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Gisele Wojciechowska

 

BA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography, year 2

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In my essay I will discuss the concept of ‘the technological sublime’ with reference to the work of an American photographer David Maisel.

 

The notion of the sublime goes back a long way. It stems from the Latin ‘sublimis,’ which – when used literally – means ‘high up in the air,’ and more figuratively means ‘lofty’ or ‘grand.’

 

One of the oldest essays ever written on the subject On the Sublime dates back to the beginning of our calendar. Its author is unknown, but is conventionally referred to as Longinus or Pseudo-Longinus.

 It is regarded as a classic work on aesthetics and the effects of good writing. The treatise highlights examples of good and bad writing from the previous millennium, focusing particularly on what may lead to the sublime.

Using a number of quotes from classical literature, the author discusses fortunate and less fortunate examples of the sublime. For one, the sublime must address grand and important subjects and be associated with powerful emotions. For pseudo-Longinus, the sublime landscape even touches upon the divine. Nature “has implanted in our souls an unconquerable passion for all that is great and for all that is more divine than ourselves” (Longinus 1965, 146).

 

The sublime is an aesthetic concept of ‘the exalted,’ of beauty that is grand and dangerous. Through 17th and 18th century European intellectual tradition, the sublime became intimately associated with nature. 

In 1756 Edmund Burke wrote a book called Philosophical Enquiry into Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which became the most influential work on the subject.

In his book Burke writes about an absolute contrast between the beautiful, which inspired feelings of tenderness and affection, and the sublime, which grew out of an ecstasy of terror that filled the mind completely. In his theory the encounter with a sublime object was a healthy shock, a temporary dislocation of sensibilities that forced the observer into mental action. To seek out the sublime was not to seek the irrational but rather to seek the awakening of sensibilities to an inner power.

As David Nye has documented in great detail in his book, American Technological Sublime (1994), Americans initially embraced the technological sublime with as much enthusiasm as they had embraced the natural sublime. The admiration of the natural sublime, as it might be experienced in the Grand Canyon, was replaced by the sublime of the factory, the sublime of aviation, the sublime of auto-mobility, the sublime of war machinery, and the sublime of the computer (Nye 1994).

According to David Nye, our enthusiasm for the technological sublime has been transformed into fear in the course of the twentieth century. This is also why it is often said, in relation to such sublime technologies, that we ‘shouldn’t play God.’ At the same time, twenty-first century man has been denied the choice to not be technological. 

We have created technological environments and structures beyond which we cannot survive. The idea that we could return to nature and natural religion is an unworldly illusion. 

In 20th century many photographers became interested in capturing the effects of environmental degradation.

 

In the course of the most recent two decades, many landscape photographers focused their work on documenting environmental damage, waste, pollution and over-industrialization of the land. 

Their works have been labelled sublime, surreal, and even beautiful.

Many of these photographers aim to raise awareness of environmental issues; their great work became an advocacy for our dying planet.

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