Re: Creating the Sublime


This piece was originally published in Locus Suspectus 10 years ago. Yesterday’s eclipse reminded me of it, and at some point I would like to revisit and expand this piece as part of an essay series on technology and being human.

Recreation of the Sublime

The imagination of man is naturally sublime, delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary, and running, without control, into the most distant parts of space and time in order to avoid the objects, which custom has rendered too familiar to it.
David Hume

Picture the skies of prairie Canada, where the sheer vastness and scale make one feel Lilliputian. Think about the amount of water gushing down Niagara Falls, or the height of the Rocky Mountains. A lightning storm. An earthquake. The Northern Lights. Sublime events cannot be accounted for—our language cannot do them justice, our instruments cannot quantify them, and our intellect cannot explain them. By witnessing the sublime, we, as human beings, are able to glimpse what exists beyond our human constructs.

When we are exposed to the sublime, we experience wonder and become more sharply aware of our human limitations in relationship to it. No surprise that experiencing the sublime can include elements of religiosity, a reminder of forces greater than mankind. But what does it mean when we can use tools to recreate sublime occurrences? Are we still able to experience intense human emotions, experience wonder, and define our humanity?

Human emotions are considered sublime, and anyone who has been overwhelmed by love or grief can attest to that. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke explains darkness is sublime because it creates feelings of danger compounded by the panic of ignorance. Try explaining a sublime event to someone who hasn’t been able to experience it—words inadequately convey the magnitude of the experience. At best, we can represent it in metaphor, relaying the experience in terms of other, more mundane events. Words such as “breathtaking,” “magnificent,” “incredible”, and “wow” are employed to describe the magnitude of emotion and feelings of insignificance experienced in an encounter with the sublime.

Published in the first century AD, the treatise On the Sublime stated, “[e]xcessive concision of expression tends to lower the sublime, since grandeur is marred when the thought is brought into too narrow a compass.” If the use of language and metaphor to describe the sublime reduces elements of the experience, then what can be said about a sublime experience reproduced and disseminated through technology? Can a facsimile of a sublime event still evoke a sublime experience?

Photographs of Niagara Falls captured on camera have sold millions of postcards; still images of lightning bolts hang on many walls and attempt to capture a moment of the sublime/beautiful; and footage of the Himalayas attempts to induce wonder, albeit an echo of the videographer’s experience.

But in addition to the documentation of the sublime, technology has allowed us to recreate the sublime, albeit rather crudely. Small-scale recreations, special effects, computer-generated imagery and other technological tools and tricks can be used in movies to recreate the experience of the sublime. IMAX films, with their larger-than-life presentations — and promotional taglines promising that IMAX will “immerse you in undersea worlds” and “float you weightlessly in outer space”, among other things—are the epitome of this.

The movie The Perfect Storm (2000) recounts the events of October, 1991 when six fishermen headed into a deadly hurricane. The storm is a freak of nature, a coincidence of causes that results in winds over one hundred miles per hour and waves tall as a ten-storey building. As the fishermen face death, they reach an overwhelming understanding that they are powerless which eventually leads to the panic that enables them to transcend their humanity and experience the storm. Based on the book of the same name, the Hollywood movie recreates the storm—from scratch. Using computer-generated imagery, a natural phenomenon of epic proportions was recreated. The images on the scene appeared as though filmed from the most photogenic angles. Images of crashing waves, sheets of water, steeply-undulating troughs and crests. When staring up at the movie theatre’s “big screen”, the digitally-generated storm was all of “wow!”, “incredible!”, “breathtaking!”

The storm is sublime, as is the fear and panic of the fishermen as they face their death. Tom Conway described the creation of the storm for the movie thus: “[t]he digital simulation of water is notoriously difficult to pull off, so the researchers teamed up with Industrial Light and Magic to make a cinematic breakthrough, bringing to life the meteorological beast at the heart of the story.” Viewers thought so too, with the scenes of the storm receiving kudos for its realism, and the film grossed over $300 million (US) internationally.
But what does it mean when we can use tools to recreate sublime occurrences? These days, the roles served by the sublime have been diminished. We no longer use the sublime to place our humanity in perspective, to demonstrate freedom, or to provide us with religion. We’ve become unfazed by the sublime, as our ability to reproduce it pushes it into the realm of the mundane.

The 18th century philosopher David Hume described man’s imagination as sublime, obsessed with the extraordinary, and motivated by ennui to seek out wonder. Hume’s explanation prompts further exploration, especially because of a tendency to recreate the sublime (and the emotions evoked by it) using modern technology.

The wow-factor of the sublime can be transmitted through technological mediums creating the visual equivalent of “The Dummies’ Guide to…The Sublime”: This is an amazing mountain range, you should feel amazed and less powerful. Technology has blurred the boundaries between the real and the fake, and sometimes, our recreations have no reference point. Hyperreal recreations of the sublime have become simulacra, sometimes copies for which no originals exist, such as mountain ranges on strange and imagined planets.

The ubiquity of technology in our lives has changed the way we experience our surroundings. To discuss whether or not an event remains sublime if it is experienced indirectly through technological reproduction. Whether there exist degrees of sublime, and if so, where do media reproductions and recreations fall within this spectrum? One way in which we define our humanity is in relation to that which exceeds it, and in light of our use of technology, is there a need to re-assess how we now view ourselves? As metaphor and language enter a new domain where the capabilities of technology replace vocabulary (or create an entire new subset), are definitions and descriptions of the sublime reduced? As the boundaries between sublime and ordinary become more and more porous, does our concept of what constitutes the human remain the same, or morph into something else?


📷  Bruce Russell 

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