The pop sublime

Phil Ford

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.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Archives, Philosophy, Pop Aesthetics, Pop Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The pop sublime

  1. Assuming that I’m correctly understanding the concept of the “Sublime” I am struck by the notion that different areas of popular culture can be differentiated by the nature of their intended connection to the Pop Sublime — that is to say, who apparently does the mediation between the individual and the sublime. At one extreme end of the Pop spectrum you have the consumer who entirely surrenders his navigation of the sublime to the forces of corporate power — these consumers buy which ever album gets the most radio play and attend which ever movies got the most/splashiest advertising and follow the lives of the annointed idols; they are characterized by their trust in the brokers of cultural power to select from the Sublime Library materials which will please them. On the other extreme are people who court direct engagement with the sublime by searching the Sublime Library themselves — these people belive that they are capable of making their own way through the culture and will find better cultural products by doing so.
    But here’s the thing: the people who believe they are engaging directly with the sublime are in fact simply consuming a different set of pre-packaged artifacts than the first group. The only difference between buying the Rhino anthology of psychadelic pop and buying “Now That’s What I Call Music, Volume 88” is in which illusion of access to the sublime is being purchased. Both purchases are participations in the consumer culture of the stockpiling of musical artifacts as described by Attali, and each has a psychological value-added component. One artifact comes bundled with the illusion of participation in Pop culture, which is the Andersonian “Immagined Community” of shared experience as delivered by the corporate overlords; the other comes bundled with the illusion of rebellion against Pop culture and participation in counterculture, which is the “Immagined Community” of people who believe they are finding their own way.
    It’s two different consumeristic coping strategies for dealing with the self-contradicting nature of the Sublime as a psychocultural construct: the simultaneous belief that that which is Sublime is both knowable and unknowable. We purchase which ever strategy makes us happy. And, to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that — it’s part of being human.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    I take your biggest point to be that consumption is consumption, and that while a self-satisfied hipster might listen to a Rhino anthology rather than a K-Tel collection because the one (he thinks) is mere mass-consumerist crap while the other is the rarified product of discerning pop-culture connoisseurship of people like himself, all he is really doing is exchanging one kind of consumption for another and not really engaging in different kinds of behavior. This, I think, is unquestionably true, although it’s always surprising to me how strenuously some folks will deny it. The reasons for that denial probably have a lot to the degree to which people define their identity by means of their favorite music; if your identity is a black-wearing, Rage-Against-The-Machine-listening, anti-globalization-march-attending anticonsumerist one, then you probably will want to find a way to argue that *your* music consumption is somehow better than all those dolts down at the mall. And this is something of an unresolved problem for the various tribes of neo- and quasi-Marxist writers on music, including and especially the very large Adorno tribe.
    I guess what I don’t agree with is the notion that it’s “corporate overlords” that are pulling all the strings here. I’ll agree that the K-Tel this-is-our-music model and the Rhino participation-in-the-pop-sublime model are equally artificial, equally an aesthetic contrivance. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s a *great* idea, because it frames the “pop sublime” as a kind of spectacle. But I don’t think there’s any monolithic “them” doing the contriving. If the “pop sublime” is a spectacle — or a certain inchoate feeling we get from time to time and which record companies and DJs can turn into spectacle — if, in short, someone (like Rhino) can make a buck off packaging the pop sublime, more power to them. They’re doing what artists and impresarios have always done, which is to turn our dreams into things. The Marxists might call this commodity fetishism: bah. The only alternative is to not have things, and the hell with that.

  3. I take your point that my use of the term “corporate overlords” is a bit off-the-mark. The ways in which pop hits become pop hits are actually far less well understood than even the corporate overlords themselves would like them to be 🙂 The cultural ecosystem which generates pop hits is actually more the product of many different economic forces each striving simultaneously to create desireable products and manufacture demand for those products, and the consumers themselves are a part of the mechanism — the invisible hand of the market is far more powerful than any discrete set of “corporate overlords.” In fact, my use of that term reveals my own subconscious biases. The fundamentals of my analysis don’t really rely on the the cultural forces being dictated by corporate overlords as long as those cultural forces exist as creators of tastes and fashions.
    I think we pretty much agree here — including on the subject of commodity fetishism. I’ve become rather attached to having stuff.

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