This week I participated in a workshop on “the Transhumanist Imagination” with scholars from Harvard, NYU, UC San Diego and Arizona State University. Workshops like this are an opportunity for articles-in-progress to receive communal critique. One of the essays was framed historically within the philosophy of aesthetics from Edmund Burke and Kant’s work on the sublime to recent formations of “the technological sublime.” After the reading, I proposed an alternative logic for the paper that would emphasize the aesthetic experience of terror that preoccupied the sublime for Burke, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and others.

Burke and Kant emphasize the realization of one’s smallness and limitations in the presence of a massive landscape or mathematical notion of infinite space and time. Schopenhauer’s typology emphasized the awareness that the massive aesthetic object beheld could crush you and kill you at this very moment – for example an erupting volcano. Historians of modern technology like Thomas Hughes studied Duchamp and the Soviet realists to emphasize that 20th century technological systems became artistic objects that induced complex feelings of optimism and dread. Hughes was also concerned with the origins of anti-science counterculture after WWII possibly springing from a growing awareness among people like Rachel Carson that technological systems were affecting natural landscapes that had once been considered pristine aesthetic objects with their own hidden skill of equilibrium. My sense is that the notion of the sublime can be utilized to accommodate the co-existence of technological utopianism and anti-technology counterculture in the 20th century.

To make this claim we first need to liberate the experience of the sublime from its commitment to the pleasant.  For Burke and Kant especially the feeling of terror is associated with a sense of enjoyment that comes with discomfort. While the perceiver is somehow belittled in the presence of the infinite, there is aesthetic value in understanding ones actual place within larger systems. My suggestion is that, clearly, this is only one of many legitimate personal responses to the terror of the sublime. Schopenhauer began to separate himself from Burke and Kant’s focus on noble character-building responses to the sublime. In fact, the image most people have of Schopenhauer is of a man entrenched in the acute discomfort and demoralizing consequences induced by a vast cosmos and mathematical infinity.

My sense is that 20th century experiences of the sublime that focused on technological systems as art objects were performing a new economy of feeling that problematized Burke, Kant, and Schopenhauer’s typologies. Because the object of analysis was man-made, the category of the sublime with its sense of terror also communicated an awareness of personal and collective agency. Whereas previous typologies emphasized natural events and mathematical objects that could not be controlled, the metropolitan sublime emerged precisely alongside the ambivalence of city-dwellers who were aware of the ability of individuals and collectives to alter modes of production and relations with the built environment. Burke was of course conservative, which may explain why his perceiver utilizes the sublime to reinforce aristocratic sensibilities. Kant was devoted to cosmopolitan intent and utilized the sublime to reinforce the perceiver’s participation in scientific and cultural advancement. In the 20th century these responses to the sublime are still available. But there are other responses also available, including revolutionary impulses and romantic impulses to return to earlier forms of relation with the sublime.

My sense is that 20th century anti-science counterculture and technocratic optimism can both be described through a shift in the experience of terror that marks the sublime. This was not the tack that the presenter from NYU chose. I brought up this alternative logic in discussion and the writer seemed interested.  

I do not wish to aestheticize everything, so I am not committed to this line of thought as an explanation of historical events. The point of the discussion is to situate the Transhumanist Imagination, with its emphasis on human interiority as a design space.

The UCSD professor interviewed 180 religious persons and charted middle-class attitudes toward transhumanism. Almost all of the respondents emphasized either dread and fear or optimism and hope about the future of technological interventions into human genetic design and cognitive or emotional “enhancement”. My sense is that these are precisely the sorts of responses that are salient today when perceivers are confronted with the technological sublime.

Viewing the body as a site of the sublime is a considerable departure from the time of Burke and Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel.  Molecular genetics, biophysics and medicine have rendered the body an uber-complexity, while self-improvement and advertising industries call upon us to discipline the body. It is now a truism that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. It is odd to suppose, in keeping with the aesthetic logic of Burke and Kant, that one should be belittled by the infinitude of one’s body, but we do see this attitude implied in reliance on pharmaceutical interventions. Whitman celebrated the infinite body as if to suggest that the appreciation of his own cosmos was the image of health of political liberation. New Agers celebrate this awareness as if one’s thoughts were a revolutionary political force. But there is still the experience of terror here, for example, in the common suggestion that a subconscious economy of desire is infinite in comparison to the conscious perceiver.

The technological sublime is typically described in terms of digital communications technologies. What the Transhumanist Imagination workshop emphasized was the body in its genetic and biophysical complexity as a design space and site of political futures. My sense is that portrayals of the  technological sublime could benefit from considering the multiplicity of justifiable responses to  growing awareness of the modification potential of the human body.