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Against the Sublime

Against the Sublime

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Published by Ms. Kianga
by James Elkins
This material was originally posted, with an introduction,
on www.jameselkins.com.
Please write jameselkins@fastmail.cn with comments.
This
by James Elkins
This material was originally posted, with an introduction,
on www.jameselkins.com.
Please write jameselkins@fastmail.cn with comments.
This

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Ms. Kianga on Apr 27, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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03/17/2014

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Against the SublimeJames ElkinsThis material was originally posted, with an introduction,on www.jameselkins.com.Please write jameselkins@fastmail.cn with comments.This essay is the result of a long interest in the sublime, which turned into along dissatisfaction. I will propose three different but connected arguments.First, the sublime is not well used as a trans-historical category: it does notapply outside particular ranges of artworks, most of them made in thenineteenth century. Second, in contemporary critical writing the sublime isused principally as a way to smuggle covert religious meaning into texts thatare putatively secular; and third, the postmodernism sublime is such anintricate concept that it is effectively useless without extensive qualification.In brief: saying something is sublime doesn’t make it art, or bring it closer tothe artworld, or provide a judgment that can do much philosophic work orresult in much understanding. I think the sublime needs to be abandoned asan interpretive tool, except in the cases of romantic and belated romantic art.Contemporary writers who use the word can always find synonyms toexpress what they mean, and those synonyms are apt to be more telling, andmore useful, than the word sublime.
 
The sublime in science
First a word about science. Most of my own entanglements with thesublime are recorded in a book called
Six Stories from the End of  Representation: Images in Painting, Photography, Microscopy, Astronomy,Particle Physics, and Quantum Mechanics, 1980-2000.
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It concerns imagesthat are blurry, pixilated, dark, or otherwise inadequate to the objects theymean to represent. Many of the most interesting images of the periodbeginning around 1980, so I argue, are deeply concerned with theinadequacies and failures of representation. In astrophysics, for example,there are images taken at the limits of telescope’s resolution, and in electronmicroscopy there are images of individual atoms. In painting andphotography, the makers of the images took pleasure in those limits and didnot try to improve upon them. Painters produced intentionally smearedcanvases, and photographers made pictures deliberately out of focus. In thesciences, those same kinds of images were not considered to be final of complete, and whenever possible the scientists improved theirinstrumentation to achieve clearer images. (Differences of intention wasn’tmy interest; I was concerned with the formal similarities: both the scientificimages and the artworks were dark to the point of blackness, or so brightthey were washed out, or blurred beyond recognition. It didn’t matter thatthe scientists tried to meliorate those qualities, and the artists tried toarticulate them.)Elkins
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Covert religion
 
My original notion was to interpret all the images using the concept of the sublime. In the end I decided not to, because virtually none of thescientists used the concept in describing their own work. I sequestered thesublime to the two chapters dealing with fine art, and used the scientists’own words to describe what happens in their images.
The sublime is inappropriate for talk about science, for the simplereason that it is not in the vocabulary of most working scientists. I wanted tomake sure that my chapters on astronomy, physics, and microscopy could beread by specialists in those fields, without a sense that their work was beingmisrepresented, or interpreted according to some master trope they hadn’tknown. That is not to say that disciplines cannot be interpreted usinglanguage that the practitioners don’t know (economics is a good example of a discipline that claims interpretive power over many fields whosepractitioners couldn’t understand its language): it’s to say that it issometimes more important to attend to the
 particularities
of individualpractices, their languages and even their equations, rather than trying to binddisciplines together using global languages. If the purpose is to understand agiven scientific practice, there is a point when it becomes necessary to avoidinterpretive agendas that are unknown to the makers and interpreters of theimages in question.
There is a long and vexed tradition of importing concepts from art tointerpret science. I am mainly skeptical of its results. I agree with LeoSteinberg’s brilliant essay “Art and Science: Should They Be Yoked?” —inwhich he reports on a conference of scientists, all of whom wereElkins
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Covert religion

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