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2004-02-13 - 9:20 a.m.

This morning on Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg chaired a discussion on the idea of the sublime. Thus Edmund Burke around 1750:

“WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

The torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. .But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.

I call beauty a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them, (and there are many that do so,) they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons; we like to have them near us, and we enter willingly into a kind of relation with them

Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should - light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure.”

The sublime has a long history starting in the first century AD and then getting taken up at the end of the seventeenth century – initially as a characteristic of nature as described by Newtonian physics. Also as something in rhetoric – an effect to be achieved on an audience by powerful speech or argument. God had written the book of nature and Newton had decoded it and everyone was amazed at the mathematical rhetoric. The mind of God especially is thought to be sublime – in its power in relation to our limited faculties.

But then other artists render the sublime – poets, playwrights like Shakes (who is rediscoverded) and painters obviously. There is even a strain of sublime painting in the 20c – Rothko and Barnett Newman. Who knows maybe even the Mins – at least the 2001 wing of the Mins. Turner painted a sublime Pink Sky.

Anyway as ever it’s a short step from anywhere to Sourth East Michigan, in this case to the Techno-Sublime thanks to Barbara Bolt who writes:

“The sublime is a theoretical discourse, with a unique history, canon, and conventions about how the human subject responds to that which occurs at the very limits of symbolization. According to Christine Battersby the sublime is:

characterised by “awe”, “reverence”, “respect” and “dread” in the face of the infinite or the indefinitely great and powerful. In the sublime the artist marvels at that which stands at the boundaries of human identity and threatens to overcome it

In the encounter with the awesomeness and terror of the sublime, the individual comes face-to-face with its own possible annihilation.

Immanuel Kant's Elaboration Of The Sublime

Whilst the discourse on the sublime was set on its way by Longinus in the first century, our contemporary understanding of the sublime derive primarily from Immanuel Kant’s elaboration of the sublime, as set out in his Critique of Judgement (1790). Whilst for Kant the sublime was related to nature, it wasn’t nature per se that was critical, but rather the individual’s response to the terror and awesomeness of nature that was critical.

Kant argues that in the sublime encounter, where the ego comes face-to-face with its own possible annihilation, the rational ego doesn’t collapse into the fear and terror. Rather, through rational thought, the ego recuperates itself in the face of this threat. As Battersby notes:

The pleasure of the sublime involves fear in the face of the infinite; but it also involves a transcendence of fear. It involves terror and a recognition of that which could overwhelm and destroy the self, but also a simultaneous strengthening of the perceiving “I” by testing its strength against that which could obliterate it.

David Nye notes that in testing “his” (and the Kantian sublime is gendered male) strength in the face of this apparent infinity, the individual ‘recuperates a sense of superior self-worth because the mind is able to conceive something larger and more powerful than the senses can grasp’ (Nye 1994:7). Thus in the Kantian sublime the emphasis on the role of the mind in apprehending the sublime, shifted attention from “nature” to the rational “perception of nature”.

According to Nye, the sublime experience, when it occurs, has a basic structure. An object, natural or man-made, disrupts ordinary perception and astonishes the senses, forcing the observer to grapple mentally with its immensity and power. The sublime encounter involves an eruption of feeling in the face of the terror or wonder that briefly overwhelms reason only to be recontained by it (Nye 1994:5). However the Kantian sublime presupposes the elevation of “reason” over an order of experience that cannot be represented. In Kant’s elaboration of the sublime there is an insistence that in the sublime encounter the spectator has a certain detachment since the subject observes pain and terror without being directly involved in it. This detachment is predicated on an aesthetic theory of perception, not of performance. However, I would like to question this detachment. What if the individual is not a detached observer, but rather is “in it”?

I would argue, for example, that in the terrifyingly impressive experience of the rave party, the raver is “in” it, not distanced from it.

Through dancing one may lose oneself in the music physically and mentally…. In the clubbing experience dancing can be about losing control over one’s body…. Dancing fuses notions of ‘inside’ (emotions) and ‘outside’ (motions) as the internal becomes externalized and the external becomes internalised. (Malbon 1999:91)

Malbon’s conclusions about the loss of self in dancing are drawn from the observations of participant clubbers. One of his respondents, Valerie, observed that when she’s hot, rational control is relished: " I wasn’t thinking about it—it was just happening to me…. I was forced to do it. What I was doing I was being forced to do by something … you ARE the music". (Valerie in Malbon 1999:91) Barbara Freeman (1995) notes that there exists an internal contradiction inherent in the Kantian sublime, since the very nature of the sublime experience involves a blurring of distinction between the observer and the observed and contradicts the supposed detachment of the sublime encounter. For Freeman, the sublime encounter necessarily involves an affective dimension that implicates the “observer” in it. In this encounter, what happens to “the other” also happens to the subject that perceives or experiences it.

The Sublime And The Clubbing Experience

According to Nye, the test for determining what is sublime is to observe whether or not an object strikes people dumb with amazement (Nye 1994:16). And so I would like to return to Malbon’s claim that in the heat of the night the sensation of dancing was a moving without thought, a moving before thought, of just letting go, letting it all out. In this state, words fail him; words become redundant and unnecessary, words become pointless (Malbon 1999:xii-xiii). He cites a journal entry by Seb, to exemplify this “letting go, letting it all hang out”. In his journal, Seb tries to put in words the awesomeness of a particular clubbing experience:

For once, it was our turn to look in bewilderment. Everybody could see was taking place—we were all part of it, yet we all gasped in wonder. It was truly astonishing to witness…. The energy generated … was fucking electric.

In his elaboration of the technological sublime Nye observes that ‘when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld a society together’ Thus he notes that in moments of the sublime, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of the community. For him, it becomes ‘a shared experience beyond words’ This welding together is aptly summarized in Canetti’s observation of a crowd dancing:

In the end, there appears to be a single creature dancing, a creature with fifty heads and a hundred legs and arms, all performing in exactly the same way and with the same purpose. When their excitement is at its height, these people really feel as one, and nothing but physical exhaustion can stop them.

At some levels, this observation concurs with Malbon’s argument that clubbing is about group belonging and identification. He points out that the sensory overload of the clubbing experience ‘temporarily supersedes certain facets of individual clubbbers’ identities’

For Maffesoli there are particular experiences where the social configuration exceeds individualism. In these experiences the environment can submerge one’s sense of identity. Malbon suggests that such social situations ‘foster a going-beyond of individual identities, an experience of being both within yet in some way outside of oneself at once’ . This pleasurable sensation of “in-betweeness”—in which clubbers flux between awareness and sensation—he terms ecstasy or exstasis. Malbon attributes this loss of self or exstasis to the flux between identity and identification with the collectivity of the crowd even as he acknowledges the role that music plays in enabling us to get out of ourself. I would argue that crowd cannot separated out from the beat of bodies, heat, music, vibration, lights and the ecstasy of the effect of drugs. Thus Bauman notes that apart from the “togetherness”:

The higher-than-usual physical density gestates a similar density of sensual impressions: the overflow of sights and sounds, a higher-than-usual level of sensual stimulation, but more importantly yet a condensed, concentrated stimulation—reaching the elsewhere unreachable pitch thanks not only the massive volume, but also to the monotonous homogeneity of stimuli…. (

Storr proposes that the power of the music, particularly when combined with other emotive elements such as the light, heat, beat and rhythm of bodies en masse can be ‘terrifyingly impressive’ . Thus Malbon notes:

The music, crowd and “e/motion” may become so intense that even experienced clubbers, regarded as “cool” … may appear incapable of resisting the summons of the music and the crowd … lose themselves to the intensity of the situation.

This experience of losing oneself to the intensity of the situation, or what Malbon terms the oceanic experience, is what I have come to term the techno-sublime. In this encounter the clubber enters into relation with an otherness that is excessive and unrepresentable. Whilst in the Kantian sublime the individual is a bounded, unique, contained and controlling self who recuperates self through an encounter with the sublime event, in the techno-sublime the boundaries of self become very fluid and threaten to dissolve altogether. In this exstasis, the individual is faced with the very possibility of a collapse into the unknown or even annihilation or death. In this conception of the sublime the self is not an observer safe from immediate danger but becomes face-to-face with the “thing” itself.


I have suggested that the nature of the sublime has changed both in terms of its source and also in terms of the human negotiation or experience of it. I have argued that the primary source of the sublime experience is no longer in nature, but rather in the awesomeness of the artifactual. The human response to this awesomeness is not necessarily one of “transcendence”, but quite often gambles with the very notion of what it is to be “I”, whether it be in avante garde art practices, the techno dance party or now in cyberspace. This is what I would term the techno-sublime. “

But don’t we need to think about the dissolution that was offered by Star Spangled Banner and Spoonful or Kick Out the Jams and 21st Century Schizoid Man?

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