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Sublime Communication Technologies


Author: Rod Giblett

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan


Publish Date: May 13, 2008

ISBN-10: 023053743X

Pages: 232

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

This book is a critical cultural history of communication technologies. The history it traces is a genealogy that follows the line of descent from railways and telegraphy to computers and the Internet. The central theme, and main object of critical analysis, is the sublime. For Benjamin (1999a, p. 415), the sublime is simply, and literally, ‘carrying aloft’. Communication technologies quite literally carry information above the earth. Beginning with the railway and the telegraph, communication technologies carry information above the earth and through terrestrial space. Later with satellites they have carried it even further above the earth into extraterrestrial space.

Yet the sublime does not merely involve upward spatial displacement. It also carries a lot of metaphorical and ideological baggage. This includes the chemical process of sublimation of solid matter into gas. This process has also been used as a metaphor for mind-body dualism and the privileging of mind over body; for the transcendence of the immanent; and for the displacement of instinct into intellection and of place into space – all of which characterise communication technologies, including their invention, production and utilisation. Communication technologies attempted to transcend earthly life into a secular heaven devoid of God. The sublime is a secular theology, a modern mythology of technology.

Drawing on chemistry, Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto used the sublime without naming it as such to argue that in industrial capitalist societies ‘all that is solid melts into air’. For them, the solidities of pre-capitalist social formations under industrial capitalism are sublimated into thin air and have an ethereal existence. Following a similar line, Berman in All That is Solid Melts into Air, took up Marx and Engels’ phrase and explored the etherealising project of modernity. Yet he only discusses mass communication in general terms (1983, p. 16) and very briefly. He never considers the technologies of communication, a curious omission from a book devoted to discussing modernity in which those technologies have played such a crucial and formative part.

Communication technologies played a crucial role, not only in modernity generally as Thompson (1995) argues beginning with print, but also particularly in transforming the solidities of pre-capitalist social viii Preface ix formations into thin air. This applies to the trajectory of development beginning with telegraphy and radio, through television and satellites and culminating at present in the Internet and the use of electromagnetic spectrum. Communication technologies are an integral part of the modern project of the sublime and its triumph over the pre-modern (Lyotard, 1989, p. 199).

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