Eyjafjallajökull and the subliminal sublime

Posted by Ian on May 24, 2010 in blog | No Comments

Just a few weeks ago, an intrepid photographer embarked on a valiant mission – to counter the overwhelming number of ‘mediocre pictures of that volcano in Iceland that no one can pronounce the name of’. For a media that seems obsessed with stories of immense cataclysm and catastrophe, it does seem surprising that most of the images produced are not meant as more than factual documentation.

Sean Stiegemeier‘s endeavour to capture (or perhaps create) a compelling image of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull valcano in Iceland illustrates just how powerful the aesthetics of the sublime can be in generating affective images of our world and our place within it. (It also is an amazing demonstration of the Dynamic Perception Timelapse Dolly.)

The sublime, simply put, is the aesthetic of things which compel us and have the power to destroy us. It is an assertion of the place of humanity within the broader forces of the world. In European Romantic painting, the sublime is often represented by paintings of immense landscapes with tiny depictions of people dwarfed by the land and the sky’s scale. In these paintings, it is the landscapes (and skyscapes) which are the central subjects, and humanity is left to be merely one component of the wider ecology of forces at play in the world.

The philosopher Edmund Burke in 1757 wrote on the fundamental difference between beauty and the sublime – noting that beauty is what is well-formed or pleasing to the eye whereas the sublime is that which compels us with its ability to destroy us. For Burke, the sublime was intimately tied up with terror, astonishment and admiration. Anyone who has had the experience of watching, first hand, an immense storm come in from the sea to the coast or view a tornado touch down will have a sense of the aesthetic and affective impact that Burke was exploring. Romantic painters of the 18th and 19th centuries were very skilled in evoking these affective responses through their work, and at times I wonder whether there is a similar skill at play today in the curation and design of news media – though admittedly perhaps without the intention of creating a visual trace of this design.

This contemporary aesthetic of the sublime in the media is perhaps somewhat sinister, in that it is not immediately visible. It is somewhat obfuscated, and perhaps intentionally. The overwhelming number of stories designed to compel readers and impress upon them the range of things at play in the world prepared to destroy them seem in a strange way Romantic and sublime. There are a lot of discussions of the use of the concept of ‘terror’ by governments and news media to manipulate and influence people, and given the evident dangerous impact of this discourse upon civil liberties and social cohesion, the possibility of a non-visual, subliminal sublime aesthetic at work becomes all the more compelling and sinister.

Though we may want to assert the radical difference between human-made terror through industrial or inter-personal or inter-group means and terror from the natural world, disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill point to a blurring of the boundaries between an assumed duality of natural and human-made worlds. The firm grounds upon which many have identified the bounds of human agency and the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the world are becoming increasingly slippery. Paralleling the rise in stories of terror are ethics of ecology and human engagement in the world. These ethical imperatives, irrespective of moral placement reveal the dominant subliminal sublime aesthetic at play in our media across all sections of the newspaper.

With this in mind, it is lucky that we have creators such as Stiegemeier who through their artistic skill can evoke these same affective and aesthetic relationships. These creators can compel us both to ponder our place in the world but also to consider what may be an absence in the media of such reflexive visualisations of aesthetic strategies – of the subliminal sublime.


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