The Real, the Death Drive, and the Sublime

According to Matheson, there are two consequences that sprung from humans witnessing the nuclear test at Fort Trinity: Firstly, “the awesome power of the Bomb reveals the fundamental inability of language to fully capture the universe beyond human reality, the precariousness of our existence, and the arbitrariness of our beliefs” (p. 14). Secondly, “the revelation of this monstrous force beyond our mediated reality also tempted many with the promise of unmediated truth” (p. 14). The Bomb, in other words, confronted humanity with the fact that there is a reality that exceeds and is independent of the “human order of the world represented in language,” and this confrontation produced both existential dread and an odd kind of desire (pp. 14-5). The Bomb, then, is an “excess beyond mediation” which Jacques Lacan called “the Real” (p. 15).

When humans are confronted with the Real – anything that disrupts our illusion of total control, our false narrative that all things fall under our ability to mediate – they experience a desire to return to an imagined previous harmony with reality Lacan called “the death drive.” The death drive is so named because the only way for an individuated subject to ever become one with unmediated reality is to dissolve its own subjectivity. Since the subject, in order to truly obtain the end goal of this drive, would cease to be a subject entirely, the death drive manifests in humans and societies as “the pursuit of the ever-elusive Real through the Symbolic” (p. 17). The true goal of the death drive is always deferred, yet the subject gains pleasure from the feeling of faux obtainment. This explains why, even as the Bomb produces horror in its threat to kill humanity, to end subjectivity, it also produces a strange appeal – humans are drawn to the Bomb’s apparent purity. Since this pursuit occurs within the Symbolic order, it also explains fort-da; the Real is ultimately beyond human control and obtainability, so humans find ways to represent the Real within the Symbolic and feign control over it (here and gone at the snap of our fingers).

Finally, “the sublime,” according to Matheson, is a tool from the rhetorical tradition which helps to explain the “self-immolating tendency in language in which the speaking subject pursues the ‘beyond’ of mediation through particularly affective powerful tropes” (p. 18). The sublime originates in the rhetorical tradition with Longinus, and its function is “to overwhelm, to jar its audience out of comfortable subjectivity, to move them through splendor and revelation” (p. 18). While sublime rhetoric cannot mediate the Real, it can trace its outline and thus gesture toward that which is entirely beyond language. Because the sublime can “conceal the artifice of language,” making listeners believe they encounter the Real in some way, it can emphasize certain metonymic connections over others, causing many of these links to disappear as the listeners focus on only one (add p.). These powerful links are called “cathectic investments,” and they will pair with the death drive both to produce the responses to the intrusion of the Real at Fort Trinity in chapters 2 (War Games) and 4 (Survivalism), while also explaining how the abandonment of American urban centers as places of sacrifice can be justified (chapter 3).