Archive for December, 2007

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Seeking the Techno-Sublime

December 13, 2007

In aesthetics, the 1990’s saw the 18th century wash over them with the resurrection of the concept of the Sublime. The traditional concept as explicated by Kant and Edmund Burke sees the sublime as something (physically or conceptually) vast and beyond understanding that inspires awe, amazement, or even terror, but is ultimately pleasurable. The philosophers set it in contrast to Beauty (which, unsurprisingly, also became a hot topic in the 90’s): something sublime would have grandeur but could also be ugly.

It’s odd to think that a few centuries back, mountains were not considered beautiful, but rather blights on the landscape, frightening places that people avoided. In early landscape painting they were left out or shown only as a boundary of what is fit to show. It took the relative peace of the late 17th and early 18th centuries to allow a few influential British writers to cross the Alps on their way to Italy, finding in those mountains an aesthetic appeal that transcended their sense of beauty. With Kant, on one side, and the picturesque movement on the other, the sublime became a central concept of Romanticism.

Mount Thor on Baffin Island

In the last century, modernism took Burke’s first conclusion about the Sublime — that the ugly could be aesthetic — and ran with it as only the avant garde can. The debt was not acknowledged, of course, as modernism gradually denied its own historical context, so the sublime largely dropped out of respectable critical conversation. Even with the toppling of modernism with the one two punch of Pop Art and post-structural theory in the 60’s and 70’s, a revival of the beauty/sublime discourse seemed too quaint. It took the second generation of postmodernists, those less preoccupied with anti-modernist reaction, to reconsider some of the components of romanticism and bring them into the mix.

What, then, is so grand as to promote awe and terror on the edge of rational understanding in the contemporary world? Two common answers are capitalism (clearly many aspects of international corporate finance are beyond the edge for even the companies that invest in them), and technology. Neither, for me, seems very convincing. While capital is vast, and can destroy and create on impressive scale, it functions too bureaucratically to promote a gasp of awe. Any grandeur is lost in the banality of trade quotas and Walmart.

Technology has certainly led to plenty of human created examples of the sublime: exploding H-bombs, the World Trade Center (both before, during, and after 9-11), the Holocaust. Yet, are these any different from the Battle of the Somme, or even the 30 Years war? Nuclear weapons and skyscrapers are really about unleashing forces of nature, not meaningfully different from, say, the destruction of Lisbon by earthquake in 1755. The horrors of the Holocaust or large scale warfare inspire awe through the scale of the inhumanity rather than the technical means.

Oddly, the most convincing argument I’ve found for the techno-sublime is talking about the sublime nature of the techno clubbing scene. A bit different than technology writ large, but it has a good intro to ideas of the sublime..