Technological Sublime

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[edit] The Classical and the Technological Sublime

The sublime is a derivation of the Latin word sublimis, which means literally to ‘look up from’. However, the concept of the sublime has linguistically and lexically been modified several times over the millennia, not only to reflect the evolution of language – itself an evolutionary practice – but also to reflect upon the zeitgeist it intrinsically represents.

[edit] Longinus, “On the Sublime

The first usage of the sublime was, arguably, instigated by Longinus when in the 1st Century he understood the sublime to be a “quality within a discourse that produces ‘not persuasion but transport’ (ekstatis) within the audience” (Richter 79). Longinus regarded the sublime as a means to distinguish between those written and narrative forms - such as epic poetry, drama, lyricism, and more specifically rhetoric – that connote legitimate ‘textual’ artistry versus oratory and literature lacking an “elevated composition” (Richter 80). In order to attain this promoted status, these aforementioned forms had to adhere to Longinus’ five principles. The first, illustrates the importance of having “high thoughts” (Richter 80) via a writer’s/speaker’s ability to form “great conceptions” (Longinus 84). The second and third principles respectively maintain the importance of one’s “passion” through “rhetorical figures” (Richter 80). “Noble diction” and the importance of “elevated” expression constitute the final two of Longinus’ principles of the sublime. Strategic to understanding Longinus is that he regarded ‘transcendent’ narrative and inscribed forms as being sublime, unlike his forbearers who found the sublime to be almost exclusively associated to nature and its awe-inspiring affects on the psyche.

[edit] Edmund Burke, “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Friedrich - Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818).
Friedrich - Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818).
At first, the tendency in the early 18th Century was to articulate the sublime within the locus of nature and beauty. However, Burke was one of the first authors to expand upon the role of sublimity in terms of its dichotomous relationship with nature and beauty. Reflecting on the Reign of Terror and the “regicide in France” (Burke) he believed more precisely that “terror [to be] the ruling principle of the sublime” (Burke). Burke felt that terror, and to a lesser extent danger and/or pain, was the “strongest emotion which the mind was capable of feeling” (Burke) and it was primarily through terror, more than beauty that the ontological sense of oneself was felt with great(er) profundity. Perhaps the most significant difference between 18th Century interpretations of the sublime with those of the past was that the impetus was placed on the visual, as opposed to Longinus’ textual and rhetorical sense of the sublime.

[edit] Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Judgment: Second Book, Analytic of the Sublime

Whereas Longinus’ notion of the sublime is more a “qualitative criticism” (Richter 79), and Burke felt that terror was paramount to understanding the sublime, Kant’s impression of the sublime is simply that “which is absolutely great” (Kant 271). Kant, just like his predecessor Edmond Burke also makes the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime but furthermore he includes “boundless and formless” (Kant 269) concepts such as the mathematically and the dynamically sublime. The Kantian sublime is more pre-occupied with the internalised subjective “state of mind [and its] reflective judgement” (272-3) instead of the objectified and often natural transcendence maintained by his antecedents.

[edit] Slack and Wise, “The Technological Sublime

"Ummm. Where's my union steward?" Apple's ILoom
"Ummm. Where's my union steward?" Apple's ILoom
The technological sublime is more akin to the ‘objectified’ realisation proposed by Kant and to a lesser degree Longinus. Slack and Wise in Culture and Technology demonstrate how the machine has with “almost religious like reverence” (18) supplanted nature. During the Industrial Revolution, machines were monstrous, ubiquitous and were equally as dangerous as the forces of nature. Many workers fell prey to the machines and were often engulfed or caught (figuratively and literally) in the cogs of these Capitalistic devices. It is easy to see why machines, could be construed as sublime as they commonly evoked in workers “an overpowering combination of dread and reverence” (Slack and Wise 17).

In keeping with progress, the mechanical sublime eventually acquiesced to the electronic sublime. Electricity itself retained much of the sublime elements of nature for it was “intangible [and] almost mystical” (Slack and Wise 20). In comparison to the dirty, greasy machines, electricity was cleaner and quieter, although still equally as dangerous (Slack and Wise 18). Although the mechanical juggernauts of the Industrial Revolution typically elicited terror in the Burkean sense of the sublime, the Kantian notion of a boundless and formless sublime clearly appeals to the electronic sublime.

[edit] The Mini-Sublime (Or, the Mountain for the Mall)

The IPhone - Steve Jobs' contribution to the Mini-Sublime.
The IPhone - Steve Jobs' contribution to the Mini-Sublime.
The mini-sublime is a topical, economical, and cultural trend posited by authors Slack and Wise where the consumption of electronic gadgetries is typically manifested as a means to acquire “cool and neat” technologies of an allegedly convenient function (Slack and Wise). With almost religious fervour, consumers are often compelled to purchase new electronics - through impulsive buying practices -
"They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here" - Dawn of the Dead (1978).
"They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here" - Dawn of the Dead (1978).
not as a means for the now archaic “progress of civilization or for the appreciation of grandeur, but for their [own] contemporary manifestation” (Slack and Wise 19). Of course, the criterion of convenience is merely a thinly veiled endeavour to entice those with disposable income (traditionally the teenager demographic) into purchasing practices that serve very little other than having the distinction of keeping up with the latest technological trends. This is in part, because the “cool and neat” creates the false impression that these newly acquired gadgets will make one’s life that much more comfortable. In reality though, it is nothing more than the “cool and neat” hiding under the guise of technological object (and abject) worship. With the advent of the technological and mini-sublime, no longer does one need to traverse precipitous peaks in order to induce the sublime – as a pilgrimage to the mall currently achieves the same desired effect.

Longinus writes that “the love of money (a disease from which we all now suffer sorely) and the love of pleasure makes us thralls” (Longinus 107). By highlighting the moral ambiguousness of worshipping one’s trappings, as opposed to respecting those artistic compositions that “nurture our souls (as far as that is possible) to thoughts sublime” (Longinus 85), Longinus’ text is equally as relevant now, as it was almost 2,000 years ago.

[edit] References

Burke, Edmund. “On the Sublime and Beautiful.” The Harvard Classics. Edited by Charles W. Eliot. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14.

Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Judgement: Second Book, Analytic of the Sublime.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Edited by David H. Richter. Boston:Bedford/St. Martins’s, 1998. 253-280.

Longinus. “On the Sublime.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Edited by David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins’s, 1998. 79-107.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Edited by David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins’s, 1998.

Slack, Darryl & J. Macgregor Wise. Culture and Technology: A Primer. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

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