Hyperseperation: The Sublimity of Images as Mechanisms of Deferral

Sophia Oppel

Our means of documenting and communicating the state of the Anthropocene are rendered inadequate in unprecedented times. When it comes to communicating the scope and scale of catastrophe, our aesthetic vocabulary is bound up in sublimity, thus promoting a false consciousness that foregrounds human reason and individualized consumption. Our ways of seeing and understanding our relationship to the non-human are framed by mechanisms which reaffirm modernist logic. Western modernity is at fault for climate crisis, as it has entrenched a cultural imaginary that relies on the fundamental separation of nature and culture; this is predicated on a mastery over nature. This text will trace the lineage of the modernist project to the aesthetics of the Sublime, which are then taken for granted in our contemporary visual vocabulary, which is predicated on the technological, linguistic and imagistic frame as a distancing mechanism.  Language, the sign, and the Sublime image all serve as tools of deferral, distraction and postponement in relation to climate disaster. As more sectors of the global population are affected by impacts of global capitalism, it is worth asking, who do these signifiers reassure, and at whose expense?

In his book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that the tenants of Western modernity are at fault for the dominant assumptions that have caused our own derangement and climate crisis. Among these assumptions are: the expectation of the regularity of the elements, the belief in a worldview that places the human at the center as the master of all things, and a desire for distinct entities, especially when it comes to the separation of “man” and “nature.” These central tenants of “modern man” are borne out in both our linguistic systems and our cultural landscape, most notably in the literary art’s inability to consider global warming, and the West’s cultural imaginary, which is largely tied up in capitalist rhetoric. Ghosh notes that during the period of Western modernity, a transition occurred in the late 19th century imagination, wherein the non-human world shifted from evoking terror, to being “regarded as moderate and orderly” (Chapter 12, 3:01).

This worldview relies on the binary separation of human and nature, a fundamental narrative of Western Humanist thought. In a text considering cognitive connectivity, Deborah Bird Rose notes that “Western thought works with numerous dualisms that reinforce each other, with the overall effect (not necessarily intention) of naturalizing patterns that are in fact imposed by human intellect” (Rose 494). Rose refers to this fundamental Western assumption as hyperseparation, which is notably present in our linguistic systems, effectively enclosing all beings into discrete entities, leaving little space for porous relationality and malleability. In part 3 of his book, Ghosh argues that freedom, a central tenant of the modern, individualized subject, is tied to the assumption that humans have the agency to remove ourselves from nature. The modernist myth also reinforces Cartesian mind/body dualisms, producing the illusion that “human beings have freed themselves from their material circumstances... decoupled from a body” (Part 3 Chapter 9, 28mins). 

This bundle of Modernist myths finds its resting place in Kant’s “Sublime,” which ultimately serves to concretize the mastery of human reason, and sets the groundwork for the touristic images of nature that we see today. By definition, Kant’s Sublime is not something that belongs to an object or phenomenon in-of-itself, but rather takes the form of an experience in the mind of a rational subject; “the Sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of the senses” (Kant 81). The Kantian Sublime recognizes the terror and awe that the power and magnitude of nature can invoke. The vastness of natural phenomena can serve both to boggle the human imagination, and remind the viewer of the relative insignificance and limits of their own body (Ray 9). Yet despite the “negative pleasure” and fear that an encounter with the Sublime may conjure up, “the imagination is rescued from its pain and distress by the power of reason…among the mind’s own powers is one that is supersensible and superior to nature” (9) states Gene Ray, in his text on Adorno, Lyotard and the Sublime.

Vassia Atanassova. “Coin operated binoculars” Tower Optical Company, photographed in Utah during April 2005. 

Ray goes on to note that although the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake was the most catastrophic natural disaster of Kant’s time it is remarkably unnamed in the Critique of Judgment (Ray 10). According to Ray’s reading, Kant “needed to domesticate those eruptions of Sublime nature, of which the Lisbon earthquake was exemplary in his own century, in order to neutralize the threat they posed to a myth of progress grounded in natural law and a purported human nature” (Ray 11). Ray cites Kant’s repression (negative representation) of the Lisbon earthquake in his Critique of Judgment as a desire to silence pessimism and overlook anxiety; a deferral. “The ideological function of the aesthetic category of the Sublime within Kant’s critical system is anxiously bound up with the deep metaphysical optimism” (Ray 10). In this way, the negative presentation of the Sublime serves only to further reaffirm the politics of the Sublime, despite the seeming inversion that the phrase would imply. I would argue that contemporary depictions of the Sublime have, embedded within them, the same kind of negative representation or deferral that was embedded within Kant’s Analytic of the Sublime itself, and thus serve to depoliticize and defer environmental catastrophe. We cannot afford an aesthetics of deferral and distance now; however, most images we are confronted with online serve to do just this.

These modernist myths – what Rose refers to as “root metaphors” are deeply embedded not only our ways of understanding the current moment, but also our ways of imagining a future. Our cultural imaginary is linked to techno-capitalism, Ghosh argues. We are all complicit to the extent that our imaginaries have been colonized by global capital, a system that is predicated on the mastery over, and disavowal of, the non-human world.

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination. Culture generates desires: the vehicles and appliances, for certain kinds of gardens and dwellings that are among the principle drivers of the carbon economy. A speedy convertible.... Excites us because it evokes an image of a road arrowing through a pristine landscape. We think of freedom...James Dean and Peter Fonda...Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov” (Chapter 4, 1:30).

Something has gone wrong with our dominant paradigm, argues Ghosh in the final chapter of The Great Derangement; we are unable to recognize our own mistakes, our desires for short- term solutions, as we careen wildly towards collapse. If our desires are bound up in colonial capture and global capital, how can we in the West radically shift our structures of wanting in a way that is insidious enough to trick us into new ways of being?

The central tenants of the modern Sublime, namely the centrality of human reason as the faculty which transcends all, is deeply entrenched in our communicative means. Humanist, Enlightenment thought, Ghosh argues in Chapter 18 of his book, stamped out the possibility of living outside language. This desire for encapsulation seems deeply intertwined with the colonial desire for mastery over a supposedly moderate, retractable nature. Ghosh also notes the disappearance of images in textual material during the 19th and 20th century, narrowing the scope of our communicative mediums. Ghosh argues the Anthropocene cannot be thought through language. He notes the reappearance of images in our communicative media in the postmodern and contemporary era as an indication of the resurgence of non-linguistic communicative systems in order to address the Anthropocene. While Ghosh appears to favor images over language as a more direct means of considering the state of our planet, I would argue that images are capable of the same deferral as linguistic systems, as they too are built on a flawed cultural imaginary. ‘The Sign,’ observes Derrida, ‘is deferred presence” (Bracken 4). The postponement evident in both linguistic and imagistic signification serves to delay action and maintain the status quo of extractive geopolitics. Ray outlines the ways in which Lyotard positions the entire aesthetic project of modernity as an investigation of the effects of the Sublime (3). If the Sublime is, by definition, an aesthetic experience that reaffirms the power of human reason while seeing nature at a distance, what implications does this have on the aesthetic lineage of Post-Modernism?  The violence of images reaffirms the dominant cultural imaginary. Images cannot do more than language if they continue to communicate at a distance, and reinforce a modernist, Kantian Sublime that asserts the mastery of human logic.

Dong-kyu, Kim, When you see the amazing sight, 2013, based on Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Oil on Canvas

Digitized image culture in general relies on the politics of the Sublime, reifies the Sublime and thus the economies of capture and touristic desire.In our networked image-based economy, images of “natural” disaster become hyper-circulated currency that implicitly entrench a modernist worldview. These mediated images serve as the closet thing the urban, networked subject will have to a Sublime encounter. In his essay on the aesthetics and implications of wildfire imagery, T.J. Demos notes “In freezing life, images are also part of the problem. They are a salvage paradigm, compensatory, fetishistic, taxidermical, a last-ditch effort to deny the undeniable, to restore hope in hopelessness” (Demos 5). Much like Kant’s desire to domesticate the Lisbon Earthquake, Demos argues that our contemporary images-fetishism serve to defer action, another kind of negative presentation.

Simultaneously, our mediated encounter with the Sublime through news and social media continue to uphold human exceptionalism and a fundamental separation from the non-human.
“It’s the very fantasy of separation, between the security of being here and not there, that helps seal that conviction, enhancing the power of media narratives, government propaganda, industry lobbying, with burning aesthetics. We confront the visual culture of human exceptionalism, reassuring even in the face of the most devastating evidence of devastation” (Demos 5). The contemporary Sublime is experienced through the consumption of images from a safe distance, and, indicates an ability to defer environmental threats. This experience follows a long trajectory of privilege and taste. The distinct separation between “there” and “not there” bears a striking resemblance to the difference between “English nobles and bourgeoisie travelers on the Grand Tour” regarding the Alps, and the “Swiss peasants for whom such natural features are a despised daily danger” (Ray 7). Gene Ray goes on to state: “Kant would acknowledge that the Sublime presupposes the possession of a certain ‘culture’… thus the Sublime is a more exclusive taste—a more expensive distinction” (7). Ray goes on to note the ties the aesthetic tradition of the Sublime had to British imperialism, nationalism and the acquisition of cultural goods. If the perception of subliminality was historically tied to touristic disinterest, elite taste and colonial capture, it is clear who the digital iteration of the Sublime will ultimately serve.

In Hito Steyerl’s Essay “In Free Fall,” Steyerl follows the colonial trajectory of linear perspective, and posits that the vertical perspective (of the drone, the satellite) is the next step in dominant power relations. Linear perspective is predicated on a stable observer and a stable horizon in order to determine positionality and navigation. Much like the observer of Kant’s Sublime, or the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, the body, located at the epicenter of linear perspective, is assumed to be “scientific, and objective” (4). This assumption reaffirms the individualized rationality and logic of a specific kind of body, while universalizing the viewer under supposedly “objective laws of representation” (5) as seen by the subject. Steyerl notes that linear perspective (the singular perspective associated with colonial capture and nautical travel) has been superseded by multiplicitous perspectival windows (3). Yet, despite the multiplicity of potential vanishing points, lenses, and sight-lines, mass-distributed contemporary images of the planet still regularly serve to reaffirm modernist narratives.

Many of the aerial views…do not actually portray a stable ground. Instead, they create a supposition that it exists in the first place. Retroactively, this virtual ground creates a perspective of overview and surveillance for a distanced, superior spectator safely floating up in the air. Just as linear perspective established an imaginary, stable observer and horizon, so does the perspective from above establish an imaginary floating observer and an imaginary stable ground (Steyerl 8). 

If we take Google Maps and Google Earth as an example, we see the entire globe instrumentalized as a vehicle of entertainment and human-centric navigation. Ultimately, these images perpetuate a false consciousness in their distant, enclosed quality. The narrative of nature they espouse reassures us. “New technologies have enabled the detached observant gaze to become ever more inclusive and all-knowing (Steyerl 8). The aerial view of our planet which digital subjects have become used to serves as the ultimate affirmation of human mastery over the natural. Enter Google Earth, and see the entire globe unfold neatly in front of you; see its texture-mapped surface cascade across your screen at the click of a button. What could reassure us more of the transcendent capacity of human reason than holding our planet in the palm of our hands?

Screenshot, https://earth.google.com/web/

At stake here too is the banal flattening that occurs in the constant capturing of the non-human. The placid stasis of many mass-circulated images of nature work in capital’s favor by reaffirming its status as a resource without agency. “The world has become an enormous photographic archive thanks to technologies like Google Earth, the old, the deep, and the fearful have increasingly fewer places to hide” states Park Chan-Kyong, in a contemporary re-reading of the Sublime (3). However, the “deep and fearful” have not vanished, they have simply been rendered moderate, or erased entirely, by the flattening lens of the Google satellite. In a text on the digital Sublime and video games for the Tate, Eugénie Shinkle argues that the contemporary experience of the “negative pleasure” of the Sublime we come across digitally is a combination of boredom and anxiety (2). Given the complete inundation of images in a digital economy based on the cultural value of visuality, the Sublime becomes increasingly banal. We see this exemplified on social media, as images come to be more real than actual experience. The account @insta_repeat compiles these seemingly identical touristic images, often featuring linear perspective views of seemingly Sublime landscapes. Despite not always picturing the human behind the lens, these images still serve as affirmations of human agency, as the landscapes pictured are secondary to the cultural capital they will help the photographer acrew.

Screenshot. “@insta_repeat” Instagram https://www.instagram.com/insta_repeat/

In considering images of the contemporary Sublime, it is worth asking from whose perspective they are taken, and whose gaze they ultimately serve. In an apt and incisive criticism of Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Jayne Wilkinson notes the touristic aestheticization Burtynsky’s photographic works are guilty of. Burtynsky’s photographic oeuvre relies on the Sublime qualities of late-capitalist extraction, and deploys a single-point, vertical perspective as a mechanism of stabilization. Wilkinson describes the reaffirming effect Burtynsky’s work has on the viewer: “When the horizon appears near the top of the frame, one has the feeling of being in control of the landscape before them, the single-point perspective rendering flat surfaces with illusionistic depth.” In freezing extractive industry at a distance, Burtynsky reasserts a sense of control over the landscape, and renders the viewer disinterested. Additionally, the highly formal, visually pleasing quality of the highly formal, visually pleasing quality of Burtynsky’s work serves to sooth the viewer, rendering images of planetary devastation much more palatable. Many of Burtynsky’s images serve both to depoliticize and normalize environmental precarity, all while rendering those most vulnerable to catastrophe a part of the landscape. Wilkinson makes note of the human figures in Burtynsky’s Makoko #2, Lagos, Nigeria, noting the way they are distinctly othered at their own expense—rendered the people “over there” so that those “not there” do not need to be implicated.

Edward Burtynsky, Makoko #2, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016. Pigment inkjet print, 1.48 x 1.98 m. 

For people living at the waterline, like the inhabitants of the world’s largest floating city, vulnerability to sea levels rising and other climate-related disasters is a constant reality. My position, as viewer, was transposed with the artist’s flying camera and it was a startling moment of recognition—to be held accountable by the subjects of a photograph in this way, subjects who were never meant to be seen as subjects. The inequalities embedded in aerial photography became visible to me, obvious (Wilkinson).

Burtynsky’s piece serves the purpose of revealing who the sublimity of these images really serves: privileged viewers, able to ally themselves with the surveillant and militaristic capacities of the drone as a mechanism of distance. Shown within the institutional lens, the images become academic objects of fascination, rather than calls to action, and all the while monetarily profiting the singular body of the artist. It is worth noting the contradictions of an image-making practice that supposedly critiques capitalist extraction using communities who are most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming as a raw material from whom to extract wealth and cultural capital.

As a counterpoint to the primacy of human reason, we must consider assemblage-thinking as a means of troubling the Kantian analytic. In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett makes a case for material agency as a rubric to counter human exceptionalism. Bennett argues that all entities, be they organic forces, objects or living beings, have a vibrancy and an agency. These entities form assemblages, working in varying states of relationality with one another. All events, argues Bennett, are constituted by an assemblage of forces at once, and each assemblage has a propensity for agency. There are infinite new pairings and constellations that human and non-human entities can take to form these assemblages.  In thinking of humans as the only beings with power and agency, we denigrate the agency of non-human actors, and rely on a hierarchy of rationality that negates the embodied nature of human agency. “What happens to the idea of an agent once nonhuman materialities are figured less as social constructions and more as actors” (446), asks Jane Bennett. Here, she indicates that we think of nonhuman actants as constructions that rely on human consciousness to exist, rather than things with their own vitality. “Sublime sensation,” states Shinkle, “as it was originally conceived, also involves an awareness of the limits of the self” (2). An awareness of the limits of the self is predicated on a sense of self that is singular, enclosed and uncomplicated by its deep entwinement with the non-human. Thinking of the self as individualized and enclosed also serves the modus operandi of neoliberal capitalism, which relies on the individualized consumer rather than considering our participation in collective assemblages. In a 2014 lecture on capitalism and climate, Naomi Klein discussed disaster capitalism and its links to the neoliberal mentality. Klein argues that the tenants of neoliberal individualization are largely at fault for the teetering state of our planet. We become further individualized as consumers under capitalism, while climate change is something to be addressed by the communal agenda. While our ways of knowing in a human-centric society are very fixed, Jane Bennett’s call for thinking through vibrant matter, assemblages, and “open-ended wholes” (447) is crucial as we create images and art to address the state of the Anthropocene. 

Rather than employing language, images and art as mechanisms of distance and deferral, we must consider the agential liveliness of the non-human things we live among. If image-makers continue to see nonhuman entities as raw materials to be extracted, manipulated, and used for an end goal, we will continue to perpetuate a rationalist methodology, borne of modernity and perpetuated into petro-capitalism.

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Demos, T.J. “The Agency of Fire: Burning Aesthetics,” e-flux, no. 98 (February 2019)
Dorsen, Annie. “The Sublime and the Digital Landscape.” Theater, vol. 48 no. 1, 2018, pp. 55–67.

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