Postmodernism and the Sublime

Chapter 2 ended quoting Dick Hebdige's lament about the foreclosure on "trawling for hidden truths" that our current fascination with surfaces, with the simulacra, has imposed on us. In the same essay, Hebdige raised the interesting possibility that the very postmodernist thinkers who have imposed this ban may not have abandoned depth entirely themselves. Surveying the writings of such heirs of Nietzsche as Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyo-tard, Hebdige finds that while each of them strives to deprive us of our illusion that language corresponds to reality in any reliable way, or that words signify any reality beyond other words or beyond very cunning assertions of power, each of them preserves a privileged referent in their own critiques that has the qualities of the sublime. For Lacan it is the certainty of our eventual absorption into flux, for Foucault it is the endless spiral of knowledge and power, for Kristeva it is significance, for Derrida it is differance, and for Lyotard it is, quite simply, the sublime. In their rejection of the capacity of language to signify reality, they have introduced terms that capture an aporia, a gap at the heart of human knowing that inspires "epiphany and terror."66 And once it has been encountered, all of one's previous certainties dissolve, "all that was solid melts into air." Out of this experience with the sublime, they each undertake their life's work of unmasking the powers that sustain our illusions.

The sublime, recall, describes an experience parallel to the experience of the holy, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum, the alluring dread that signals that one is in the presence of one's ultimate concern. Each of these postmodern theorists has stumbled upon a dreadful awareness from which they cannot flee. But what they report back through their writings is overwhelmingly weighted on the side of the tremendum, the side that negates human thought and aspirations by revealing the chasm between our finitude and infinite reality. Theirs is the God of the abyss; the God of the creative ground eludes them. The polar tension that characterizes a robust encounter with the holy is missing. And when the ground is so utterly negated, the danger arises of absolutizing, even deifying, the abyss.

The influence these thinkers have had, which has been considerable in academic circles and indirectly felt elsewhere, often has the effect described by Douglas Coupland in the bit of dialogue from his book Life after God with which this chapter began: We have been relieved of God, but in God's place have "gained an irony that scorched everything it touched." The ironic sensibility is acidic; it withers whatever it comes into contact with. It refuses to trust any affirmation of meaning, saying, "I won't be fooled again." Richard Rorty calls it "liberal irony," a disposition he recommends - beliefs and values are fine and good, but should be lightly held and always open to revision. "The words which are fundamental to metaphysics," he writes, words like true, good, right, beauty and justice, are "just another set of little human things."67 The ironists are those who realize "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed," and will therefore never take themselves seriously - nor should they, according to Rorty - because they are ever aware of the contingency of all certainties.68 As cool-headed as Rorty makes it sound, his is a perspective that has in its background an overwhelming encounter with the abyss - from which he has recoiled, and then made his peace.

A striking example of this kind of ironic redescription from the annals of popular culture is found in director Oliver Stone's movie, Natural Born Killers (1994). The movie begins with a young man and his girlfriend, Mickey and Mallory, who appear to be garden-variety kids in love but suffering from hard childhoods. In the opening scene, which presents Mallory's home life as a 1950s family sitcom, complete with laugh track, Mickey the butcher makes a home meat delivery to Mallory's family, flirts with Mallory, and then the two sneak off. Because Mallory is a minor, this lands Mickey in prison, and when he is released he drowns Mallory's incestuous father in a fish aquarium and sets their house on fire, killing Mallory's mother and brother. The couple then begin a road trip killing spree, spraying bullets at customers in diners and gas stations across the country, always sparing one living witness who is randomly selected from among the other victims. As these witnesses accumulate and come to the attention of the media, the two elusive killers become celebrities on the television show, American Maniacs, subjects of speculation by talking heads and folk heroes to the viewing public. By the time he is captured, it is clear that Mickey is a criminal virtuoso, a natural born killer, who colludes with a demon in his mind before each act of violence, carrying through on each murder in a state of ecstatic reverie. Even from inside a high security prison, Mickey manages to maintain his status as a media celebrity, and using the opportunity of a press interview, instigates a prison riot, rescues Mallory from her cell, and with the star reporter from American Maniacs in tow, the two of them escape. After committing one final murder - the ritual castration and crucifixion of the reporter - the long frenzy of death is concluded and the two lovers disappear underground. As the credits roll, we see them several years later back on the road in a camper, now a happy nuclear family with children, Mickey and Mallory as doting parents, devoted to each other, living the unencumbered life of itinerant hippies.

Due to its gratuitous violence, the movie was controversial even before its release. Stone and many of his reviewers have defended his work as a piece of commentary on the American media's exploitation of violence to draw viewers, and the public's obvious appetite for it. Fair enough. But Stone follows the same proven formula in composing his film; he even pushes the formula to new levels, utilizing every available cinematic technique (attractive actors, captivating soundtrack, special effects, sex, animation, lens filters, fast cuts, choreography, music video cinematography) to portray the acts of mayhem as stunningly beautiful. The audience predictably feels both attracted and repulsed by each new display of carnage as Stone uses his filmmaker's craft to tune into both frequencies of the holy. With clues from the story itself, i.e., frightening, surreal images projected behind the windows of rooms Mickey enters, a shaman who recognizes Mickey from a vision as the agent of his own return to the spirit world, and multiple allusions to a demon who possesses Mickey in the moments of his berserk outbursts, the movie leaves the impression that these acts of violence are indistinguishable from some kind of spiritual ecstasy.

In his incisive reading of this movie, William Schweiker discerns the reverberating tone of the tremendum that echoes throughout it.69 "In Stone's film," he writes, "human life is portrayed as suspended over an irrational abyss of violence without purpose or necessary end. The earth itself opens its mouth to consume the human project. History is just a slaughtering block. Human time marks itself in blood and the madness ends - temporarily to be sure - for no reason, no purpose."70 No social institution represented in the movie - not family, media, law, or religion - appears to have the power to halt the violence. Violence ends,

Schweiker points out, only when it has exhausted itself. In a great final orgy of torture and blood, there is finally an "exhaustion of wrathful energies," a "catharsis of violence." No other reason is given for how or why Mickey's murderous instincts are ultimately channeled into becoming a peaceful family man. Psychotic killers, we must conclude, finally get it out of their systems and settle down to become loving parents.

This is a world apart from the standard formula in westerns which requires even the gunslinger hero to ride off into the sunset, away from the circle of domestic life, following his shoot out with the bad guys (e.g., Shane, The Searchers, Red River). In the western it is understood that the hero must ride away alone, according to Jane Tompkins, "because having hardened himself to do murder, he can no longer open his heart to humankind."71

Clearly the world of this movie is not a world in which the abyss and the ground of being are conjoined. Nor is it a world in which transcendent power has bound itself to any moral telos in the manner of a covenant. The author of this world refuses to endorse such metaphysical and theological illusions. There appears to be no moral universe to catch up with Mickey and Mallory and settle the score. But this does not mean that it is a world bereft of the divine, or of moral judgment. In this regard, Schweiker draws attention to Mickey's answer to the reporter's question during the prison interview about what could justify his rampage that left more than fifty innocent people dead. Mickey corrects him, looking him straight in the eye, saying, "No one is innocent." All are guilty, and therefore, in the chamber of Mickey's demented mind, Schweiker suggests, the judgment has been rendered that "wrath is rightly rained on anyone because all are guilty." Moreover, from inside the film, neither character nor plot development is handled in a way to discriminate between the gravity of various immoral actions - incest, murder, infidelity, celebrity worship, media exploitation, government incompetence, ambitiousness - all are equally reprehensible and carry no corresponding scale of consequences. If anything, given his reward of a happy family at the end, the remorseless serial killer Mickey is the moral hero because he has unmasked the social conventions that perpetuate violence.

Indeed, during the prison interview, Mickey confides that he was capable of doing what he did because he is a new form of life, different from others. Elaborating on this, Schweiker writes:

He is a new form of life, a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch living beyond cultural beliefs about good and evil He vents wrath on injustice unconstrained by remorse or guilt as somehow a testimony to his higher, purer form of existence. Mickey is utterly self-determining in his moral existence; he creates value and defines justice. He is godlike. His inscrutable will decides who is deemed worthy of respect and life.72

Here we find the film's implicit theology. In the maw of the abyss, we are all either gods, i.e., self-determining authors of good and evil, bound by nothing outside of ourselves, or else we are worthy of death.

In his sermon, "Escape from God," Tillich elaborated on the chafing effect of the inescapable demand that emanates from the tremendum side of the holy. This demand is experienced by humans, Tillich wrote, as the God who sees through us, through our public veneer and into the dark flapping recesses of our inner selves. Of this God, Tillich wrote, "The God Who sees everything is the God Who has to die. Man cannot stand that such a Witness live. ... [M]an cannot stand the God Who really is God. Man tries to escape God, and hates Him, because he cannot escape Him." The God that humans hate is the God who reminds us that we are not what we ought to be, that we are morally incomplete creatures. And it is this God we have sought to murder in the modern period, finally exhausted by the constant glare of transcendent scrutiny. But, Tillich continued in his sermon, "God is always revived in something or somebody; He cannot be murdered."73

In Rorty and Mickey, as in the neo-Nietzschean strands of postmodernism, irony has become this something in which God is revived. For many who are in the postmodern frame of mind, irony has become the authority one grants to oneself to call the good "bad," and the bad "good," for no other reason than that one has said it is so, retreating to the odd consolation of a universe that doesn't care.

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