“Seeking that which Seems Beyond All Language“
A Review of
Simon Morley, ed.
Documents of Contemporary Art Series.
Simon Morley, ed.
Paperback: MIT Press, 2010.
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Edmund Burke, writing in the 1700s in his essay ‘On the Sublime and Beautiful’ describes several marks of the Sublime, first among them the sense of Terror, followed by Obscurity, Power, Privation, Vastness, Infinity, Difficulty, and Magnificence. It is a state marked by astonishment, specifically with Burke in the landscape or painting and literature about the same; in other words, a way of making the indescribable describable. Although having read this essay and others like it before, the full effect of the terror Burke stresses in the sublime hadn’t taken shape for me until recently, watching over and over the first 30-second video clip of the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. This is a frightful image in its murky greenness. And the scope of what this simple video loop suggests is nearly beyond the capacity to describe. It certainly follows several of Burke’s qualifications of the sublime – the terror of the scope, the obscurity and privation of the bottom of the ocean, the suggestion of infinity – but it also raises even more questions in regard to what a particularly contemporary sublime might encompass. Many of these themes are raised in The Sublime, edited by Simon Morley, and the latest installment of the Documents of Contemporary Art series.
In the introduction, Morley sets the ground for the collection of essays to follow, introducing a distinctly technological sublime, as well as four approaches to the idea of the Sublime, each roughly corresponding to a particular writer: from Longinus “the transcendence of reality;” Burke the “destabilizing force;” Kant “a reality that is fundamentally indeterminate… and unpresentable;” and Schiller the “ecstatic experience” (19). Deriving from these historic writings come seven categories: The Unpresentable, Transcendence, Nature, Technology, Terror, The Uncanny, and Altered States, each containing several essays from artists and theorists which run the gamut of impressions on the Sublime.
Several essays early on, including those by Lyotard, Derrida, and painter Barnet Newman, become important references for later writers in The Sublime. What almost all of the essays in this collection share in common is the attempt to put into words what is at best a sense of awe, and thereby wordless. This can become complicated. Derrida describes “the inadequation of presentation is presented,” (44) as Lyotard writes of “the immanent sublime, that of alluding to the nondemonstrable” (136). That said, many of these essays can become rather abstract, as they essentially aim to describe what is unseen, to make visible the invisible. Some of the best then, take the theory and particularize it in specifics, such as Robert Smithson’s “Frederick Law Olmstead and the Dialectical Landscape,” David Morgan’s “Secret Wisdom and Self-Effacement,” or John Berger’s “Into the Woods.” Describing the translation of the Sublime into recognizable form, Luce Irigaray writes “beneath every speech made, every word spoken, every point articulated, every rhythm beaten out, they are into the mystery of a word that seeks incarnation. While trusting beyond measure in that which gives flesh to speech: air, breath, song, they reciprocally receive and give…and are thereby reborn by giving each other the gift of a speech of forgotten inspiration, buried beneath logic and indeed beneath all existing language” (81).
But there is more to the Sublime in a digital age. Thomas McEvilley writes “if one wanted… to retain something of [the Sublime’s] old dignity and danger, one might look around us at what is happening around us in the global theatre today. Something as terrifying as the old sublime can be seen in the onrushing transition from national to transnational scale” (171). This virtuality and disconnect of the global market economy and digital space is the other part of what makes the images from Deepwater Horizon so terrifying: the magnitude of the horror is equaled by the larger indescribable economies that perpetuate it., as well as its reduction to a newsbit on television.
The Sublime, still though, seems to have a transformative power in that it moves individuals beyond themselves. An image like the oil leak, if it is reduced to a clip on the TV news, is diminished. But if, by the sublimity of it, by presenting in a single image what otherwise could be too large to even think about, then it can tap into a creative empathy, giving people of sense of the common wealth of that we must maintain, but that is so much larger than any one of us. The Sublime gives language to a variety of the ways this is expressed in contemporary culture, some in truly grand and awe-inspiring ways, and others more given to terror; the transformation that the Sublime entails is good reason to continue seeking that which seems beyond all language.