By Nikolai Wansart
The first image that comes up when plugging “sublime” into the Wikimedia Commons search bar is a panoramic view of the Gorges du Tarn, Départment Lozère, southern France, taken from the Point Sublime. The local tourist office asserts the superior scenic quality of this view: “no doubt it is ‘Sublime’.” Only, what does sublime mean? The gorge seems sublime, but why? If we keep reading the office’s description, we learn that the gorge is “grand” and offers a “breathtaking scenic picture”.
While the former attribution might be one of the “kitsch hyperboles” poet David Baker warns the adjective sublime has become, breathtaking offers a concise definition of sublime, or the sublime: the feeling of something evoking an impression that takes your breath away because it leads the mind out of the comprehensibility of the finite towards the infinite – think comedian Eric Wareheim’s pondering of the ultimate fate of the universe which illustrates the overwhelming aspect of an experience of the sublime.
Over time, the sublime had many facets across the humanities: it started as uplifting effect of rhetoric excellence after Longinos’s treatise “On the Sublime”, Edmund Burke found the sublime utterly debilitating, but Kant considered it the spark that ignites the potency of human reason and launches it towards infinity. In the 19th century, the sublime became key to Romantic aesthetics, visualized in paintings of moonlit ruins and uncharted natural splendor.
As the example of the Gorges du Tarn Tourist Office shows, this Romantic sublime is still deeply etched into Western aesthetics. By the end of the 20th century, a postmodern sublime of the “technological incommensurability of instruments and ends” and “bad infinites” that require “management,” which cultural historian Jonathan Bordo references, had arisen: our subjective experiences have become entangled in technological, ecological, and socioeconomic interdependencies.
This idea becomes clearer if we take some time to contrast it with the Romantics’ sublime, which briefly takes us back to France. In the opening lines of his poem “Mont Blanc”, Percy Bysshe Shelley praises the Mont Blanc massif as a representative of “the everlasting universe of things” that “flows through the mind” and puts the Romantic beholder into a “trance sublime”. Shelley draws a line between the systems of human experiences and the sublimity that rests in nature, waiting to be tapped by a well-tuned Romantic soul. But today, no such boundary exists. There is no separate, self-sufficient, and self-creating (autopoietic) beyond that puts us in sublime trances. We are an integral part of this system, and this system is an integral part of our lives and collective fate.
Today, this trance is no longer induced by a shiver of Romantic weltschmerz. It is the opposite; it is a shiver of fears. It is the fear of ecological disaster that, once set into motion, will relentlessly extinguish life as we know it; it is the fear of being economically incapacitated by a capital market that can virtually autonomously decide the values of our very homes; it is a fear of missing out exacerbated by overwhelming and omnipresent social media utopias.
But in a world in which traveling to the latest Instagram trend location has also become an ecological kamikaze ride, all these fears coincide in a dreadful Gordian knot. There is no everlasting universe of things that exists as a system separate from the human condition. We are one, and we are complicated, and we somehow must deal with being fully immersed in this sublime system.
While in Shelley’s idea we are facing an autopoietic, sublime other, the postmodern sublime of our system arises out of its sympoietic characteristics. That is, we are fully integrated into a complex system of simultaneous interdependencies. The sympoietic logic of this sublime arises from what environmental scholar Beth Dempster explains as a “collectively-producing [system] that [does] not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries.” We live in a system in which all human and non-human entities create our situation simultaneously and with unprecedented speed. We can no longer choose to probe the sublimity of another system, as the Romantics did, but we must navigate the breathtaking world of the sympoietic sublime.
Of course, there are different possible outcomes of this daunting task, and literary scholar Jeffrey L. Bilbro’s postmodern analysis of what I here call the sympoietic sublime concludes that it “leads to paralysis.” Metamodernism, having found its way into this discourse, has developed its very own response to the postmodern sympoietic sublime, and it refuses to be paralyzed by it. Instead, I argue, it overcomes this paralysis and promotes action, however imperfect it may be, to disarm the looming sublime. To illustrate this, let us examine metamodernism, postmodernism, and their relationship to the sublime in turn.
Metamodernism, as Vermeulen and van den Akker argue, oscillates dynamically “between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, […] empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation.” This alone leaves us with two crucial conclusions for a metamodern response to the postmodern sublime: First, it requires both modernist and postmodernist predispositions, and, second, it plays out in a field of tension between these poles; it is dynamic. The modernist pole of this dynamic – enthusiasm, empathy, unity, totality – stands opposite the postmodern one with its elements of irony, apathy, plurality, and fragmentation.
Postmodernism and its heirloom practices like post-structural analysis have provided us with the complex tools needed to conceptualize this sympoietic system. However, they have also worn, in Ag Apolloni’s words, a “rational proof vest,” hiding behind a veil of irony to keep the inevitable grasp of sympoietic overloads at bay. In many ways, they tried to artificially uphold Shelley’s distinction between the sublime other and the subject. On the other hand, a metamodern response to the sublime is interrelational. It ventures out from behind this veil of irony and seeks to process the sublime by daring to partake in the joint creation of reality, the sympoiesis, that it faces and is a part of.
As such, it mirrors the sympoietic qualities of the sublime that it seeks to respond to, and provides a more fitting tool for this task. The metamodern response shares its qualities with other recent developments, e.g. in affect studies. “Affect,” Brian Massumi asserts, “as the openness to being affected, is directly relational” – just like metamodernism. And just as the openness of affect is “not simply passive availability,” but also “active pressure towards taking form,” the metamodern response to the sublime is an open-ended seizing of agency, and inherently affective.
Over the past years, metamodern responses to the sublime have begun to pervade our cultural practices. They stand vis-à-vis a sympoietic sublime reality whose complexity has been realized but never embraced by postmodernism. A look at literature can exemplify this. In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a 33-year-old novelist has been diagnosed with a potentially terminal heart condition. Wandering around New York City, he is obsessed with the possibility of jointly creating reality – objects, meanings, or relationships – in shared experiences with his relations.
He imagines this practice as “coconstruction”, strikingly an almost literal translation of sympoiesis. While coconstructing a diorama with his student he suddenly feels an intuition of spatial and temporal collapse or, paradoxically, an overwhelming sense of its sudden integration, as when a Ugandan warlord appears via YouTube in an undocumented Salvadorean child’s Brooklyn-based dream of a future wrecked by dramatically changing weather patterns and an imperial juridical system that dooms him to statelessness.
It is as though the protagonist of the novel experiences the same sublimity that Shelley saw in the imposing might of the Mont Blanc massif or an infinite starry sky. But now the entity of breathtaking sublimity is the sympoietic muddled reality without “self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries.” As it were, it is a moment in which he comes to realize that Shelley’s wall has crumbled, and that what Shelley had taken to be a sublime beyond has integrated itself into his reality – and vice-versa. The time has come for him to make the choice between navigating this sublimity in a metamodern way, strive for modernist utopias, or draw up the postmodern veil.
By accepting but not surrendering to this task, he overcomes Burkean stasis, Romantic transfigured rapture, and postmodern paralysis: he resorts to taking local action to alleviate the oppressive situation this sublime has created for his young student: “I asked him to look at me and then promised him in two languages the only thing I could: he had nothing to fear from Joseph Kony.” His response to the sublime is not paralysis but action, imperfect as it may be, to bring about some sense of healing. It is not modernist empathy, it is not postmodern apathy, but it is the metamodern dynamic that provides the momentum for navigating the sympoietic sublime and endows him with an open-ended agency.
Another example of this can be found in Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2016), where one of the protagonists, Samuel, is asked to write a biography of his mother, who has risen to infamy after attacking the Republican presidential candidate that year. This unearths a childhood trauma of his mother leaving the family in the 1980s. Eventually, he finds himself unable to grasp or isolate any particulars of this personal catastrophe brought about by a sublime plethora of political, social and transtemporal – read: sympoietic – dependencies that are too hard to navigate. “Any one explanation seemed too easy, too trivial,” we read, and eventually he resorts to taking action: “So instead of looking for answers, he’d begun simply writing her story, thinking that if he could see the world the way she saw it, maybe he’d achieve something greater than mere answers: Maybe he’d achieve understanding, empathy, forgiveness.”
Samuel has let go of the modernist self-referential pondering of what is keeping him bogged down in the belief that a fixed answer would lead to the blissful status quo ante of his childhood. But he has also come to terms with the fact that no postmodern relativization can distill a singular answer for him either. He must tackle the knot of reasons for his mother’s leaving in all its sympoietic sublimity by jumping right into it. Samuel embraces his agency as active part of the sympoietic system. This illustrates the metamodern hope that if the tension that is created by the sublime is seized for agency, paralysis can be overcome in the space between impeding modernist desire and the pseudo-redemptive relativist desert of postmodernism.
These literary examples of metamodernist practices reflect reality in a sympoietic world that we experience on an everyday basis. Over the past twenty years, we have witnessed a new wave of protests against such strands of the sympoietically sublime as the global capital market with Occupy Wall Street in 2011, a systemically embedded racism with the BLM protests or global warming with the Fridays for Future movement. As the postmodern era of exploring, deconstructing, and relativizing is trickling out, we have begun to seize a new metamodern agency within the sympoietically sublime entanglements in whose midst we exist. And this agency is driven by postmodern complexity and the modernist impulse to, as historian and political theorist Roger Griffin argues, “restore a sense of […] order and purpose to the contemporary world” alike.
Just as the protest movements of the 1960s revolted against a socio-politically modernist world, these new protests try to move on from the awareness of sympoietic sublimity that the practices of postmodernism have unearthed but left uncontended. The generation of these new protests is decidedly metamodern in tackling the issues of its time: it conjoins an awareness of the modernist potential of scientific and technological progresses unprecedented in human history, and an awareness of the multitude of options that postmodernism has established. And with an awareness of the sympoietic world it was nurtured in, playing the metamodern game in between these poles to find subsistence and survival is a competence that this generation is just discovering for itself.
Nikolai Wansart holds a master’s degree in English Studies. His research interests lie at the intersection of aesthetics, politics, and cultural practice. He has previously published and presented research on the sublime in the arts in North America. He works at the University of Cologne.
Edited by Maria Wiegel
Featured Image: Entering Sublimity, Oregon, 2002. Wikimedia Commons.