The Deindustrial Sublime
The strategies of contemporary ruin imagery are necessarily in dialogue with romanticism and the aesthetic of the sublime. The romantic sublime came to apply to catastrophic events and to the act of ruin gazing in the eighteenth century; scenes of ruin became both spectacles of eerie beauty and testaments to the humbling power of nature in which the spectator could delight in experiencing its visual effects while escaping its ravages. For both Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, the two most important theorists of the sublime in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the experience of the sublime depended upon distance and safety as conditions that were crucial for the enjoyment of a scene that would otherwise be too terrifying to endure. This distance could be spatial or temporal, but it was always mental.
Mental, temporal, and spatial distance thus allows for the conceptual grasp and rationalization, or the domestication and taming of the terror before us, permitting its aestheticization and enjoyment. As Kant explained in his Critique of Judgment, sublimity is, in fact, never found in nature but only in the mind: “Hence sublimity is contained not in any thing of nature, but only our mind, insofar as we can become conscious of our superiority to nature within us, and thereby also to nature outside us (as far as it influences us). Whatever arouses this feeling in us, and this includes the might of nature that challenges our forces, is then (although improperly) called sublime.”14 Kant asserts that the forces in nature that arouse sublime experience are improperly called sublime because it is the internal mental act of mastery that transforms the terrifying into a thrilling sense of superiority.
This understanding of the sublime as aesthetic experience arrived at through contemplation made possible by safety and distance—the sublime as a “taming category” by which the terrifying is made enjoyable—helps to explain the compelling power and pleasure of contemporary ruin gazing and ruin imagery. Since the taming of terror is a crucial component of the sublime, it follows that catastrophe, destruction, and ruination can produce subjectively sublime experience. In addition to events such as fires, droughts, floods, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, meteor crashes, and viral pandemics, in modern times, catastrophe and the ruined landscape also can proceed through the quicker or slower events of nuclear power plant meltdowns, explosions and warfare, climate change, deindustrialization, and economic collapse. The terror these events produce are aestheticized not only by picturing the beauty of actual decay but also through fantasy disasters, from the Cold War era sci-fi thrillers of killer monsters, mutants, robots, and aliens to contemporary zombie invasions and other apocalyptic catastrophes.
It is telling that the romantic sublime was conceptualized following one of the most catastrophic events in Europe: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Combined with subsequent fires and a tsunami, the earthquake almost totally destroyed the city of Lisbon, killing over sixty thousand people and causing much suffering. The destruction of the earthquake sent shock waves throughout Europe, with many written eyewitness accounts/5 The association of ruination with the Lisbon earthquake may have been further underscored by the fact that the Portuguese empire was already in decline/6 Still one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, it was a calamity of such epic and terrifying proportions that it was unequaled by any then-known natural disaster. It was widely discussed by European Enlightenment philosophers and proved to be a shattering force that was foundational to theorizing the sublime in Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published only two years later in 1757, and Kant’s Critique ofJudgment first published in 1790.
Kant also published three separate texts on the Lisbon earthquake, and his attempts to explain its geological causes may have represented, as Walter Benjamin suggests, the beginning of modern geology and seismology.17 English scholar Alexander Regier argues that the secular and scientific “disciplining” of the catastrophe by Kant has a parallel in the realm of the aesthetic. However, since the aesthetic experience depends on the initial fragmenting or shattering effect of the event, the taming or domesticating tendency of the sublime is, paradoxically, predicated on a radically destabilizing premise. Kant implies this as a distinction between the sublime and the beautiful when he writes: “In presenting the sublime in nature the mind feels agitated, while in an aesthetic judgment about the beautiful in nature it is in restful contemplation.”!8 The sublime thus relies on inherent anxiety about the violence of disaster and its fragmenting effects. In Regier’s words, “The secular sublime, together with its ruins, discloses a disruptive and breaking quality at its core.”!9
The Lisbon earthquake serves as a prototype for the modern postapocalyptic ruin imaginary and the aesthetic of the sublime. It may be argued that contemporary ruin imagery constitutes a new deindustrial sublime, which also has a disruptive quality at its core and fragmenting effects. At the same time, the deindustrial sublime serves to domesticate the terrifying forces of capitalist disinvestment, privatization, and wealth inequality, the shattering effects of which are well represented in Detroit ruin imagery. The contemporary experience of the deindustrial sublime, which occurs when contemplating ruins and ruin imagery, becomes a way of containing and controlling the anxiety produced by the economic and social breakdown that has resulted from capitalist globalization, especially since the 1970s.
This domesticating of the terrible also occurs in many other works of modern and contemporary art and visual culture. To take just one example, the experience of observing, up close and personal, Damien Hirst’s preserved shark in his work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is quite capable of producing a frisson of pleasurably controlled terror (figure 4). Critic Luke White argues that Hirst took Burke’s work on the sublime as a “handbook for cultural production,” which Burke apparently intended it to be, and echoes Burke’s fascination with the body, mortality, violence, and pain. Burke writes, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.”20 Although White regards Hirst’s shark as more Hollywood than high art (“more Steven Spielberg than it is Barnett Newman,”
FIG. 4 Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 (detail). © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved / DACS, London/ARS, NY 2014. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.
in a reference to Newman’s 1948 article “The Sublime Is Now”), he argues that the continual appearance of the sublime in contemporary art is a kind of haunting that speaks to an overarching modernist trauma defined by imperial instability and precariousness—captured in Marx’s phrase “all that is solid melts into air”—as well as the limits to human power and progress imposed by environmental catastrophe. “The shark provides,” writes White, “throughout its modern history, an image not only of nature as hostile but furthermore, and more precisely, of nature being as rapacious, insatiable, and unfeeling as capital accumulation itself.”21
Shark horror has been a constant theme in contemporary culture, figuring in the flow of colonialist slave-trading capital in works such as John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark and stories such as Herge’s Tintin and the
Red Sea Sharks about smuggling enslaved Africans while on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Films such as Spielberg’s Jaws, Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, and James Contner’s Shark Swarm of course depend on shark horror. The latest incarnation is Sharknado, a Syfy channel B movie about a freak hurricane that causes shark-filled water spouts or “sharknados” to flood Los Angeles. Sharknado aired several times in the summer of 2013 and was included in Syfy’s week-long “Sharkathon.” Like the shark figurations that invoke the sublime through the terrifying in nature, ruin imagery pictures abandonment and decay as a way of mastering and making pleasurable the fears they provoke and embody.