In his 1954 essay The Question Concerning Technology, Martin Heidegger strives to engender a philosophy that goes beyond an instrumental and anthropological conception of technology. He argues that technology should not only be conceived in terms of individual technologies, but also in how it has become the dominant way of revealing truths about the world. In doing so, it suppresses all other forms of revealing, in a manner he calls enframing (Gestell). But if technology is now the dominant way of understanding the world, that is not to say that other forms of revealing have become defunct. If this were the case, why would we keep making art, fight for social justice, philosophise?
For my art project, I want to explore how we might represent our encounters with technology in a way that acknowledges these different, and often paradoxical, ways of revealing. As an artist, I will focus on the aesthetic — but I also want to reflect the emotional, phenomenological, political, as well as technological, ways in which the world is revealed to us. How might this lead to a more fluid understanding of technology’s place in the world? In doing so, I hope to contribute to the tradition of landscape painting in a manner that utilises classical concepts such as the sublime to address contemporary questions.
As my artistic practice has progressed, I have started to notice certain motifs and recurring points of interests - shadows lurking beneath the surface, occasionally revealing themselves in my artwork and artistic thought. In particular, that which has haunted me more than any other has been the concept of the sublime. I was first introduced to this concept in first year aesthetics in the writings of Immanuel Kant, who discussed the differences between the beautiful and the sublime. His words struck me as they made a distinction which I had always intuitively experienced but never consciously acknowledged.
Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.
References to the sublime are found throughout History, from the ancient Roman Longinus’s On Sublimity which looks at how it emerges in lofty speech, to the Northern Song dynasty artist Guo Xi’s theory of distance within landscape painting. But a comprehensive philosophy of the sublime only starts to emerge within western thought during the Enlightenment, with Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In the following passage, he discusses how the sublime relates to terror.
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger […] is a source of the sublime, that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. […] When danger and pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, […] they are delightful.
In these terms, sublimity is related to a certain encounter with mortality and the unfathomable, but one that is at a safe enough distance to allow for aesthetic excitement. Depending on a person’s temperament and character, this distance may vary; experiences of the sublime may range from feeling the strength of a gust of wind, witnessing the sheer height of a mountain or skyscraper, sadomasochism, getting lost within the eternal depth of an abstract painting…
Where does technology fit into this? Traditionally, representations of the sublime tended to revolve around God or nature. After all, since the sublime infers a certain level of existential threat it tends not to occur so much in the comfort of our own home. Where technology, such as housing, did appear in landscape painting, it tended to be used to put us in context next to the immensity of the natural world. Though it was mostly dominated by nature, this is not to say that technology did not evoke such feelings. After all, for technology to work it must utilise natural powers, often even elevating their strength and danger. We witness technological wonder in mythology: Icarus for the Ancient Greeks, Babel in the Bible… There is also a certain sense of magic, especially regarding new technologies. From the prehistoric discovery of fire to Daguerre and Niépce’s invention of the camera, technology breaks down our sense of reality and what is humanly possible, provoking exhilarating but also frightening awe. This undeniably makes the sublimity of specific technologies culturally and historically relative, as they start to become banal.
With the industrial revolution, technology takes such leaps in power, scale and innovation that it can increasingly elicit sublimity. In parallel to the rise of industry, the Romantic movement recentres art’s focus away from the rationalism of the time and onto powerful feelings and emotions. Many Romantic artists express a sense of nostalgia and distance themselves from technology. Others instead strive to contextualise the sublime within the changing times. Although the bulk of JMW Turner’s work represents the perils of the natural world, much of it is also anchored in modernity. In Rain, Steam and Speed, the focus is on the velocity of the train and the way in which the steam engine’s vapour takes over the landscape, combining with the force of the rain. I find this piece particularly effective in its combination of the natural and technological sublime. The train is also intangible, conjuring that sense of technological magic which evokes the possibility of new futures. Nowadays, even though we may not experience the train as something magical anymore, the way Turner depicts it allows us see it through the awe-inspired eyes of his time.
Technology has drastically evolved since the steam locomotive and daguerreotype. Modern technology is far more pervasive, interconnected and destructive. Little needs to be said about how much it has changed and continues to change our lives; and I will not go beyond referencing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on the impacts of global warming to discuss its destructive effects. What interest me is rather how these technological leaps, one industrial revolution after another, impact the mood of our time.
First of all, we see a continuation of the industrial sublime of the early 19th century as machines become more powerful, skyscrapers reach higher to the heavens, space travel taking us even further… Alongside this, globalisation has allowed multinationals to grow on an unprecedented scale, now across the entire world. This has certainly lead many to feelings of awe, but we also see a growing sense of nihilism.
In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson analyses the nihilism of contemporary society. For Jameson, the global economy has become so powerful and automated that it is impossible for us to even grasp. This means that it is increasingly hard to find meaning in our lives, leading to nihilism. But Jameson argues that we can find meaning in the technological sublime as it offers a comprehensive glimpse into this system.
The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating, not so much in its own right, but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp-namely the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself. […] It is therefore in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that in my opinion the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized.
Alongside this growing sense of nihilism, we also notice an increase in nostalgia, especially among young people. In the introduction to his writing collection Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher makes a similar analysis to Jameson of contemporary cultural, philosophical and artistic nihilism. He looks at how the recent history of music and pop culture can reflect our evolving cultural mindset. He describes a progressive loss of innovation in music which he finds representative of the growing nihilism of the 20th century. This was marked, Fisher argues, by an inability to imagine the future, accelerated by the social cuts of neoliberalism and the post Cold War so called “end of history”. This culminates in the 21st century’s “crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion”, which can also be linked to the growth of surveillance and mobile technology, which reinforce the idea that there are no alternatives, no escapes. Fisher relates this attitude to the concept of “hauntology”, coined by Jacques Derrida to refer to the persistence of elements from the past. He goes onto compare the upbeat nostalgia of popular music, using the producer Mark Ronson as a notable example, to a variety of “hauntological” artists, such as Burial and The Caretaker, that express this sense of lost future more directly.
What [hauntological artists] shared was not so much a sound as a sensibility, an existential orientation. These artists […] were suffused with an overwhelming melancholy; and they were preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised memory — hence a fascination with […] the sounds of these technologies breaking down.
As much as these two types of music have opposing emotional outlooks, they are really two sides of the same coin, much like the various facets of Romanticism: one seeking comfort in nostalgia, another representing technology to reflect the mood of the time. The difference today is that, faced with the growing economic inequality and threat of climate change which has been accelerated by our use of technology, the culture of our time no longer shares the same optimism. Instead, disillusion has emerged regarding the promises of technology. But technology in itself cannot free us, rather the political will to steer it in the right direction. As such, the emancipatory potential of technology continues to haunt us.
For my work, I want to utilise the concepts I have discussed in regard to my own experience of technology. I want to paint places around me, in or near Dundee where I can have a personal encounter with technological infrastructure. I then want to emphasise how they change my relationship to the landscape in the way I paint them. These may include oil rigs, abandoned factories, wind turbines...
How does the interaction between these pieces of technology and nature make me feel: scared? awe-inspired? depressed? serene? How might their degradation evoke the disillusion to the “glitz and glamour” and false promises of our age, but also a return to nature? How does their interconnectedness evoke the global forces of capitalism? How could this relate to their interconnectedness with nature? And do we represent them in a way that allows for multiple levels of meaning?
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Turner, Joseph Mallord William, “Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway” (London: National Gallery).