Brief Reflection: Sublime and the Other

[In any Brief Reflection posts, I simply aim to outline a few rough ideas and basic applications of a variety of theorists as quick intellectual exercises: some posts might get developed into longer posts or pieces with fully fleshed out ideas, some will be abandoned as incoherent, wrong or immensely uninteresting. Enjoy (or don’t.) . Recommended listening Ash Koosha – I feel that while reading, from which the wonderful header image is taken, all credit to him and Hirad Sab in their post-human frivolities.]

In his work Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, alongside a commentary in the Critique of Judgement, Kant establishes his notion of the Sublime; these are those aesthetic encounters which “arouse enjoyment but with horror.” and are ultimately so immense in their quality and kind that they are beyond human comprehension and thought, and thus they generate terror (alongside potential feelings of “quiet admiration”). Kant lists the “wide ocean, enraged by storms”,and “shapeless mountain masses towering above one another”as examples of natural sublime, and similarly “St Peter’s in Rome” and “the sight of an Egyptian pyramid”are of sublimity in human creation. At the core of what we consider a sublime, is the philosophical anthropocentrism that determines most of Kant’s theory, and of which the Object-Oriented Ontology school is highly critical of. The sublime exists only due to the finitude and limited nature of our human rationality and abilities to comprehend; it is beyond the beautiful purely because we cannot understand it in its totality. An interesting feature of this outlook is the distinction between the natural world and its sublimity; the god-given world with all its grandeur, beauty and incomprehensibility, and the immense world of human construction and artistic achievement. To posit our aesthetic encounters with the sublime in this binary, of either natural or man made, is a  potential limitation, I feel. (Kant expresses two notions of the sublime: mathematical and dynamic, however their specificity is, I think, irrelevant to this post)

Traditonal, Romantic sublime experience of Nature in Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

The history of science fiction, and horror, is littered with art, architecture and technology that is beyond our comprehension in its technicality, construction and reality. The figures of Cthulhu in Lovecraft’s work are of sculpture and form well beyond our understanding, their environments seem to be contradictory and we cant grasp them (as Harman wonderfully elucidates in his book on Lovecraft; Weird Realism.):The site of Cthulhu’s surfacing from the depths contained “an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.” (CC 194); the chimeric figure of Cthulhu itself is simply commented upon “but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.” (CC 169). In even greater aesthetic clarity, the protagonist in The Shadow over Innsmouth gives an account of an essentially indescribable “art object”, which he figures to be a tiara. “At first I decided it was the queer, other-worldly quality of the art which made me uneasy” he reflects; its construction was of “some settled technique of infinite maturity and perfection, yet that technique was utterly remote from any – Eastern or Western, ancient or modern – which I had ever heard of or seen exemplified. It was as if the work-manship were that of another planet.” Lovecraft’s writing exemplifies that point I am attempting to make very clearly; the sublimity of a truly foreign object, its inconceivable awesomeness, lies not just in its boundlessness, but specifically in how ruptures our thought from outside the bounds of our thought altogether.

The ships of the beings in Alien/Prometheus are of a similar Sublime kind; we cant grasp them on an aesthetic level, nor can we on a rational level (their purpose, functions and make-up are so otherworldly) that to us, they are sublime. Such constructions seemingly break Kant’s binary to a degree; we are overwhelmed simply not by our natural world (that of God’s creation, for Kant) or by the power and success of our will, but the violent intrusion into our psyche and conscious appreciation of the efforts and expression of an Other; whose purpose, process and own artistic outlook remains exterior, un-representable and incommunicable to us. The sublimity of engaging with products of the Other lie not just in their immensity (as they do for encounters with natural or man-made sublime) but in the pure alteriority of such objects of art, of which we have no ability to genuinely grasp. Perhaps to these other beings (of course, these are purely existent in fantasy worlds: we represent them on screen or through text, so they can only vaguely contour or gesture towards the sublime-ness.) these objects are mundane and regular, perhaps not even qualifying and beautiful; such notions even further disrupt the anthropocentrism of Kant’s notion of the sublime in relation to just human cognition. Objects of art, and aesthetic encounters, which intrude our experience, and are products of sublimity from the minds of Others, seem to disrupt the centrality of humanity in the cosmos.


Perhaps we don’t need to go as far these hypothetical aliens to imagine a situation of the Sublime art of the Other. Humans as Descartes and Kant envisaged them, transcendent through rationality and will over the mechanistic, base and unconscious animals, has long been a redundant idea. Humanity can no longer elevate itself in will or potential over other beings in its ability to create and experience beauty: Evolutionary theory performed a Copernican revolution just as severe as that of Kant, it displaced the uniqueness of the human mind, and the various  forms (although still too new-age in most accounts) of Panpyshcism continue to do so even further. The complex physical micro-structures that bacteria develop to survive, the (primitive) animal art of elephants and dolphins, and the randomly generated images and music of Artificial Intelligence all present aesthetic encounters that are sublime. Sublime due their construction and purpose from outside human cognition. Sublime beyond the anthropocentric.

[Timothy Morton does have a short essay on the ‘Sublime Object’; it covers quite a number of the ideas I’ve briefly written about in this post but he treats it an altogether different way I feel. I have already bugn to write a similar short piece on Morton’s idea of Hyperobjects and their similarity to the notion of the Sublime soon, and will cover his ideas about the Sublime Object then. His is similar in the sense it is interested in Sublime objects which are “a matter of contact with an alien presence”, but I think luckily what I have written is distinct (having found his essay after I’d written this post!]

Other ideas / removed stuff. 

-The gaze of the true Other, which is exterior in all signification and of which we have no bearing in cognition, society or expression, presents an almost unknowable void; but what of their creations? Do the tools and functions of other beings reveal anything to us? (Heidegger’s racist lecture point of the negro encountering tools foreign to him yet still placing them as ready-to-hand within a field of equipment) 

-Is the encounter of the other, with all its horror and fear, distinct from our engagements with all things strange and beyond our comfortability? Is it the presence of subject-hood in these beings external to our world-hood that shocks us? 

-(bit of heidegger) [our human/Dasein’s commitment to the ready-at-hand generates great fear and discomfort when it experiences objects not only broken (for us, as we cannot even gesture towards their purpose in a field of equipment) and  thus ruptures our present-at-hand, the Sublime in such cases is beyond simply immensity of nature and of human effort, but from an altogether stranger site.]

Aesthetic encounters with the art and architecture, constructed under the unknowable gaze and mentality of Others seem to be strange engagements with the Sublime. The immensity of the natural world, the overwhelming beauty of pure expression, and the mathematical yet beyond abstraction of the beauty of technology; all sublime experiences, yet all highly anthropocentric; all in relation to the finitude of human conscious experience and thought; so what of that that gestures towards us, but its immensity approaching from the outsisde; from the other?

-Of course only theoretical in my quick idea; that of extraterrestrial beings with skills and theory beyond our strangement (the strange strange; as Morton might call it). But do  hyperobjects, of which we have a particular aesthetic fixation, or the immense structures and things of non-human creation, have a role to play in the aesthetic sublime?

-Can, as the rest of object-oriented ontology seeks to do, humanity be displaced from its centrality in the aesthetic world by other types of subject and other objects?

-We gaze into the eyes of the Other and recognise their unknowability to our minds; no shared symbolic world, but the artistic expression of the other provides insight into their minds. Even if it is not sublime to them, it surely is to us (or is Kant’s theory, in all of its expressions, to anthropocentric to grasp this?)


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