This text was originally published by The Culture We Deserve.
It’s a little like this: there are lines in the air next to your head, next to your glance zones for the detention of your eyes, your smell, your taste, that is to say you’re going around with your limits outside and you can’t get beyond that limit when you think you’ve caught anything fully, just like an iceberg the thing has a small piece outside and shows it to you, and the enormous rest of it is beyond your limits and that’s why the Titanic went down.Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch, 1963
Around 2008, the contemporary art world was obsessed with ‘the sublime’. As critical paradigms go, it was a fertile one: what is art for if not pondering nature’s awe-inspiring yet unrepresentable majesty and monumentality? Critics compared looking at Damien Hirst’s shark to being inside Paradise Lost. Photographers like Edward Burtynsky were credited with keeping the mystical-pictorial tradition vital for the 21st century. Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog reigned supreme.
But this critical sensibility was all gone by the time the Titan submersible sank in June and, to steal a quip from Karlheinz Stockhausen, became 2023’s greatest work of art. For all the media frenzy in reporting Titanic film director James Cameron’s hunch about the fate of the expedition, nobody paused to wonder at its promise of an experience like no other. We learned about the failings of the Safety of Life at Sea treaty but not once asked why people routinely risk their lives in search of truth at the bottom of oceans and the top of mountains. The way the story was reported marks a fundamental change in how we approach the incomprehensible. It also heralds the abolition of nature as an authority on natural knowledge.
The sublime is an artefact of the unknowable. In Kantian terms, it is a category of experience at the rational limits of our senses. Hirst’s title for his 1991 shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, points to one such obvious limit. And until recently, we understood that there were some parts of the natural world which we could only comprehend by proxy. What human epistemic categories, for example, could describe the feeling a climber experiences on reaching an ice-covered peak? What does the ocean do to the minds of the lone sailors who chase records trying to cross it? What does it mean to see the Earth from orbit? And what is it about these natural phenomena that draws countless adventurers to them, often to statistically likely death?
This is the stuff of Constable’s haunting seascapes and Tarkovsky’s tinnitus-inducing Solaris. The paintings, novels, and even photographs of perplexing scenes, altered states, and unexplainable power are the sublime: they are at once depictions of reality and projections of man’s attempt to become one with it. The sublime is an act of mediation which for centuries was the best, if not only, means of understanding parts of the world. Today, we have TikTok to pretend that we have already been everywhere and seen everything and that it wasn’t all that. To vicariously follow the adventures of any of the dozens of sailors “crossing the ocean solo” on YouTube, perversely, involves no imagination at all.
Even art gave up on the sublime. Joby Talbot’s 2015 opera Everest, uncannily staged in London as the Titan story was unfolding, should have been a warning. The plot follows the 1995 Mount Everest blizzard in which eight climbers perished. In the opera, the men’s inexperience and poor decisions are centre stage. Someone takes more photo time at the summit than is safe. An expedition leader eggs on others who are too weak for the challenge. A rescue attempt is made but doesn’t get far. And as the climbers drift in and out of consciousness, they sing about surprisingly prosaic matters: the post office one of them ran back home and the expedition’s cost. In the finale, the chorus laments technical contingencies while a projection lights the candles for the 310 people who died on the mountain.
The most crushing aspect of Talbot’s opera is that in 90 minutes, hardly a bar is dedicated to the mountain itself and the hammy score feels like an industrial health and safety officer’s idea of what the Earth’s highest peak may sound like. Talbot knows that this is a cop-out because he styled the piece with a kitschy montage of video clips of the mountain in the backdrop. A sea-level dweller’s art.
Everest breaks with the tradition of portraying mountains as majestic, mysterious, and perilous and instead opts for a landscape of human proportions. Even as the opera lambasts the climbers’ hubris, it insists that man’s unexplainable drive to scale the mountain can be rendered safe by regulation, oversight, and science. In a universe so conceived, there is no space for wonder, fear, or exhilaration and even those ill-fated climbers who probably felt these emotions more intensely than most of us ever will are denied the opportunity to become art.
These are the conditions under which Titan went down. There was, of course, that teenager who went along to see the Titanic wreck only to please his dad, so it would be callous to suggest that every daredevil risk is consensual. But on the surface, commentators made TikTok videos about the gender and racial bias of the ocean to avoid talking about the perplexing draw of the unknown that sees people shuffle into a metal tube. And that political commentator Ash Sarkar’s tweet which used Titan as an argument for progressive taxation made the news suggests that the crisis of the sublime extends much further than the artistic imagination.
Slavoj Žižek’s 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology lay the ground for the sublime’s demise by inexorably connecting it to politics. To ascribe the sublime to nature, Žižek claims, is a category error because nature does not owe us awe, majesty, or wonder. Art’s promise of something greater than what is visible on the surface is but a lie. The climbing of mountains and the crossing of deserts in the search for truth is strong evidence of man’s fascination with his own mind but nothing else. And at the sublime limit of rational experience, the mind cannot differentiate between a phenomenon and its vision of it.
Few know this hallucination better than Willett Gashade, the protagonist of Monte Hellman’s minor 1966 western The Shooting. Gashade, a man of few words and even fewer needs, spends the entire film under the binding spell of a mysterious woman who commands him to cross the desert in pursuit of another, unnamed party. Like Titan’s, this expedition is doomed from the start: they don’t take enough water and a hired assassin joins to make sure nobody has a moment’s peace. Little by little, Gashade loses his companion, his horse, and eventually his mind. Yet, he goes on even when there is no gun forcing him to and no hope of salvation, either. In the final scene, Gashade learns only as he pulls the trigger that the man he was chasing is a double of himself.
Man goes to the ends of the world in pursuit of death who is a woman: the script deserves a place on the ‘Psychoanalysis 101’ syllabus. But Gashade plays to Žižek’s theory: he alone is the abyss he’s staring into. And the investment of symbols like deserts with mystical powers is the essence of ideological production. The Everest climber’s experience, for Žižek, is in the discovery that there is nothing there but rocks.
One may wonder if Žižek ever scaled a hill and felt adrenaline rush through his veins but in 1989, we all thought that a post-ideological world was possible. So we went on and blew the cover on one mystery after another. Žižek’s anti-ideological wanderer about the sea of fog now takes deadpan, #nofilter selfies. And because there is nothing to see there, there is no need for aesthetics.
This is an obvious dead end. Those who advocate for the re-enchantment of artistic practices would see a return to the Kantian notion of the sublime through neatly commodified ‘indigenous’ or ‘ancestral’ knowledges which, paradoxically, are off limits. But Žižek’s challenge to the sublime was not only to peel back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz but to uncover the very form of the lie itself. What use is going to Mars when we have already seen Elon running the show here? And there are still plenty of mountains untouched by WiFi on Earth but artists are too lazy to climb them. Perhaps one is today building the submersible that will one day visit the wreck of Titan.