuses on the aesthestic experience as something beyond this moment of nostalgia, discarding the nostalgic longing in order to look to new questions of what constitutes art. While modernism in art involved an orientation toward the nostalgic sublime, he suggests postmodern art, by contrast, draws upon the second.

This linkage of the aesthetic and the promise of transcendance occurs throughout the history of writings on the sublime from Longinus, who uses it in talking about rhetoric, to Lyotard. But, as Lyotard's distinction tries to account for, the emphasis shifts from a premodern understanding of the sublime as an adjectival quality which can be applied to an entity such as a poem or painting to a more complicated definition of it as an experience in and of itself, although precipitated by that object. This movement is indeed one to the postmodern, an attitude of endless self-examination coupled with a cynical realization that nothing about that self-expression can help but replicate previous such examinations.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this idea of the postmodern is to refer to how Umberto Eco describes it in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose. The postmodern, Eco says, is marked by what he calls a "continual cynical awareness of its own existence." He describes this awareness as something that continually recognizes the past with irony:

	
	I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very 
	cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, "I love you madly,"
	because he know that she knows (and that she knows that he knows)
	that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland.  Still,
	there is a solution.  He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love
	you madly."  At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said 
	clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will 
	nonetheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he 
	loves 	her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. (68)

The postmodern attitude therefore is one which no longer regards looking at objects as a valid enterprise: they can never be presumed fresh or not previously unexperienced. Everything new is old even before the moment of its creation. Instead, postmodernism begins to examine itself in an endlessly recursive move, looking at itself looking at itself in a perpetual mental mise-en-abime.

This self-reflexive attitude has important implications for the field of aesthetics, which becomes the only way to escape the chains of cynicism. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton situates the moment of modernity as the place where three previously interrelated spheres of activity, science, ethics and art, become diassociated and specialized, and points to aesthetics as the force which enables them, through the postmodern attitude, to be brought back together. Art becomes the site of a trace, a moment of slippage which may enable one to glimpse "in some necessarily empty, unspeakable way, something beyond the prison house of metaphysics." (Eagleton 370) Postmodernism interrogates traditional notions of the spheres, and what constitutes Truth, but even though it does so with an ever cynical eye cast at its own posturing, unable to ever see its own self examination as anything but rooted in irony, it still somehow perceives the act of interrogation as a liberatory one.

In an age where such multilayered mental shifts have taken place, the postmodern sublime becomes no longer a sublime of magnitude, but one of complexity. In a world where every piece of information leads to ten others, where every answer is simply another list of questions, the sublime becomes a spreading out of the self, a dissipation down ten thousand possible pathways, in a gesture like that of a grandmaster attempting to play a multiplicty of chess games simultaneously only to find that each game spawns another ten games in turn and so on, and so on. Joseph Tabbi refers to this in The Postmodern Sublime, defining his version of it as a "materialization of the scientific worldview." (3) But Tabbi discounts the self-reflexive nature of postmodernism, seeing it only as a slight gloss which gives a central concern with technology a faint flavor of hipness. On the contrary, that self- reflexiveness is a basic component of current postmodern attitudes as created and shaped by modern technologies.

To elaborate on this sublime of complexity, in a sublime predicated on magnitude, a substitution is performed. The mind perceives something so large, so unfathomable that it becomes terrifying. In a recuperative move, it consoles itself with the thought that although the object of terror may be vast, a representation of it can still be held within the mind, making the mind itself as infinitely vast as the object which is the origin of the experience. Therefore the pleasure of the recuperation is combined with the pain that originally caused it. The two things are vastly different, but the act of metaphor making allows the mind to perform its sleight, to compare apples and oranges and get away with it. In a sublime based on complexity, a similar move is enacted, but still played out as though it were a question of magnitude. Complexity is a force which seems to involve a motion along the ladder of magnitude, to the microscopic, the atomic and then the sub-atomic level in the form of fractals, which allow endless moves down (or sometimes up) the ladder.

As Tabbi would indicate, however, the linkage between this postmodern condition and technology cannot be broken. We must be aware that techonological and scientific advences are not just transforming reality but are transforming our own existence in such a rapid and radical way that we are acutely aware of those forces and made deeply uneasy and insecure by them. When we develop artificial intelligence, for example, we question the nature of intelligence, including our own. And as we improve our methods of reproduction, we begin to question the philosophical dimensions of such reproductive technologies. As Walter Benjamin notes in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," one cannot consider the work of art without considering its physical components, and particularly the technology which produces that component. The computer represents new steps in the techniques of reproduction. When a work exists, is created as, only as stored data, then what happens to the idea of originality? Benjamin refers to authenticity in a work of art as a sensitive nucleus, disclosing his insistence that some sort of core identity exists. But in the computer this core cannot exist in physical form, unless one wants to reduce the criteria to the basic atomic level. If the presence of the original is in truth the prerequisite for authenticity, the thing without which it cannot exist, then can anything within the computer be considered authentic? To push this a trifle farther, if the aura depends on the place an object occupies in time and space, on its presence, then the only aura any piece of art within the computer can possibly hold is a nebulous accounting of its creation, the circumstances underlying its existence, or else a listing of critical reactions to that art.. The historical testimony becomes the narrative of its creation, not just what happens to it afterwards. And a more important emphasis occurs, in which art becomes increasingly dependent on its viewer, on the act of being perceived to bring itself into existence. In a world where there are no originals, the moment of perception is the one in which the work of art is born.

Lyotard refers to these particular questions in "Something Like: Communication . . . Without Communication," bringing in the ideas of passibility and impassibility: "Something is not destined for you, there is no way to feel it. You are touched, you will only know this afterwards." (118) The work of art no longer matters, only the interaction in which it is experienced. How do new technologies like the computer affect the idea of presence? And what happens to the sublime when presences are removed from the moment of aesthetic experience? Some answers may lie in how such presences have been played out in cyberpunk fiction.

II. Cyberpunk

In examining the postmodern sublime, then, then one must turn to a literature which has since its inception grappled directly with problems of technology: science fiction. And within science fiction, one subgenre in particular has been labelled postmodern: the works which fall into the category of cyberpunk.

Driven by questions of technology and of the naturalization of new realms of experience, questions of increasing reproduction and simulation, and the societal changes brought about by the massive expansion of advertising, information, and the culture industry, cyberpunk concerns itself with a future which it projects as being very close, as with the television show, "Max Headroom," whose opening credits placed it as taking place "twenty minutes into the future." Like much of science fiction, cyberpunk relies on techniques of hyper-realism, backing itself up with flashes of science intended to simulate the world in which the reader exists till it becomes altogether plausible.

The world of cyberpunk is Baudrillard's desert of the real, governed by questions of consumption of images, experiences and individuals. Rethinking basic paradigms such as consciousness and desire, marked by the breakdown of binary distinctions, the exhaustive list of concerns raised by cyberpunk has been enumerated by Larry McCaffery in his introduction to the collection, Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction:

	. . . the contrast between the human "meat" and metal, the relationship
	between human memory and computer memory; the denaturing of the 
	body and the transformation of time and space in the postindustrial 
	world; the increasingly abstract interaction of data and images in this 
	world; the primacy of information in the "dance of date" that comprises 
	so much of life today . . . the mystical sense that our creation and re-
	creation of data and images produces systems capable of merging with 
	one another into new intelligences; and the spectre haunting nearly 
	all postmodern SF -- the uneasy recognition that our primal urge to 
	replicate our consciousness and physical beings (into images, words, 
	machine replicants, computer symbols) is not leading us closer to the 
	dream of immortality, but is creating merely a pathetic parody, a 
	metaexistence or simulacra of our essences that is supplanting us . . . 
	(McCaffery 15-16)

One of the ideas cyberpunk returns to, over and over again in an insistent manuever which borders on obsession, is the computer technology of virtual reality. The phrase is an oxymoron, a quality demonstrable by looking at its components. Virtual, existing in essence or effect, though not in actual fact, form, or nature; in other words, existing only in the mind. Reality, the quality or state of being actual, or true, that which exists objectively or in fact. The oscillations of meaning introduced by the mere name serve as a warning flag signalling the sublime complexities inherant in the concept. The particular brand of virtual reality used in cyberpunk is called cyberspace, the mythical range the genre rides, fictional worlds in which information becomes everything. Outside the computer, information is a commodity, to be bought, sold, traded, stolen. And the world inside the computer, cyberspace, is a world where information becomes an object, something which can be experienced in a tangible way, through the medium of virtual reality.

Virtual reality was originally designed as a way for human beings to negotiate with the impossibly complex and vast amounts of information held within computers. It is an interface, a surface that forms a boundary between the world outside the computer and the world within the computer's artificial mind, a place where their independent systems may interact. It creates the illusion of interacting directly with data, plunging deep into the river of information which flows past in cyberspace, instead of asking the computer to interact with the data and then report the results of such an interaction back to its user. The technology of virtual reality enables its user to fly through three-dimensional environments that represent extremely complex data, and furthermore to reach out and manipulate these representations with an illusion of direct interaction. To illustrate, one might look at how virtual reality is portrayed in "Johnny Mnenomic," a film based on a "classic" cyberpunk short story. The protagonist, floating within cyberspace, accesses information as though unfolding origami objects. Calling up a map which floats before his eyes, he points to a spot on it and finds himself within a sub-system. Reaching for a book there, he opens it to look down a list of telephone numbers. His interaction with information is tactile: he reaches, grabs, pulls, opens.

Virtual reality as it exists right now is crude, requiring apparati like visors, gloves, helmets which control what one sees and hears. It was originally created in the 1960s; at least, programmers had been moving in that direction. But in a strange loop, the first cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, by William Gibson, created the thing it described when John Walker of Autodesk read the novel and began to shape the interface he was designing to fit with the description of computer and human interaction detailed in its pages. Here is Gibson's description:

	"The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games," said the voice-
	over, "in early graphics programs and military experimentation with 
	cranial jacks."  On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind 
	a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the special
	possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned
	through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire
	control circuits of tanks and war planes.  "Cyberspace.  A consensual
	hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in 
	every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . 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 light, receding . . . " (51)


III. Virtual Reality and the Sublime

The virtual reality represented in the form of cyberspace in cyberpunk fiction is not an accurate portrayal of the virtual reality technology of today. It is, however, a projection of what virtual reality could, and probably will, become. How does the virtual reality of cyberpunk fit in with past and present notions of the sublime? Despite its consistently presenting the world of cyberspace as a vast landscape, virtual reality in these books is actually the postmodern sublime, the sublime of complexity, as Gibson constantly reiterates in Neuromancer, here in a passage which shows the characteristic conflation of landscape and complexity: "the horizonless fields of the Tessier-Ashpool cores, an endless neon cityscape, complexity that cut the eye, jewel bright, sharp as razors." (256-7)

To clarify this idea of complexity, it is necessary to make clear how the landscape of cyberspace comes into being in the first place. There are two possible ways of creating a world within a computer. The first is for someone to write it out, to anticipate every possible way another human might explain that world. Writing such a program is mostly a matter of writing a text file, much like a novel. If the programmer thinks someone might examine a flower, he or she is obliged to write a description of that flower. Each detail is created before the aesthetic experience. This first world is a mirror of one created within the world of the programmer. It is a world which is comprehensible, it is knowable, explorable -- anything but sublime. In the moment of that experience, looking at something unexpected by the designer will return no information or experience since that look was unanticipated. It is a world of direct metaphor, in which each object stands for an object created in the mind of its programmer/creator.

The second way of creating such a world, by contrast, does not mean mirroring a mental landscape. Instead it involves enabling the computer to generate its internal world, by providing it with the formulas by which it can answer any question asked by its explorer. If the explorer looks at a particular object, the computer writes the description of it, according to programmed formulas, at that moment. This second method of creation is the world of infinite complexity, the fractal world, where the act of looking creates the thing which is seen. This second method, therefore, is the one which acts to create the world where the sublime may be experienced, and it is not a world of metaphor, but a world of distinct, originary things, a world where the thing truly is brought into presence by the subject's gaze. This is the virtual reality projected by cyberspace as it is used in cyberpunk novels. And it is the hopelessly hip, ever cynical attitude of postmodernism which infects this world, knowing that there are no originals, even where human beings are concerned.

If cyberspace as shown in cyberpunk novels is the realm of the postmodern sublime, then questions asked of that genre may reveal some things about the sublime. And in order to look at this, it is necessary to refer to two specific cyberpunk works. One is the book which started the genre with its publication in 1984, Gibson's Neuromancer. The second is one of the more recent cyberpunk works, Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, published in 1992.

In Neuromancer the sublime as an idea of transcendance appears over and over again. Although widely hailed as gritty and realistic, Gibson's highly romantic novel emphasizes the triumph of the individual over a hostile world, privileging expression of emotion and imagination, although not rejecting techonolgy, which becomes not a force to be resisted but rather one that is naturalized, the landscape against which the actions of the novel are played out. In Neuromancer, the hero, Case, has had his ability to move in cyberspace destroyed as a result of a business deal gone wrong. He is hired to infiltrate a large company's database and paid in the form of being cured by his disability by his employer, whio ensures his continued loyalty by implanting sacs of bio-toxins, which only the employer can remove, in Case's system. Case is a hacker, a "cyberspace cowboy" used to the the Net's "live- wire voodoo." (5) As the novel progresses, he learns that his employer is the artificial intelligence, Wintermute, contained in the very database he is cracking, and that it is trying to transcend the limitations of the computer system in which it is contained, to escape its confines into the larger world of cyberspace itself.

In Snow Crash, the hero, (named in a metafictional piece of sleight of hand, "Hiro Protagonist") is a samurai rather than a cowboy, one who seeks to save the known world from a virus which infects both humans and computers, which is being released on the world by L. Bob Rife, a figure vaguely reminiscent of H. Ross Perot, who has discovered that human minds are programmable via ancient Sumerian mes. Hiro re-enacts the myth of Enki and Innana while spouting philosophy heavily influenced by Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, describing two languages as computer programs at war within the humna mind, resulting in the development of self-awareness.

Much of the action of both of these novels is played out in cyberspace, which is in Neuromancer called the Matrix; in Snow Crash the Metaverse. Both names are heavily significant. The word matrix manages to encompass a number of different definitions, including: (1) a situation or surrounding substance within which something else originates, develops or is contained; (2) a binding substance, as cement in concrete, (3) a. a rectangular array of numeric or algebraic quantities subject to manthematical operations, b, something resembling such an array, as in the regular formation of elements into columns and rows; (4) (computer science) the network of intersections between input and output leads in a computer, functioning as an encoder. And the Metaverse is that which exists outside the Universe, which holds it, contains it. While remaining located inside the computer, therefore, cyberspace is named as the entity which manages to contain everything else.

V. Body and Mind

In both books, no boundary is more severely blurred, no binary opposition more rigorously challenged than the distinction between body and mind. And the question of the body/mind separation and how it complicates the realm of cyberspace points in turn to one of the complications which creates the postmodern sublime.

In Donna Haraway's essay "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," she posits the figure of the cyborg as an entity of the twentieth century, a figure in which traditional boundaries break down, melt and slide into each other, becoming what she calls "leaky distinctions." In particular, she elaborates three sets of boundaries: those between organism and machine, those between animals and humans and finally, the boundary between body and mind, or physical and nonphysical. It is this third boundary whose challenge becomes most apparent in both novels.

The blurring of such boundaries in the postmodern sublime is hardly a notion which has not previously arisen in reference to the sublime . In the Critiques, Kant posits three realms: one of empirical knowledge, the second of reason or logic, and the third that of aesthetic judgement. The realm of judgement manages to mediate between the first two. In that realm the subject and object interact in a way which is not empirical, but borders on it: the viewpoint of the subject somehow bringing the objects it perceives to presence, and in that process managing to describe its own existence. This is Kant's aesthetic fiction, that in the act of judgement, subject and object are unified. In the realm of judgement, the thought which is not a thought, the paradox of judgement occurs. This is also the realm of the mixed pleasure and pain which is the sublime. The pleasure of the beautiful is a sense of world's conformity to our capacities; the pain when we realize how inadequate those capacities are forcibly reminds us of the limits of our imagination and mingles with that pleasure in order to create the sublime.

This realm is a place of hopelessly blurred boundaries, of traces and intimations, of excess which forbids knowledge, suggestions of patterns rather than facts. Haraway cites the breakage of such boundaries as a moment in which pleasure in that breakage occurs. Yet such breakage is in turn accompanied by a sense of panic: if the boundaries are not there, then where is the self? Does it lie in the body or the mind or in some realm in between? The pleasure of shattered boundaries therefore becomes mixed with the omnipresent fear of annihilation: can the self exist if one does not know where and when it is situated?

The inhabitants of Neuromancer have various complicated relationships to the body. The range of characters includes: artificial intelligences, whose claim to being as equally "real" as humans is underscored by legal means, since, Gibson makes a point of mentioning, under the "Turing Act" all such entities have been granted Swiss citizenship; human beings, whose memory and physical capabilities are more often than not augmented or else changed in some way, as with Molly with her retractable claws and the two artificial lenses which fit over her eyes; human beings, particularly the hackers, who prefer the world of cyberspace to the realm of the body, which they disdainfully refer to as "meat"; and reconstructed human beings, like the Flatliner, who exist only in the form of recorded memories, ROM personality matrices, yet act and think and communicate in the way they did when they lived. Questions of self, of uniqueness, of whether recorded consciousness is a true self or just an imitation, constantly circulate throughout Neuromancer. And not just the self, but the objects which the self brings into presence are similarly complicated by imitation and representations. The world or worlds in which the characters of Neuromancer exist consist of multiple imitations and false representations: Rivera directly projects his own thoughts and desires around him; the satellite of Freeside is filled with artificial landscapes; the landscapes created by forces such as dreams or drugs appear within the minds of the characters and, finally, the landscape of cyberspace, which is visited and revisited repeatedly:

	. . . fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his
	country, transparent 3D chessboard expanding to inifinity.  Inner eye 
	opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the eastern Seaboard Fission
	Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of
	America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of 
	military systems, forever beyond his reach. (52)

Unlike Neuromancer, in Snow Crash there are no artificial intelligences. The anthropomorphized programs such as the Librarian that serves as Hiro's link to the Library of Congress or the Graveyard Daemons that act as clean-up crew in the Metaverse are clearly not self-aware, and exists only as adjunct or tools for the humans that have created them. The hope of immortality in the manifestation of disembodied consciousness, creatures of pure logic in the form of programming existing within cyberspace, does not surface within the later novel.

This means that in Snow Crash, the entities which exist do not fall into the multiplicity of existences that those of Neuromancer do. The emphasis shifts, therefore, from the question of which categories various characters fall into to the problematics of what categories they create to put themselves into. And those who enter the Metaverse do so in the form of "avatars." Gibson never speaks of the shape of the body in cyberspace: his characters are viewpoints only, like a single disembodied pixel in some vast screeen. Stephenson, on the other hand, explores the possibilities of being able to "write the self":

	The people are pieces of software called avatars.  They are the
	audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in 
	the Metaverse . . . Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to 
	the limitations of your equipment.  If you're ugly, you can make your
	avatar beautiful.  If you've just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still 
	be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied make-up.  You 
	can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the 
	Metaverse. (35-6)

An avatar is the embodiment of a quality or concept, or the temporary manifestation of such a concept, and Stephenson's usage of it in Snow Crash makes it clear that in the Metaverse, it is the mind which explores the world, which moves through the landscape labelled cyberspace. At the same time, the avatar can be incapacitated, and if this happens, the mind is ejected from the global network that is the Metaverse and not allowed back inside until the remains of the first avatar have "decayed" and a new one can be introduced, in "the closest simulation of death that the Metaverse can offer." (102)

Thus death becomes a separation from the world knowledge represented by cyberspace, a purely temporary annihilation. Case in Neuromancer experiences a similar separation when dissatisifed customers intoduce a virus into his system which methodically burns out his ability to interface with the computer. Described as a zombie moving the streets of Tokyo in search of a true death to accompany his metaphorical one, it is not until Case is brought back from the dead, or ressurrected via Wintermute's intervention that he can reenter the world of the Matrix.

The strictness with which this narrative of life/death is adhered to within both novels illustrates that the world of cyberspace, while not acting as a metaphor for the empirical world outside it, remains a world ruled by metaphor, a world in which everything is represented by something else. The numbers which make up a bank's accounts might appear as a huge pyramid. It is a landscape Case moves effortlessly through, deciphering it almost without thinking:

	   	Case punched for the Swiss banking sector, feeling a wave of 
	exhiliration as cyberspace shivered, blurred, gelled.  The Eastern 
	Seaboard Fission Authority was gone, replaced by the cool geometric 
	intricacy of Zurich commercial banking.  He punched again, for 
	Berne.
		"Up," the construct said.  "It'll be high."
		They ascended lattices of light, levels strobing, a blue flicker.
		That'll be it, Case thought.
		Wintermute was a simple cube of white light, that very 
	simplicity suggesting extreme complexity. (115)

Similarly, in Snow Crash:

	   	Hiro's been around the Metaverse long enough to know that 
	despite the bright cheery appearance of this thing it is, in fact, as 
	simple and utilitarian as an Army camp.  This is a model of a sysyem.  A 
	big complicated system.  The shapes probably represent computers, or 
	central nodes in Rife's worldwide network, or Pearly Gates franchises, 
	or any other kind of local and regional offices that Rife has going 
	around the world.  (436)

Within cyberspace, as both of these passages suggest, everything is a story told via metaphor, and all of these varied metaphors draw on physical qualities such as space, light or corporeal existence. Yet the body is absent in Neuromancer, or rather it is something to be shunned or scorned, the thing the cowboys flee to cyberspace to escape. It is the realm of pleasure beyond the body, or at least of a pleasure comparable to it, as Gibson makes clear in one passage: "his orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces were shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors." (33)

The body in Snow Crash exists as a tool, a tool which can be written towards specific purposes. Hiro writes himself an invisible avatar, one that cannot be perceived by others in cyberspace, at one point and employs it to walk about the Metaverse unseen and infiltrate Rife's database. And when the virus infects Hiro's friend Da5id, as might be predicted, the tool becomes useless:

	Instead of Da5id, there is just a jittering cloud of bad digital karma.  It's
	so bright and fast and meaningless that it hurts to look at . . . it's not
	staying within its own body space; hair-thin pixel lines keep shooting 
	off to one side, passing all the way across the Black Sun and out 
	through the wall.  It is not so much an organized body as it is a 
	centrifugal cloud  of lines and polygons whose center cannot hold, 
	throwing bright bits of body shrapnel all over the room, interfering 
	with people's avatars, flickering and disappearing. (76)

Even outside the cyberspatial lattices, the body is a falliable programmable tool, something that is forgotten by its users only at great peril to themselves. Those who forget this in Snow Crash end up infected by the virus of Asherah, are programmed by something other than themselves. Indeed, in both books the fantasy of leaving the body behind and recreating it as a technological object recurs while as the same time the inevitability of the sense of the body shaping how one perceives knowledge and its manipulations betrays what an impossible fantasy this is. The boundary between body and mind becomes a permeable membrane, which changes the nature of what exists on either side. Both body and mind are altered, reshaped by technological forces.

This posits one possible source for the sublime in cyberpunk, in the mixture of pleasure and pain which is located in the blurring of boundaries. In cyberspace, the subject is twice removed from what he or she experiences, and this creates odd disassociations, as though the moving into cyberspace binds subject and object positions together in a reflexive dynamic that makes their identification problematic. Is the person inside the computer simply another piece of programming? Certainly, their physical being is not in actuality positioned within the computer's circuits. But their point of view is. The putative subject is the consciousness embodied in a physical form, while the object is the puppet behind the screeen. Since the flow of sensory information goes in both directions, however, the puppet can also be seen as the originary point for sensations, But the puppet, it must be emphasized, is only a metaphor, and a metaphor problematized by its existence within self- reflexive postmodernity.

The subject is not an entity within the world, but a viewpoint of the world. The sublime is a souce of pain,of being overwhelmed, and accordingly it lurks around the edges of virtual reality in the movies, where the act of trying to portray the postmodern sublime in visual terms necessitates its translation into simple binaries.. Able to access huge amounts of information, these accessers inevitably go mad, like Jobe in the film"Lawnmower Man," an idiot savant who gains godlike powers through exposure to the techonology of virtual reality or else engage in a painful succession of bodily twitches and grimaces, designed to show the power of the flow through them, as in "Johnny Mnemonic" once again. Before linking in to have data downloaded into him, Johnny slips a bite plate into his mouth like a football player awaiting a rough tackle. And that data is a dangerous thing to try to contain -- one of the forces which drives Johnny through out the movie is the urgent need to rid himself of, or download, the data before its presence destroys him by overloading his brain.

Indeed, the landscapes of cyberspace as played out in both novels are often akin to hallucinations:

	He punched himself through and found an infinite blue space ranged 
	with color coded spheres strung on a tight grid of pale blue neon.  In 
	the nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct 
	possessed unlimited subjective dimension; a child's toy calculator, 
	accessed through Case's Sendai, would have presented limitless gulfs of 
	nothingness hung with a few base commands. (Gibson 63)
But this hallucination is consensual, not private:
		Hiro is approaching the Street.  It is the Broadway, the Champs 
	Elysees of the Metaverse.  It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be 
	seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles.  
	It does not really exists.  But right now, millions of people are walking 
	up and down it.
		The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered 
	out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for 
	Computing Machinery's Global Multimedia Protocol Group.  The Street 
	seems to be a grand boulevard going all the way around the equator of 
	a black sphere with a radius of a bit more than ten thousand 
	kilometers.  That makes it 65,536 kilometers around, which is 
	considerably bigger than Earth. (24)

The Matrix or Metaverse, therefore, in a motion which takes us back to Kant, becomes the sensus communis, the hallucination whose shared nature promises, or at least indicates, that the subject is not alone in an unregulated world.

If one pushes the idea of the postmodern sublime in cyberpunk even further, one ends up returning past Kant in an odd slippage to Burke and the fear of annihilation. This is no longer a fear of physical annihilation, but an annihilation of the mind in the form of insanity. But, the question must be raised, can one really fear such in the world of virtual reality, where minds become programs? Gibson suggests not, but does so by implying that there exists some a priori force which exists before the mind, before cyberspace itself, in which resides something like a counter sublime, residing in the body:

		There was a strength that ran in her . . . It was a place he'd 
	known before; not everyone could take him there . . . It belongs, he 
	knew -- he remembered -- as she pulled him down, to the meat, the 
	flesh the cowboys mocked.  It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea 
	of information coded in spiral and pheronome, infinite intricacy that 
	only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read. (239)

No matter where immortality is sited, whether in the body, the mind, or cyberspace, if the fear of annihilation is gone, how can it create the mixture of pleasure and pain which is the sublime? One way to look is to gaze in the direction of Haraway, and her blurred boundaries. Therefore the sublime becomes a mixture of the pleasure created by the breakage of these boundaries, mingled with utter panic at their dissolution. Another is to suggest that in the postmodern sublime, fear is replaced by ennui, by a constant sense that whatever occurs has already been enacted, that originality is a thing of the distant past and that the idea of copies, of replications, is meaningless in a world where we are already copies, already the floating data rather than any physical entity.

Or, to posit a third path, if the boundaries have been blurred, perhaps no dichotomy at all can be said to exist. Can the source of pain in the virtual sublime be the slippage not just between mind/body but between metaphors themselves? Is the problem presented by virtual reality that the unrepresentable finally DOES become presentable, and that the sublime lies in that moment of misrecognition? A program is not a block of ice, or a killer shark, after all, but it is presented as such. Here, Gibson shows Case watching an ice-breaker, a computer program designed to penetrate or infiltrate other programs take place in cyberspace:

	Something dark was forming at the core of the Chinese program.  The 
	density of information overwhelmed the fabric of the matrix, 
	triggering hypnagogic images.  Faint kaleidoscope angles centered in 
	to a silver-black focal point.  Case watched childhood symbols of evil 
	and bad luck tumble out along translucent planes: swastikas, skulls and 
	crossbones, dice flashing snake eyes.  If he looked directly at that null 
	point, no outlines would form.  It took a dozen quick, peripheral takes 
	before he had it, a shark thing, gleaming like obsidian, the black 
	mirrors of its flanks reflecting faint distant lights that bore no 
	relationship to the matrix around it. (Gibson 180-181)

In virtual reality, do we in fact engage in an oddly inverted subreption, where one does not mistake the object for the experience, but rather the experience for the object? All three movements of the sublime have different implications, but to accede to the second is to give oneself over to a certain joyless resignation which seems antithetical to earlier notions of the sublime such as Kant's.

Looking at how the sublime in played out in Neuromancer and Snow Crash allows one to posit several distinct pathways that future discussion of the sublime, particularly in its postmodern forms, might take, therefore. One is the sublime which depends on the complex, and which, in its move towards increasing complexity, breaks down boundaries and oppositional dichotomies. This is a sublime which can, depending on one's orientation, focus on the promise of transcendance or the aesthetic experience.

The other possible pathway is a sublime which becomes a pale copy of itself, where the combination of pleasure and pain becomes a mixture of mild enjoyment and profound boredom, where every experience is hopelessly doomed to be only a repetition of previous gestures, and where the promise of transcendance is only a promise that one's memory may someday appear on CD Rom. Both novels vacillate between these two sublimes.

What, finally, do these books have to say about the sublime and its future? As noted in the preface to this paper, there is no way to derive a plan of action from such a notion, other than a simple resolve to partake of its experience. Perhaps this then is what the books promises, is that the experience does in fact or will in fact exist, that the sublime, in no matter what form, remains.

Works Cited

Crowther, Paul.  "Les Immateriaux and the Postmodern Sublime."  Andrew 
	Benjamin, editor.  Judging Lyotard.  London: Routledge, 1992.

Eagleton, Terry.  The Ideology of the Aesthetic.  London: Blackwell Books, 
	1990.

Eco, Umberto.  Postscript to the Name of the Rose.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace 
	Jovanovich, 1983.

Gibson, William.  Neuromancer.  New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Haraway, Donna.  "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist 
	Feminism in the 1980s."  Feminism/Postmodernism.  J. Nicholson, 
	editor.  New York: Routledge, 1990) 190-233.

McCaffery, Larry, ed.  Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk 
	and Postmodern Fiction.  Durham, North Carolina: Duke University 
	Press, 1991.

Stephenson, Neil.  Snow Crash.  New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

Tabbi, Joseph.  The Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing 
	from Mailer to Cyberpunk.  Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 
	1995.

Weiskel, Thomas.  The Romantic Sublime.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 
	University Press, 1976,


© 1999 C. Francis. To return to the main page, click here. To look at other pieces of academic writing, click here instead.