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Nic Seyffert

Industrialism and the Sublime


The sublime is a feeling that cannot be accurately defined to a single label or definition.
Its a very personal feeling in that way, that because its so difficult to explain. In the simplest
terms, it arouses the senses in a way that nothing else can. Many philosophers claim that its only
found in nature, and although artists attempt to recreate the sublime, they are merely capturing
the essence of the sublime, not the sublime itself. This isnt to say that nature is not or cannot be
a host of the sublime, but rather it is not the only place to find it. There isnt much opinion
between philosophers on the concept of the sublime that doesnt match this, because the
discussion on the sublime ended towards the 18th century. It does however pick up in the latter
half on the 19th century, right around the time when industrialism had picked up again.
Although many philosophers would disagree, the sublime is all around us. It can be found
in all walks and aspects of life, and can be found in day to day life of the average person.
However the sublime is not found everywhere and every day, it is there and around us only
waiting to be found. The Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms doesnt even have a definition for the
sublime, but rather a brief history of how philosophers have referenced and introduced the
sublime. When the sublime is found, it cannot be explained, which is why theres no single
definition of it. That doesnt stop anyone from trying. Burke says that the sublime is the greatest
emotion that a human being can feel, and that Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the
sublime1 Burke says a great deal more about the sublime trying to define it, but there is no
single definition, which is part of the reason its so hard to describe, because to describe
something unsubstantial, we need to triangulate it with concepts we understand. Without being
1 Korsmeyer, Carolyn. "From a Philosophical Enquiry." In Aesthetics: The Big Questions, 261.
Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

able to do so, were left looking for something without knowing what it looks like, or in this case
feels like.
Our search for the sublime is similar to the human need to learn what we dont know, which
makes the search for the sublime similar to explorations of space. Whats so intriguing about
space is that we dont understand it, and how it defies our concepts and laws of physics. The
average persons understanding of physics is that everything has an end to it. Space, or at least
our concept of space, is that it is never ending, and the human brain cannot grasp the concept of
forever. So is true of the sublime, in that we dont know the extent of the sublime, just that it
exists and that we want more knowledge of it. Burke said that, Another source of the sublime is
infinity2 Although since the sublime is not substantial as space is, the majority of the population
dont think about it, and without acknowledging its existence, we cannot find it.
The sublime waits patiently to be found while we idly fret about the little problems in our lives
and we forget to appreciate it. But its there, waiting, screaming at the deaf and waving at the
blind as we walk to work or school, and only seems to come out during our day off. Since the
sublime is merely a concept of reality, its often tossed aside because of our society. Our
worldview as Americans is that a person is not who they are, but what they do. While aimed at
the people in our society, it rings true for the sublime. People notice things that are substantial,
things that they can see, but not necessarily what they can feel, especially if we arent feeling it
in the present. But especially living in a city, the sublime surrounds us and is present, whether or
not found every day. This concept also depends on the persons outlook on life. Coming from a
small town with a 98% of people that all look the same, moving to the city changed many
2 Korsmeyer, Carolyn. "From a Philosophical Enquiry." In Aesthetics: The Big Questions, 261.
Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

outlooks for me. In the purpose of the sublime surrounding us, on my walk to work, I walk by
heavy pedestrian traffic. Due to my spiritual beliefs in that we are all connected, I find a way to
appreciate the sublime without fully experiencing it. The sublime is a fulfillment of selfprocesses that help us interpret universe, here in the scale of walking to work. For some, we find
it only in overwhelming experiences found in nature. These overwhelming experiences are a
powerful force of the sublime and are common spaces for the sublime to be found because they
force us to reevaluate our lives. The sublime in this way can be found in spaces that force us to
reevaluate our lives, including the way we think. In a walk to work, as we pretend the people
around us are nothing more than flesh occupying space that we will soon occupy, we think. And
in a moment where something in our brain clicks and we have an epiphany, we get a glimpse of
the sublime.
When the sublime is found, it cannot be taken in all at once, and demands your attention
and time. This idea goes directly against our worldview in that we look towards the present and
the future. We dont have time in our day to stop and appreciate the sublime. And our day to day
lives have an effect on our perception of the sublime. Our current situation in life can either
block us from seeing the sublime around us, or put it in front of us. We tend to focus on beauty in
the sublime and that sublime can only be found in whats beautiful but beauty is only a concept
that is connected to the sublime, but does not define it. According to William Vaughan, during
the romanticism movement, the sublime transformed, From being a rather mystical image of

supreme beauty, it became a dynamic and powerful force.3 This allows the sublime to be
viewed in more than just concept of beauty throughout the discussion of the sublime.
Since the sublime can supposedly only be found in nature, the result of that is industrialism is the
enemy of the sublime. And while its true that industrialism has destroyed things on this earth
that are sublime, it does not mean the end of the sublime, and it merely redefines it. That being
said, industrialism itself is not the sublime, but the sublime can be found through industrialism.
Because industrialism is the destruction of nature and nature is beautiful, industrialism is the
destruction of beauty. And the collapse of beauty is the destruction of the sublime. But through
its destruction, not only is it reborn, but the sublime is expressed through its destruction. Its then
reborn into the product of industrialism.
The idea of the sublime being found through industrialism came from across the Charles
River in Boston, from the North End. (Figure 1) Perhaps from a great enough distance, bridged
only by the beauty of the Charles, the ugly of industrialism is blurred and we can only appreciate
the sublime in the big picture. After all, the sublime cannot be taken in all at once, and trying to
analyze it in the moment is impossible, so looking at things up close blurs the big picture that
allows us to see the sublime. This is especially true to the Hancock Tower. (Figure 2) Up close,
its a skyscraper that reminds us of nothing but corporations and big business. From afar, we can
appreciate its beauty in what isnt there. The clouds bleed into the glass reflections, which
although dont obscure our perception and make us believe theres no building there, but rather
allow nature and industrialism to coexist, and the sublime to be found. In an even bigger picture,
3 William Vaughan. "Romanticism." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press,
accessed December
18,2014,http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T073207.http://www.oxfordartonline.com/

subscriber/article/grove/art/T082179?q=sublime&search=quick&pos=3&_start=1#firsthit

industrialism has left its mark forever on the earth. In the Graham text, he refers to Edward
Bullough, who is referencing a fog at sea. But according to Bullough, we can also view it in a
psychically distant way, one that allows us to free ourselves from this practical attitude and
contemplate the fog in and of itself, as a visual and perhaps tactile phenomenon.4 Should
humans not outlast the planet, nature will eventually defeat industrialism. However while were
still here, and still making our mark, it can be seen best on a large scale at night, from the space
station. (Figure 3) While pictures dont do it any justice, humans werent meant to understand
such a scale, and very few of us have had the opportunity to experience it, let alone understand it.
The sublime is an energy, which is why we cant see it up close, because its not substantial.
However, should we create the technological advances and allow commercial space travel, we
can send a philosopher to experience it and hopefully this aspect of the mystery shall be
interpreted for the art world.
However we can attempt to define the sublime will forever be futile until humans can understand
concepts without referencing more familiar ones, or something substantial. The search for the
sublime is never to be completed and yet never given up on. The idea of the sublime is a
paradox, in that it is everywhere and nowhere. It cannot be defined, but can also not be left
undefined, so philosophers will continue in their attempts to define it. It can be found
everywhere, including through industrialism or nature or both. It connects us in a way that
nothing else does, and when found, demands that it be the only thing you look at. And for each
person there is on the planet, there is another definition of the sublime.

4 Graham, Gordon. "The Aesthetic Attitude and the Sublime." In Philosophy of the
Arts an Introduction to Aesthetics, 20. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 1997.

(Figure 1)

(Figure 2)

(Figure 3)

Sources:
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. "From a Philosophical Enquiry." In Aesthetics: The Big
Questions, 261. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
Graham, Gordon. "The Aesthetic Attitude and the Sublime." In Philosophy of the Arts
an Introduction to Aesthetics, 20. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 1997.
William Vaughan. "Romanticism." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December
18,2014,http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T073207.http://www.oxfordartonline.com/

subscriber/article/grove/art/T082179?q=sublime&search=quick&pos=3&_start=1#firsthit

Images:

https://twitter.com/Astro_Alex/status/534082468706799617
http://www.terragalleria.com/america/massachusetts/boston/picture.usma50726.html
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/56/John_Hancock_Tower.jpg