The Fragmented Sublime
An Investigation Into Today’s Interpretation of Sublime Experience and the Potentially Transcendent Qualities of Perceptual Free Fall
By Teodora-Sinziana Fartan
I. A Condensed History of the Sublime
Often characterised as that which exceeds comprehension, the notion of the sublime has been a set – and perhaps too often, a culturally unsettled – topic gravitating in between the fields of philosophy, culture and art theory for centuries now. The experience of otherness, the sense of infinity associated with the sublime have constituted ever-elusive attributes of this concept that seems to undergo a process of metamorphosis as it slides from one cultural and temporal horizon to the other.
Resembling more of a process of perpetual redefinition rather than a stable concept, the sublime has been in constant evolution since the classical era. Starting from Longinus’s writings on the rhetorical sublime (2014), the concept progressed through multiple stages of reinterpretation in accordance to the evolution of human history and thought; the experience of the sublime, thus, found itself associated with the sheer force of nature amidst the Romanticist tendencies of the 18th century, pushed into the realm of terror by Edmund Burke, who ascribed it to a type of experience that is “dark, uncertain and confused” (Burke, 2016), or interpreted as “boundlessness” by Immanuel Kant (2017), a quality which can only belong to formless objects and which has the capability to access faculties of the mind that exceed the senses. The idea of the sublime therefore stumbles into the 20th century already harbouring numerous interpretations, only to be consumed and regurgitated by the cultural apparatus of the epoch once more, this time encompassing the destructive power of modernity, the allure of industrialisation or the confrontation with an object of superior might.
These are but a few more notable and widely adopted definitions attributed to subliminal experience – one could spend years exploring humanity’s continuous efforts to make sense of this elusive idea. Amongst so many understandings of what the sublime could or might be, one can conclude that, as a concept, it evades any kind of concrete definition. What seems to be quintessentially agreed upon, however, is that the sublime, through whatever means it is revealed, exalts a sense that reverberates beyond the limits of our comprehension; as Bill Bleckley puts it, to acknowledge the existence of the sublime means to recognize the possibility of encountering “something, God or nature, that defines and transcends human culture and what it means to be human” (2001); whatever form it presents itself to us as, the sublime is the very essence of an indescribable something that transcends both our pre-conceived constructs of reality and our very nature.
II. Characteristics of the Contemporary Sublime: Fluidity, Temporality and Subjectivity
But what of the contemporary sublime? What could sublime experience mean in the context of a post-modern world? In order to formulate an answer, this paper proposes three main characteristics of the contemporary sublime: fluidity, temporality and subjectivity. Moreover, it aims to investigate the ways in which the experience of self-transcendence might be currently accessed through the harnessing of the virtual.
The sublime’s fluidity refers to the aforementioned plethora of definitions that come with it; it denotes the flexibility of this notion, its chameleon-like capabilities to adapt to its own temporal location in the grand scheme of history, its ever-evolving status as an ambivalent concept – an idea that can bend wherever the theoretical context of its time commands; the sublime should, therefore, be seen as a multi-notion, an entity that is divided into different possible interpretations of itself. Nobody would be able to tell whether Burke’s terror-sublime was or was not true sublime. In the context of its time, it might have been the best, or perhaps the only way to experience something that transcends the confines of reason. What is more, the sublime’s fluidity, whilst denoting the process of redefinition this concept has undergone throughout history, also makes reference to its current position; today, there is no essential unanimous consensus on how the sublime can be encountered.
A multitude of perspectives constitute an ever-widening pool of possibilities for how the sublime might be experienced, or what it is explicitly linked to. Perhaps a side-effect of our commodified and accelerationist society – Thomas McEvilley even goes as far as to define it as a post-sublime where “every otherness is sublime” (2001), or perhaps a tendency emerging out of the new technologies dominating our contemporaneity and the subsequent emergence of new modes of experience, the sublime of the now is a sort of multi-sublime, manifesting itself in a myriad of ways, a structure that could best be associated to Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizome” model (2016) – in this respect, rather than speaking of a rigid definition and its implicit confines, the focus should move onto an approach to mapping the contemporary sublime.
As Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe remarks, “one could not now find the sublime where it was to be found two hundred years ago” (1999), a statement which brings us to our second proposed characteristic, temporality. The sublime is conscious of its presence in time; its very existence and proliferation depend on it. Although the final outcome of the sublime, the very experience of it, is (to an extent) agreed upon, the notion seems to fold and re-arrange itself in order to fit the means its contemporaneity can provide in order for transcendence to be experienced. Eighteenth century sublime found itself manifesting against the greatness of nature; when Modernity surfaced in full force, the industrial replaced nature as a real, magnanimous force, and the definition of the sublime wavered, in the very same way it is wavering now, against the monumental shadow of computation and its implications. The sublime, thus, can be seen as a mirror-concept – a notion that reflects the very essence of its time and which contains, or perhaps even traces, the forces that are able to extract the sense of the incomprehensible from humanity; in this sense, the sublime also constitutes a historical map of what has awed, terrorized and altogether evaded human reason along different stages of our societal evolution.
The third, and final characteristic proposed for the sublime might be the most problematic one. The aforementioned qualities of fluidity and temporality can only be true if one can reconcile with the subjectivity of the sublime experience; the reflective character of the sublime in regards to the driving forces of its time period, as well as its umbrella concept status, which encompasses several definitions, are only possible under the premise that the sublime consists of a type of subjective reaction. As consciousness fluctuates over time, so does the idea of the sublime; furthermore, McEvilley extends this line of thought by affirming that “one is free to propose whatever one wishes as the type of stimulus which, today, supposedly elicits the sublime response” (2001).
The subjective aspect of the contemporary sublime, then, begins in this arbitrary capability for it to be ascribed however one wishes. Some might argue that this quality could be interpreted as a sign of weakness – Anthony Haden-Guest warns against the risk of producing “spiritual kitsch” (2001), an experience that advertises itself as sublime in nature but fails to achieve transcendence or any of the other conditions of the sublime; liberating the concept of the sublime in terms of what elicits it might help proliferate this spiritual kitsch condition, but on the other hand it could lead to a democratization of the sublime. In truth, the multitude of interpretations of how it can be encountered should be proof enough that there is at least a degree of subjectivity to how one may experience the sublime.
Furthermore, the act of freeing this concept from pre-ascribed notions of how one must approach it seems to have already happened in the current theoretical context, a tendency which is reflected in the multitude of debates around the sublime circulating today. What is, however, evidently transparent is that what might elicit an indescribable feeling of awe in one individual, may leave another feeling only banalities; this paper therefore argues for the acceptance of a subjective, democratized sublime, where any individual is allowed to frame their experience of otherness according to their respective perceived encounters of immanent transcendence.
The contemporary sublime is, thus, split between its multiple definitions, moulded by the pace of the times it finds itself in, and ultimately splintered into various instances of subjectivity in accordance to its manifestation. This paper proposes the name of fragmented sublime in order to reference the specific variations of the sublime particular to this point in historicity and human evolution and denote its current state of freedom from the pre-modern constrictive essences it was previously intertwined with.
III. The Fragmented Sublime in the Technological Now: Is it happening?
Having defined and discussed some ontology for the contemporary sublime, it is time to investigate how one might proceed in order to experience something that may be attributed to the realm of transcendental experience today. In light of establishing the sublime as a concept that reflects the dominant forces of our time, this paper aims to argue in favor of both the technological sublime as the primary vehicle of manifestation for this notion today and immersive technologies as the ideal vehicle for achieving such experiences.
Simon Morley brings about a new perspective when discussing the status of today’s sublime by stating that “ultimately, the sublime is an experience looking for a context” (2010) – in order to formulate an answer to the idea posed by Morley, one must turn towards the spirit of our times. What is, then, the Zeitgeist of contemporary society? In a time hailed as the Third Machine Age or the Age of Complexity, one cannot ignore the dominance of computation. If the sublime has progressed from being associated to nature, and further down the line to modern industrialization, one can only logically conclude that the driving force that might be harnessing the sublime today is technology. The megastructure of the internet, the increased ubiquity of computer systems and the proliferation of digital objects are slowly starting to impact on every aspect of human life: from technical or structural enhancements to altering the way we see and disseminate images, computation significantly impacts on every aspect of the human experience. It cannot, therefore, be ignored when a discussion of the contemporary sublime is underway.
An early example of technology as the vehicle for transcendental experience can be found in the work Roy Ascott, who declares that, “with the computer, and brought together in the telematic embrace, we can hope to glimpse the unseeable, to grasp the ineffable chaos of becoming, the secret order of disorder” – Ascott even goes as far as to predict immersive technologies, hinting that the computer will become “invisible in its immanence”(2007). This idea of using technology as a tool to access higher experiences can be directly linked to the sublime, and the computer interpreted as the ideal medium for accessing that which escapes the bounds of reason. Jean-Francois Lyotard goes even further by affirming that the governing principle of our post-industrial, techno-scientific reality is the need to represent the unrepresentable, concretizing its mission as that of the “immanent sublime” (1982). Gilbert-Rolfe further builds on Lyotard’s theorizing by stating that “the geographical image of limitlessness has given way to the technological one” (1999), whilst proposing immediacy as a technological convention that has migrated to the art world, a phenomenon which could best be described through the question ‘Is it happening? ’ and its link to the context of new media artworks that play on perception, time or interactivity.
Furthermore, this notion of immediacy can be linked the aforementioned subjective quality of the sublime – transcendent experience is, thus, both a product of individual consciousness, as well as dependent on temporal and spatial placement within a context which may trigger its manifestation – until recently, it was widely regarded that experiencing the sublime might be arbitrary, that exaltation was subject to random happenings; however, computation now allows the artist ultimate control for laying a foundation aimed at generating a certain kind of experience: from Virtual Reality to Augmented Reality to the Internet, digital spaces have a radically different ontology than our reality; they can be warped and distorted to the artist’s will – any scenario, however wild, could be brought into existence. It Is only prudent, then, to assume that the sublime does no longer have to be random.
The power of immersive technologies can, therefore, be harnessed in order to create spaces of otherness, to lay down the pre-conditions of experiencing something that causes reason to falter and certainties to crumble – cyberspace is, after all, boundless, both conceptually and spatially. Whether the sublime reveals itself to the individual or not in these conditions remains at the discretion of their own consciousness – its presence can only be determined by asking ourselves: is it really happening?
IV. Virtual Spaces, Boundless Experiences, and the First Iteration of an Experiment
The final part of this paper will examine the possibilities of utilizing Virtual Reality as a medium for immersive artwork, in order to generate spaces which may elicit the sublime. Vincent Mosco argues that “virtual reality has more purchase on our mythic consciousness” (2005), whilst Kevin Kelly goes as far as to designate cyberspace as the “realm of the soul” (Wertheim, 1999) – both conceptions make reference to the spiritual capabilities of immersive environments. Char Davies directly builds on these theories through the production of ‘OSMOSE’ (1994-1995), a VR artwork which aims to explore the shifts in mental awareness caused by the altered states brought about through immersion in cyberspace. The goal is to achieve what Heidegger called “techne” (Brockelman, 2009), or revealing into presence, a quality which has increased relevance in the field of the sublime. In a sense, ‘OSMOSE’ was a step forward towards investigating what Davies calls “perceptual free fall”(1999), or total immersion of the senses in an environment whose sole aim is to distort awareness.
It is on the basis of this notion of perceptual free fall, brought together with the aforementioned discussion on the position and relevance of the contemporary sublime, that an artefact emerges from this research. More of an inkling or an experiment rather than a finished product, the aim of this artefact is to initialize a series of thought experiments and exercises meant to explore how the sublime could be communicated and experienced through the use of VR; it aims to kick start a series of explorations into how environments can be constructed within cyberspace by laying the foundation for a large-scale VR environment that might facilitate the experience of otherness and perhaps bring about transcendental experience.
The research gathered has fueled the creation of plans and sketches for a large-scale environment:
Figure 1 Teodora Fartan. 2018. Sketch for Immersive VR Environment I
Figure 2 Teodora Fartan. 2018. Sketch for Immersive VR Environment II
The aim of these plans is to begin an investigation into creating immersive spaces that play on perception – currently, the working plan includes making use of 3D models in order to create megastructures which are then displaced and re-arranged to denote a sense of boundlessness. The position of the viewer is limited within the environment – they are the sole witness to this monolithic structure, finding themselves at the very center of it. This choice is informed by Frances Dyson’s theorizing that “the individual becomes the center of its world, always looking outward with its gaze - god-like - scanning the universe” (1999) when referring to embodiment within cyberspace, alongside Michael Benedikt’s “principle of indifference”(Dyson, 1999), the idea that the felt realness of any world depends on the degree of its indifference to the individual.
The planned VR environment will be a fixed structure; there will not be no up or down, nor left or right. The individual will be all there is, a singular consciousness encased in a megastructure that seems to have no beginning nor an end. The individual becomes a form of “liquid entity”, engaged into what William Gibson called a “consensual hallucination” (Dyson, 1999). The very existence of this space would be impossible within the bounds of the real – those bounds are broken in the space of VR, where a space can be constructed to any degree of abstraction.
These first plans aim to lead towards a large-scale series examining the ways in which the sublime experience could be touched upon or facilitated through the use of VR – the environments will be publicly shared as 360 videos and circulated in order to examine the response from as many individuals in regards to whether they elicit a sense of otherness. Subjectivity will be taken into account in the scope of this research – the aim is not to create a recipe for instant sublime, but rather to investigate the modes in which an experience that is perceived as beyond that which is human can be created through the manipulation of cyber-space, as well as explore different ways of playing on the sublime by using spatial construction and immersion.
V. A Conclusion of Sorts
To put it all in a nutshell, the principal aim of this paper is to examine and reveal the condition of today’s version of the sublime; it begins by examining the historicity of the concept, as well as the current theoretical interpretation and moves forward to propose the notion of a fragmented sublime whose main characteristics are fluidity, temporality and subjectivity. It then proceeds to examine the relationship between this fragmented sublime and technology, together with the possibilities of harnessing computation in order to express the indescribable. This research into the sublime, its technological condition and the position of cyberspace gives rise to a first experiment in creating a largescale digital space that may instill a sense of otherness in the viewer through the medium of VR. This artefact is meant to be a starting point for a wider investigation into how the possibilities of altering perception within the virtual realm may reference, or perhaps even directly convey a sense of the contemporary sublime.
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