Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Cyberpunk Pilgrimages: Kathy Acker Inside/outside of the Sublime

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Cyberpunk Pilgrimages: Kathy Acker Inside/outside of the Sublime

Article excerpt

There are numerous similarities in the testimonials of pilgrimage in both contemporary and traditional literature. The imperatives of travel and adventure characterize the spirit of pre-Christian pilgrimage, and in the Norse, pagan tradition these aims also include a desire to acquire relics as "prophylactic or curative" talismans or amulets (Browner 3). In contrast to this, early Christians "sought instead to acquire the relics of saints and apostles," and religiously motivated pilgrims who travelled to the "Holy Land" (4) did so as "an affirmation of faith" rather than to seek out adventure (6). The mystical motivations of mediaeval women such as Margery Kempe add yet another dimension to a feminist reading of pilgrimage, suggesting that both the arena of a woman's spiritual devotion and her ambition for inner illumination could translate into an impetus for such a journey and its written documentation. Kempe was the"creature" or third-person thing, who encountered the world on her pilgrimages, and, as such, she was self-identified yet objectively distant. This translated into her personal account of mystical visions and/or visitations as largely incommunicable experiences. Similarly, as surprising as it may seem, for Kathy Acker's cyberpunk pilgrims, "the price we pay for the 'transcendental illusion' that we can present reality as a totalized unity" creates a kind of"terror" that is also incommunicable in its particulars (Tabbi 224). Carolyn Coulson suggests that this is the double bind of all mystical writing; it "addresses the inability of language to relate mystical experience," yet testifies "to the desire to explain" it (1).

I argue in this essay that the narrative testimony that results from both traditional and contemporary pilgrimage is an essential part of the process of this mystical "double-bind"; yet, for cyberpunk writers such as Acker, the "transmitting [of] ideas" to "discourse communities that would not otherwise get the word" produces a mystical writing that possesses "a certain flatness" or "affectlessness" and "without the possibility of heightened emotion, the work is, in the end, more strange than sublime" (Tabbi 221). This strangeness qualifies the reception of the message that each pilgrim seeks to advance to the reader, but because "reality is irreducibly decentered and externalized" in cyberpunk writing, to represent it requires addressing "what this abstraction feels like" argues Tabbi (10, emph. Tabbi's). In this way, "writing about desire" in terms of cyberpunk accounts of pilgrimage and mysticism, is identical to mediaeval women's accounts in their "complex and fervent" beginnings "in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries." Both share their concern "that such desire is not only for bodies; it is lodged in bodies" (Bynum 26, emph. hers).

I take Bynum's approach in this essay, and I see the division between the inability of language to signify versus the subject's desire to explain as one that relates to the demarcation between individuality and its sacrifice. This difference demands anonymity in order to ecstatically move the particular into the transcendent. Kempe's testimonial "lacks the disembodied quality characteristic of much medieval religious writing," and the emphasis upon her "corporeality, not only by representations of her spiritual longings and trials in carnal metaphors, but also by the detailed evocation of her involvement with quotidian metaphors" illustrates the interconnections between modern and mediaeval feminists in this regard (Harding 180). The "adolescent mysticism" of cyberpunk literature, on the other hand, creates a "flattened conception of character and identity," or a "coded replication of a person's operational being" and the "meat thing," or the immanent body, is therefore "rejected in favor of the cerebral pleasures" of cyberspace, away from "the dreary consumerist world" (Tabbi 212). The "aggressively obscene, visceral language" that Acker employs alerts "readers to the reality--and repressed dangers--of direct bodily experience" offering, instead, a literary space where "the soul is perceived to have gone out of the world" (Tabbi 222). …

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