“Something Extraordinary Hovering Just Outside Our Touch”: The Technological Sublime in Don DeLillo’s White Noise

Abstract: This paper discusses how the forces of postmodernity and technology combine to create a contemporary version of the romantic sublime, and how this new ‘technological sublime’ figures in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. The novel simultaneously depicts and satirizes a postmodern world in which the forces of capitalism, consumer culture, and technology determine people’s existences to the extent that they even invade formerly personal spheres like spirituality, dreams, and self-images. I argue that, in such a world, technology has replaced nature as the primary source of the sublime experience. Moreover, the overwhelming power of natural phenomena has been dwarfed by the complexity and scale of today’s technological networks and globalized system. For theoretical background I draw on the classic accounts of the sublime by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, accounts of postmodernity and contemporary sublimity by Frederic Jameson, Joseph Tabbi, and Jean-François Lyotard, as well as scholarship on DeLillo in general and White Noise in particular.

The appeal of Don DeLillo’s White Noise derives to a large degree from its sharp and satirical depiction of a postmodern environment and culture.1 From its concern with Baudrillardian hyperreality and simulacra to its merciless parody of the excesses of consumer capitalism and mass media, the novel offers a wide array of starting points for excursions into the terrain of postmodernity.2 Yet, as Jesse Kavadlo has noted, “[i]n the end, DeLillo neither explains, nor tries to explain, postmodernism; nor can postmodernism alone explain DeLillo” (7). I will therefore refrain from questions of epochal and stylistic categorizations and concentrate instead on DeLillo’s evocation of a technologically saturated cultural environment. Critics have noted and commented on the novel’s treatment of diverse postmodern phenomena like television, paranoia, or simulation. However, one concept that is central to the novel’s diegetic world has been widely disregarded: the ‘technological sublime.’ While the notion of the sublime has been predominantly associated with romantic poetry and landscape painting, it is evocative and dynamic enough to be applied to distinctively contemporary phenomena and experiences, as recent scholarly works confirm.3


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