Author: Joseph Tabbi
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
Review Published: April 2004
Back in the mid-1990s, during the semester that I began work on my dissertation, the members of my doctoral seminar were assigned a seemingly simple task: find, read, and review for the class a recent first book by a scholar in our field. The book I selected was Joseph Tabbi’s Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Fiction from Mailer to Cyberpunk -- and thus began my relationship with Tabbi’s work. Tabbi, who is perhaps best known among new media scholars as the founder and editor of the electronic book review, is also the coeditor, with Michael Wutz, of the 1997 volume Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. In his first book, Tabbi explored the junctures between contemporary fiction and technology, scrutinizing these junctures through the superimposed lenses of Jamesonian postmodernism and the Kantian sublime, arguing for the ways that this fiction continues the romantic and naturalist projects, though "in a postmodern culture that no longer respects romantic oppositions between mind and machine, organic nature and human construction, metaphorical communication and the technological transfer of information" (Postmodern Sublime, 1).
This last interest in the interpenetration of communication and technology has been at the center of Tabbi’s work since Postmodern Sublime, a move that has entailed a continued interest in the role of print fiction in a world that increasingly gives the appearance of abandoning it. As he and Michael Wutz say of the essays that make up Reading Matters:
Much of contemporary theoretical discourse, both that focuses on the literary and that focuses on the media, is founded on a series of analogies among mind, text, and machine, analogies that beg the questions contemporary cognitive science has been working to answer. If the unconscious is, as in the Lacanian vision, structured like a language, if consciousness, as described by cognitive scientists such as Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi (2000), bears some things in common with the self-organizing processes of complex systems, and if, as I. A. Richards (2001) suggested, a book is a machine to think with, then the relation of mind and book may be thought precisely through the computer technologies that metaphorically link them.
Such is Tabbi’s project in Cognitive Fictions, in which he argues for "literature’s value precisely as the equilibrating force generally excluded from the rest of the media environment. For print literature, so long as it remains a source of stable, materially fixed --- and thus shareable -- association in the minds of readers, is often capable, as these more elusive media are not, of registering and reproducing their effects as conscious experience" (xii). In this fashion, Tabbi suggests, the project of contemporary fiction becomes more aligned with the work of recent cognitive science than with the postmodernist theory of the 1980s; the self-reflexivity of such fictions, for instance, is in Tabbi’s reading less evidence of a solipsistic depthlessness than an attempt to capture the impossible: the observing self observing itself observing. As he argues early on in the book,
On the other hand, such a critical practice, adopted by a number of systems-oriented critics of postmodern literature, runs the risk of collapsing the distinctions between the representational practices of fiction and the analytical practices of criticism and theory, treating the former as though it were doing the work of the latter. Ironically, perhaps, Tabbi works at one crucial moment in his book to distance his project from that of cultural studies, arguing that his project
That having been said, Tabbi’s work breaks crucial new ground in thinking both about the materiality of the media environment within which reading takes place and about the production of consciousness in the act of encountering informational complexity. In chapter one, "A Media Theory of the Unconscious," Tabbi presents and synthesizes the key ideas from cognitive science and systems theory necessary to arguing that the "paradox of consciousness" is "a product of the mind’s simultaneous conceptual separation from and material participation in the universe, the necessity of its being at once outside and inside its own representations" (23), thus highlighting the production of consciousness both through and in separation from the media ecology.
In the ensuing chapters, Tabbi turns his attention to the individual authors of cognitive fictions whose work drives his study. Chapter two, "Mapping the Cor(e)tex(t): Thomas Pynchon," Tabbi explores, with particular attention to Mason & Dixon, the "deep connection" throughout Pynchon’s fiction "between printing materials and cognition, the medium of symbolic expression and the mental operations it facilitates, [which] might be said to frame a narrative which is ecological in the widest sense -- a set of interacting, partially connected systems that describes both the natural world and the material media through which we know the world symbolically" (31). What is striking in these texts, as well as in Tabbi’s analysis, is the impossibility of ever fully capturing the contingent nature of cognition in textual representations, the extent to which the self-organizing processes of mind exceed that mind’s ability to observe them. In chapter three, "Fiction to the Second Powers," Tabbi further explores that gap between representation and cognition through the work of Richard Powers, and particularly through Powers’ oft-noted interest in systems ranging from the biological to the informational to the corporate. Tabbi argues:
However, in his epilogue, "A Media Migration: Toward a Potential Literature," Tabbi turns to the electronic texts that attempt to instantiate this cognitive process of coming-into-writing in their very form. Despite his strong resistance to the death-of-the-novel that many critics read electronic literature as bringing about (for good or for ill), Tabbi nonetheless explores the possibilities hypertext presents for the "self-generation of a potential literature from a constrained language" (144), arguing through the Oulipian work of Harry Mathews and the electronic texts of Stephanie Strickland, that
Edelman, Gerald M., and Giulio Tononi. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Richards, I.A. Principles of Literary Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Tabbi, J. Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Tabbi, J., and Wutz, M., eds. Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Assistant Professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College. Her work has appeared in Contemporary Literature, Film & History, Literature/Film Quarterly and in two recent volumes, UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld, and Thomas Pynchon: Reading from the Margins. She has reviewed for the Film-Philosophy online salon and for H-Net, and reviewed Mark Poster's What's the Matter with the Internet? for RCCS. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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