How important to humans is control over nature? It is certainly a very modern preoccupation, and the need for control seems to be directly proportionate to the rate at which technology advances. What does this control do for us, and what happens when we lose it?
It would seem that some of us are quite content. In an article about the response to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull, a columnist for The Economist argued that it is necessary every once in a while for humans to feel displacement (physical or otherwise). It gives us a chance to reflect on which elements of nature we can control, and which we can merely respond to. This insignificant volcano, it seems, made us feel temporarily powerless, unable to get our planes in the air, stocks on the shelves, and foreign flowers in their bouquets. According to the article, it is a sublime experience, this feeling of “overpowering nature, as seen from a place of safety.” In part, the article concluded, the pleasure of the sublime is in denying how much we as humans can do – and need to do:
When people talk about the charms of powerlessness in the face of nature, part of what they are saying is that they don’t want to be bothered with facing up to what humans can do, and to what they might have at risk. The business of looking after a planet requires being bothered in advance—and not just about little matters like volcanoes.
I knew, as soon as I read the word “sublime,” that this one was just too good to let pass me by. One of the underlying themes of my master’s thesis was the idea of the sublime, and how it contributed to the exact same contemplation of powerfulness/powerlessness that characterizes our reaction to Eyjafjallajokull. In contrast to the article referenced above, however, I would argue that the only thing better than experiencing the sublime from a position of powerlessness (i.e. the natural sublime) is to experience the sublime knowing that it was created by man. (And I say “man” with full awareness of the implications on gender. In fact, the majority of writing about the sublime – especially when writing about it was at its height, in the nineteenth century – assumes that it is a feeling that can’t even be experienced by women, let alone created by them. Women are far more interested in the picturesque, of course, quaint juxtapositions with contrast and variety. The sheer terror and awe of the sublime is just too much. And only men, of course, would have the necessary combination of scientific and artistic knowledge to really appreciate the sublime. A little gendered twist for you, there. Always fun.)
My MA thesis was largely about tourism, and the unique way in which tourists experience landscapes. Tourists’ ability to see places from an outsider’s perspective makes them unusually well-positioned to experience the sublime, since the sublime is generally considered to be something unexpected, and even unsettling. This is exactly the displacement of which the article speaks, and it is a powerful experience all on its own.
Of course, I was writing in my thesis about physical tourism (the transcontinental railway kind, to be specific), but it occurs to me that there are other kinds of tourists, if we characterize “tourism” as an escape from routine, a separation between work and leisure, between the everyday and the exceptional. One does not need to venture out of one’s physical space in order to feel separated in this way. What else, apart from physical dislocation, has the power to make us feel unsettled, awed, even left behind, like a tourist who doesn’t understand the ways of the locals?
A “sublime” contrast can be effected in time and space by rapid, visual progress. I might even argue that much of the enjoyment of technology is in the fear or excitement associated with the new and unknown. Consider all the fear about railways when they were first built. People worried that going at speeds of over five miles per hour might kill them. Just the speed itself, let alone the whir of passing landscapes, contributed to an awed terror. Fear is central to the idea of the sublime, and we are certainly afraid of many technologically-driven things today, from climate change to too many video games.
My theory is underscored by the best book I read in 2008, The American Technological Sublime, by David Nye, a professor of American History. Nye argues that how we experience the sublime changes as technology progresses, and new societal expectations need different stimuli to produce the terror, awe, and wonder associated with the “sublime.” The particular bent toward technology also has an American flavour, in line with the American exceptionalist idea that impressive public architecture was a distinctly American thing.
As the argument goes, it is not enough anymore to behold the view from a mountain; now we have to canyon swing from it. And it’s even better to bungee jump from a landmark like the Golden Gate Bridge, because that allows us to appreciate the added marvel of human engineering. A large part of the appeal is in knowing that chaotic nature has been tamed and made orderly, even more able to be understood, by technology.
The rapid rate of change that we see today is sublime because it is in effect a double defeat of nature. Things like the Internet and air travel allow us to alter the relationship between time and distance, while the rate of change produces a feeling of time itself speeding up, with progress outstripping what we have come to expect as “natural.” Anyone who awoke from a 200-year slumber into 2010 would no doubt find the world radically altered, both in present capability and in the pace of change.
It makes me wonder at what point we cede control over the sublime, especially when it is a sensation of our own making. The feelings of displacement and of being a tourist in one’s own time that I mentioned earlier are the side effects of rapid progress, and leave many feeling out of control. And it isn’t really charming, like “powerlessness in the face of nature,” because it isn’t natural, unless we consider the gradual and ever-increasing domination over nature by humans an inevitability.
The irony is that there is a point at which our love of control turns into a lack of control, and our displacement felt in multiple ways. Perhaps this is Nature reminding us of the folly of our own desires. Sublime indeed.