The Transgenic Sublime

kin to the way the Schopenhauer felt the sublime experience to be triggered by those forces of nature so large and so powerful that have the potential to subsume and destroy the observer, the technological sublime is evoked in the presence of those machines and devices that we design to accomplish tasks that no amount of man-power could achieve. These technologies have gone beyond the multiplication of our efforts and entered a new realm of potentiality that trivializes the capabilities of the observer. And just as Kant felt the key to the sublime experience was the observer’s mental ability to rise to a higher level of abstraction and conceptualize immense natural events, the experience of the technological sublime is tied to the recognition of the observed technology not just as object alone but more abstractly as an object birthed from the labor pool of society.

Historically, the technological sublime was often used to promote moral values and bridge the gaps of class and race. It didn't matter what your background was, that you were capable of seeing and appreciating these things without trying to explain them as some monstrous natural force or as a religious experience, grouped you together with other "superior" people. Those who were unable to appreciate man’s involvement in the spectacle were considered ignorant and oafish. It was not enough to be awed by these incredible devices; it was necessary to understand their origin as firmly grounded with in the sphere of mans influence.

Given the immense potential of these devices, quite often the technological sublime is evoked by things that could kill us. This threat of danger connects back to the experience of the sublime triggered by natural events, and yet has another layer of depth that the natural sublime lacks—the knowledge that somewhere some human has the ability to predict the behavior of and exert control over the observed device. This confers on the observer a sense of human accomplishment that often carries with it an aspect of societal pride.

While gaining mental mastery over these powerful forces is a key element to both the natural and technological sublime, the experience of the latter often involves seeing the direct physical mastery of natural forces. At one time, spectacles such as steam-powered railways triggered the experience of the technological sublime. Although its ability to set in motion large masses of metal was alien, the conversion of liquid to steam was a familiar concept. As technology progressed the experience of the technological sublime became based on the control of forces much more abstract and unintuitive. Electricity provoked this experience for many who would never understand its causality and only a small portion of those who watch its launch grasps the inner workings of the chemical forces that propel a rocket into space. It is this sense of increasing control over forces whose origins become more and more obscure that lead us towards a sublime state triggered by the manipulation of the infinitesimal.


Wikipedia: The Sublime.
A review of the concept of the sublime from 18th Century British and German philosophy (Kant and Schopenhauer) to the Romantic (Hugo) and the Post Romantic and 20th Century (Lyotard)

Dionysis Longinus, William Smith. Dionysius Longinus on the Sublime.
Longinus writes that the sublime implies that man through emotions and language can transcend the limits of the human condition. We gain a greater sense of freedom by our sense of capacity to join in this greatness. “For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what is has heard.” (ref.) Google Books

Edmund Burke. On Taste: On the Sublime and Beautiful; Reflections on the French Revolution.
Burke takes from Longinus and differentiates between the sublime and the beautiful: the sublime applies to the grand parts of nature, the beautiful is in the small parts. He also associates the grotesque with the sublime. Fear robs the mind of reason and therefore brings feelings of the sublime.
Google Books

Edmund Burke, Abraham Mills. A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful...
Google Books

Wikipedia: Immanual Kant.
Kant contends the sublime does not reside in nature, but in our minds. "The mind feels itself set in motion in representation of the sublime in nature; this movement, especially in it inception, may be compared with a vibration with a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same Object. The point of excess for the imagination is like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself."

The Internet Encylopedia of Phiolsopy: Jean-François Lyotard.
Lyotard creates the concept of the differend, a thing which "may be the feeling of 'not being able to find the words.' Lyotard associates the identification of a differend with the feeling of the sublime, the mixture of pleasure and pain which accompanies the attempt to present the unpresentable. He privileges art as the realm which is best able to provide testimony to differends through its sublime effects."

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