OK, I just made that up — “the pop sublime.” It sounded good and trendily academical. A lot of academics have been slinging the sublime around lately, creating new customized versions of the sublime, which is to say, the old Kantian notion that one might experience certain things — the starry sky, a mountain, etc. — not as beautiful, exactly, but as both exhilarating and terrifying. The sublime registers as a sensation of shock and awe in the face of something inconceivably vaster that oneself and indifferent to one’s own puny existence. Adam Krims has lately written of the “hip hop sublime,” which got me thinking about the various extensions of the “sublime” idea. The “technological sublime” has been around a while: maybe it was Fredric Jameson who got this ball rolling when he wrote, in his famous essay on postmodernism, that postmodernity marks a point where you can’t represent technology anymore — or more accurately you can’t represent the agency of technology, the way it works, its lines of force. According to Jameson, what you represent, as an architect or sculptor or poet or whatever, is “the sense that beyond all thematics or content the work seems somehow to tap the networks of the reproductive process and thereby to afford us some glimpse into a postmodern or technological sublime, whose power or authenticity is documented by the success of such works in evoking a whole new postmodern space in emergence around us.” Which is a pretty good description of, say, a William Gibson novel, or The Matrix. So our gasp of mingled fear and pleasure is supposed to come from the moment when we glimpse the whole impossibly huge system of manufacture and reproduction. Or maybe you don’t really see the system itself, which is too huge for any mortal mind to encompass, but rather the impossibility of the mental task, and thus, indirectly, the hugeness of the thing itself, like a glimpse of the Gorgon in Perseus’ shield.
But I kind of don’t buy it. It seems to me that the “technological sublime” is an aesthetic concept — a fiction one keeps in mind to heighten the pleasure of reading Neuromancer or watching The Matrix or whatever. It works as a metaphor; it’s an as-if way of perceiving something, an interpretation rather than the straightforward registering of something unproblematically out there in the world of consensual reality, like a mountain or an exploding bomb. But you don’t gasp in terror and exhilaration at a metaphor. I always feel as if there’s something self-dramatizing about people who go on about the “technological sublime,” because if you buy into the concept you are saying that the perception of technology really does provoke the old shock-and-awe response. But come on, seriously, it doesn’t, unless you really do cringe in fear of your iPod.
But I think people do get into the idea of the “technological sublime” anyway, because it is a dramatically satisfying way of viewing our world. So you can invent various other “sublimes,” all of them united by a shared sense of omigod that’s really huge. Like, for example, the hugeness of all the recordings ever made. At UT we have something called the Historical Music Recordings Collection (HMRC), which has something like a quarter of a million recordings. This is only a fraction of all the recordings ever made, but standing there, in the underground vault that houses them, crowded on all sides by shelf after shelf of old records, most of which you’ve never even heard of, is a sublime experience, sort of. Or you can kid yourself into thinking so. At a rough calculation, it would take 22 years to play all 250000 records, and that’s playing records 24/7/365 ’round the clock. So the HMRC, and more generally the great abstract Platonic Archive of Sound, the sum total of all the sound ever recorded, of which any real archive is only a fragment, presents the mind with something it can never fully grasp.
So, the pop sublime: the sense of shock’n’awe you feel when confronted by the mountains of pop music you’ve never heard of. I’ve recently been listening to a Rhino anthology of psychedelic pop from the late 1960s. I’ve heard of very few of the bands on this compilation, let alone the tracks, and almost all of them are great. It’s not as if there’s some alternate canon out there, hiding behind Dylan and the Beatles and so on, waiting to come into its own; it’s that there is an infinity of possible canons, and this foregrounds the arbitrariness of canons per se. Presented with an anthology like this (and Rhino has many of them — it’s their specialty), you can feel the concepts and categories shifting under your feet. It’s a moment where, like the narrator of Borges’ short story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, you encounter not only alternative things but alternative conceptual schemes for things:
These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies recall those that Dr. Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese dictionary entitled The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that animals can be divided into (a) those belonging to the Emperor, (b) those that are embalmed, (c) those that are tame, (d) pigs, (e) sirens, (f) imaginary animals, (g) wild dogs, (h) those included in this classification, (i) those that are crazy-acting (j), those that are uncountable (k) those painted with the finest brush made of camel hair, (l) miscellaneous, (m) those which have just broken a vase, and (n) those which, from a distance, look like flies.
The best representation for this moment of the pop sublime (a contrived, slightly BS concept I am nevertheless going with right now) is this clip from Doug Pray’s documentary Scratch, which shows DJ Shadow, known as the most compendious digger of record crates in all of hip hop, navigating his way through a kind of hip hop version of Borges’s Library of Babel.