Edmund Burke wrote that “whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime.” But instead of a category of aesthetics, in contemporary English the word is mainly used by the pretentious to flatter one another. It has thus lost much of the nuance that originated in Burke’s treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful, in favor of yet another superlative for “good”.
Strictly speaking, something is sublime if it uses the infinite or incalculable to create an experience of beauty incorporating fear or overwhelming. For example, I reserve sublime to describe my first visit to the Niagara Falls, whose dramatic horseshoe of roaring waters transfixed me in a torrent of terror and tranquility.
Yet sublime does not have to refer to natural wonders or artistry. Indeed, many social phenomena can be sublime. Slavoj Žižek once argued that ideology related to the sublime, due to an influence over social reality that defied perception. Specifically, he claims ideologies require a “sublime object” that carries an irreproachable greatness, be it God, the King or the proletariat.
The general idea comes from Kant, who wrote that the sublime is a “formless object” representing our intrinsic inability to perceive vastness or complexity, thus elevating “nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” In confronting such objects, we at once feel displeasure “arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” and a “simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense…”.
In ideological space, this inadequacy of imagination parallels the subject’s inability to articulate the nature of their deepest political commitments, which in turn creates a similar “awakened pleasure” in the knowledge that their cause defies a complete description.
In this sense, there is something strangely sublime surrounding the recent brutal interfaces between state and citizen in New York, Mexico, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. To appreciate the scope and complexity behind these patterns of violence and protest is literally impossible. So out of necessity, our inadequate media elevates that which is beyond our reach to a coherent presentation of ideas. Indeed, it seems as if the news and social media act as a magnifying glass, concentrating public attention onto stochastically occurring tragedies until a spark creates ignition, giving producers the cue for the “national conversation” graphic along the lower third.
There are those that decry the news for being guilty of exploiting “sensationalism,” but this is a mistake. What is being constantly exploited is precisely our craving for the sublime. Indeed, the grotesque scenes of protest that play across our screens, straining eyes that alternate from face to crowd to face, are genuine objects of beauty. And this in turn explains why as a society we have never been more at peace, but also never more in terror. Pleasurable, exalted terror.