The Novel and the Technological Sublime

Topic04marinetti1 Tom McCarthy takes a thoughtful look at the history of technology in the novel from Don Quixote to Finnegans Wake. (The title of McCarthy’s Guardian article doesn’t accurately reflect the historical ground the article actually covers.) According to McCarthy, technology in literature is a kind of sublime: terrifying when encountered up close, but beautiful once our imaginations begin to understand it. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, for instance, was inspired to write “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909) after surviving a car crash, which didn’t deter him from the finding the experience beautiful–in retrospect–or making claims like this one:

Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming central electric station
that holds the hydraulic pressure of a mountain chain and the electric
power of a vast horizon, synthesised in marble distribution panels
bristling with dials, keyboards and shining communicators. These panels
are our only models for the writing of poetry.

McCarthy ruminates on the subject of technology because he’s writing a novel set in the period between 1898 and 1922, the formative years of radio. One of McCarthy’s starting points is Freud’s observation in Civilization and Its Discontents
, that all technology is prosthetic–the telephone is an extension of the ear, and so on. (Walter Benjamin extended this idea far beyond Freud when Benjamin claimed that the camera leads to an optical unconscious.) The idea that technology is both awesome Other and an integral aspect of the self is fascinating, and probably best explored in literature. Philosophers would only mess it up. Technology theorists are hopeless in these matters.

McCarthy’s novel is called C and it’s already appeared in Britain. (The US release is September.) In fact, the novel has made the Booker Prize long list. At this point it’s too late to persuade McCarthy to set the novel in the present. As promising as McCarthy’s novel sounds, we could use an updated and imaginative meditation on the postmodern sublime.

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