Is There a Virtual Sublime?

[Text and images for a talk on the virtual sublime at Ulster University, April 29, 2020. The talk itself became virtual due to global pandemic]

A virtual sublime?

Why ever not?

The second question should guide any response to the confident dismissal of this or that as sublime, but it also demotes the virtual sublime (and any particular sublime) to the status of a case, rather than a paradigm.

While it appears glib, the question is important to counter deep misconceptions. When misunderstood or exploited, sublimity encourages confidence in exclusions, because it also appeals to certainty about inclusions. We know the sublime when we see it. How could the virtual ever match really standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon?

The power of the sublime encourages this kind of certainty. Since it overwhelms us, sublimity is taken to be self-evident and a matter of universal agreement, apparently taking us away from individual backgrounds and impressions. We do – you must – share our highest values in this sublime.

Against the appeal to common and immediate experience, the sublime understood as process is never encountered in the moment, as a pure and direct experience. It is only made. The sublime emerges over time: before, during and after an event triggered by a catalyst, often called the sublime object or event.

The sublime is a complex making, not a passive visual experience of a natural phenomenon. Like the above view over ‘Los Santos’, from GTA V, the direct, simple, supposedly shared experience is a virtual illusion floating over intricate and unfinished constructions.

As manufactured event, the sublime therefore seems well-suited to becoming virtual – a game, a form of artifice. This aptness brings its own risks, since we are as likely to over-privilege the virtual sublime as any other. Sublime video games are in danger of becoming a false sublime, a beautiful distraction, rather than a power of transformation.

Earlier than video games, David Nye defined the technological sublime as a group experience defining nations in relation to nature and technology:

Rather than the result of solitary communion with nature, the experience became an experience organized for crowds of tourists. Rather than treat the sublime as a part of a transcendental philosophy, Americans merged it with revivalism. Not limited to nature, the American sublime embraced technology. Where Kant had reasoned that the awe inspired by a sublime object made men aware of their moral worth, the American sublime transformed the individual’s experience of immensity and awe into a belief in national greatness.

David E. Nye American Technological Sublime Cambridge MA: MIT, 1994, p 43

Nye goes from the experience of a particular natural or technological object, by a distinct yet fluid group, to a general conclusion about objects, groups, nations and ideology: there is a general experience of the technological sublime that defines American greatness.

Yet even in groups experiencing this sublime, there are variations, not only in feelings, observations, belonging and ideas, but also in the length and kind of effects. There are differences in how the experience lasts, where it continues and in what ways.

Already virtual when compared to the idea of untouched nature, the technological sublime of cities lit by electric lights is not the same for all. It can be staged as a group event in film, photography and theory, but each new artwork does so as testimony to a potential for difference, not sameness.

The effect of the next photograph will vary dependent on whether you know New York, what memories you have of it, whether you have ever seen anything like it, what music is playing in the background, which epoch you are seeing it in.

A night view from the Empire State Building’s observatory

There’s a political deception and a theoretical contradiction when the making of the sublime is concealed. Tourist attractions are orchestrated (through Disneyfication, for example). Nature is farmed, exploited and enclosed. Ideologies are planned and enacted, in spaces and on bodies. Nations are constituted. This making is variable in ways and effects. It does not lead to uniform experience. Uniformity is imposed on the sublime through subsequent acts, statements and ideologies.

Sublimity is also virtual in another way, as made through technologies of writing, logics and ideas. Some versions of the sublime developed alongside theories. The empirical sublime of Eighteenth Century writers and Kant’s critical sublime drew together experiences and arts of the sublime, preparing the way for the Romantic sublime.

Today, when artists and critics describe a new work as sublime, they often do so with explicit references to theories of the sublime, as in Julian Bell’s eloquent essay on the making of his and others’ sublime works:

On my return home, I represented what I had seen on a canvas eight-foot wide. On the crater’s far side, I placed a small male figure, just over an inch high, standing turned towards it, his palms raised to face the upward surge of heat. The figure functions as an indicator of scale and equally obviously as a testimonial… I chose to crop what could be seen of the crater’s round rim, so that there is no central foreground and from the picture’s base all is fire. And so as to set that fire ablaze, I took the white-primed canvas – this was my first act in marking it – leant it at an angle, and poured down, from what would become its base, a loose turpentine solution of a very strong yellow, letting the liquid stain and sediment however it chanced to run.

Julian Bell, ‘Contemporary Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www, accessed 09 April 2020

The virtual does not have to be digital, or depend on other ‘advanced’ technologies, Bell is describing the creation of a virtual sublime on canvas, after the experience of another sublime on the edge of a volcano.

His paper comes from a collection on the sublime published as part of a project led by the Tate. For my argument, the most striking aspect of the project is the variety of arts, techniques and types of sublime covered. Like the virtual itself, the introduction to the research admits that all of this ‘evades easy definition.’ (The Art of the Sublime)

Nonetheless, the reference to painting and the sublime leads me to a preliminary definition of the virtual. The virtual should not be opposed to the real. A painting or a video game is just as real as a volcano or a canyon. Instead, ‘virtual’ is a term for a transition. The virtual is a remake of something in a different medium. There can be a virtual forest in a video game, but there can also be a virtual video game played out among the trees of a forest.

By medium for the virtual I mean a pervasive environment. These environments are often disregarded, because we are used to them. Familiarity with some environments and unease in others leads to us describe one thing as real and another as virtual: walking down the street (real) as opposed to walking in a dream (unreal, virtual).

Assumptions based on familiarity are misleading, if the problem we are tackling is not what to take as real, but rather how something can have an effect on life. Once we accept that reality takes many forms and that problems are about how to live with the interaction of those forms (of dreams and reality, for instance) then the contrasts and connections between different forms and environments become more significant.

When we struggle against a snowstorm or return from an injury with a different range of movement and sensation, the new medium creates a virtual version of something, in forcing it to change. In turn, this version can help in responding to the problem of how to adapt to new conditions. The virtual provides models for what it transforms. We learn to walk in a storm, to come back from an injury.

A resident struggles to walk in a blizzard in Manhattan, New York

Once the virtual is identified with a shift in medium and a medium is defined as pervasive and transformative, three consequences follow: first, the virtual process is reversible, if A is virtual for B, then B can be virtual for A (though not in the same way, since the processes are not symmetrical).

Second, the virtual is not a distant surface effect, not a ‘look’, but an involving penetrative effect, a ‘feel’. Third, the virtual is not rare, as an exception to the real. It is ubiquitous, as a way of understanding the real as many layers of transformation.

The trace of your hand as you imagine a path to be taken is a virtual version of the path you will or did take – and vice versa. Hand movements are a common and highly effective way into a virtual world conjured up by flesh dancing in space. When we teach and distract toddlers we introduce them to the virtual – perhaps with more potential for sublimity than the mesmerisation of a screen.

Video games aren’t virtual because of how they seem to us, but because they make us feel differently. This definition of the virtual means that life outside the game is a virtual state, when entered from the medium of the game, and it means that video games should not be taken as analogous to, or metaphors for, or escapism from ‘real’ life. They are real life in a different medium. The weather in Red Dead Redemption II is real.

For the virtual, a new medium transforms something, but this change has no fixed characteristics. They vary according to media, transformed things and directions of transformation. This implies that there are also three common mistakes about the virtual: the confusion of the virtual with a specific kind of effect (smoothness or speed); the mistaken identification of the virtual with a copy, representation, analogy or metaphor; and the restriction of the virtual to a specific medium (the digital).

To stay true to the original, copies and representations limit change as much as possible, whereas the virtual transforms things, by pressing them to adapt to the new medium. The virtual always has the potential to enhance and diminish features; for instance, a brighter more malleable version, or a flatter more rigid one. For copies and representations this would be a vice, for the virtual it is a virtue.

Analogies preserve a logical structure across a transformation. The point is to say ‘this works like that’ (the economy circulates like water through pumps and pipes). For a virtual transformation, logical structures can be destroyed by the new medium. The point is often that ‘this can no longer work like that’ (the economy is now operating in a frozen world).

A metaphor establishes a correspondence. It gives a lesson, a moral, a discovery or a revelation (The monarch is the sun in its providence). Virtual transformations are often taken to be metaphors but, as Cat Rambo argues in her essay on virtual reality and the sublime, in cyberpunk novels such as Newromancer and Snow Crash, sublimity happens when a method creates a new world:

This second method, therefore, is the one which acts to create the world where the sublime may be experienced, and it is not a world of metaphor, but a world of distinct, originary things, a world where the thing truly is brought into presence by the subject’s gaze. This is the virtual reality projected by cyberspace as it is used in cyberpunk novels.

The new virtual worlds created by William Gibson and by Neil Stephenson aren’t sublime because they can be read as metaphors. It’s the exact opposite. They can be sublime because they are taken for what they are: strange worlds in which to experience things differently.

It doesn’t matter whether the sublime comes from theories, practice, experience or cyberpunk novels, deceit occurs when the sublime is given as natural and universal, the preparatory ground forgotten or covered up. The contradiction in this concealment follows from acceptance of the evolution of the sublime combined with reliance on necessary connections drawn between the sublime, objects, ideas and effects.

Since the virtual is a transfer, where things are remade in a different medium, it might be assumed that there cannot be deceit about artificiality for the virtual sublime. It is always a remaking, so it doesn’t maintain the illusion of an original or natural sublime. That’s an error. When defined exclusively as one thing, as a single type of transfer, the virtual denies the multiple ways of the sublime and elevates the idea of a single sublime to the medium, to the type of transfer, or to both.

On the one hand, the sublime is acknowledged to change and come about over time. On the other hand, it is taken to be eternal and unchanging in some of its relations. Yet the sublime doesn’t need to be tied to anything. It is always made to do so and that making is not limited in content or effects for the sublime, only in the tension of feelings triggered. There can be a sublime of random street views – a sublime of anything. The effects confirm the catalyst as sublime.

These inconsistencies are concealed when the sublime is taken as made and changeable, yet also as having a single character over time and cases. Slavoy Žižek’s association of the sublime with misery, on two interdependent scales, is an example of the contradiction of recognising the contingent creation of the sublime – in new film genres, for instance – while tying the sublime to the gloomiest nihilism.

For Žižek, there is ‘nothing intrinsically sublime in a sublime object’, but its content must be a ‘miserable, radically contingent corporeal leftover’. This minor scale of miserable remnants is the source for the major scale of a devastating universal lesson: the most sublime acts, intentions and values lead to a ‘depressing lesson of horror and suffering’.

We slip from the contingency of many sublimes, to the ubiquity of miserable content, to the necessity of a nihilistic outcome. But Žižek’s logic is misleading. The sublime doesn’t have to follow that route, or end in nihilism.

Taken from Hegel, his negative dialectics impose a logic of negation on relations, making things dependent on their opposites. Borrowing from Lacan, Žižek splits existence into an illusory reality of material objects, dependent on an unreachable, yet desired, beyond – the Real. Drawn together, this logic and picture of reality make the sublime miserable.

They do so by over-determining the transfer to the virtual, limiting it to a necessarily frustrating libidinal medium, and by restricting sublime processes to miserable entities and outcomes. In a favourite topic for Žižek, this becomes the misery of shit and of the desire to have done with it:

The domain where excrements vanish after we flush the toilet is effectively one of the metaphors for the horrifyingly sublime Beyond of the primordial, pre-ontological Chaos into which things disappear. Although we rationally know what goes on with the excrements, the imaginary mystery nonetheless persists – shit remains an excess which does not fit our daily reality, Lacan was right in claiming that we pass from animals to humans the moment an animal has problems with what to do with its excrements, the moment they turn into excess that annoys it.

Slavoy Žižek, Disparities, London: Bloomsbury, 2016, p 160

To maintain his double miseries around the sublime, Žižek attaches the sublime experience to something inexpressibly horrible (primordial chaos) through the medium of something tritely repulsive (shit). The distorting generalisation of these moves can be seen in the sweeping attitude to animals and humans, as if both humans and animals didn’t have many different practical approaches to faecal matter; in fertilising and energy production, for instance.

Falsifying and damaging generalisation can also be seen in the strict association of chaos with horror, as if chaos was not also a way of understanding a life-sustaining environment – weather – sometimes positively disorienting, a way to renewal, not doom.

We should avoid two types of generalisation when thinking about the virtual sublime: general accounts of the sublime experience and general versions of the virtual medium. Žižek’s philosophy is instructive because it commits to both by supporting a miserable sublime and a virtual focused on the eroticised body as negation of the material body (‘… we learn that there never was such a body…’ On Belief, p 55) In both cases, his argument proceeds through a universal logic of negation, towards nothingness.

This dual universality is imposed on a multiple sublime that resists it. When we go to the Grand Canyon or to see Alien Resurrection with its ‘two properly sublime moments’ (Žižek, The Parallax View, p 118) the event can appear to be shared and universal. Everyone around us gasps or squirms.

The collective appreciation of a dangerous and yet exciting natural or virtual grandeur, or horror, is illusory. The detail of emotions and their lasting effects on ideas and actions vary. The sublime process around the canyon depends on where we travelled from, with which prior experiences, how our bodies react, where our thoughts and ideas were and where they lead. There isn’t a single reaction to horror, but many.

For each of the figures in the following photograph the sublime will be different: diverse contexts; different physiologies and biochemistry of the inner ear (vertigo); varied tensions between types of pleasure and pain; different ideas and histories; and alternative actions, carried out later across divergent spaces and times.

Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim, Arizona, USA [Creative Commons] Adam Kliczek,

A better definition of the virtual sublime comes from the definition of the sublime as a process that draws together a context, a catalyst, an emotional tension, a drive, an aim and an action. The sublime occurs in multiple ways, when an irresolvable tension between strong feelings of pleasure and pain is brought about by a catalyst, in a specific context, leading to aims and acts.

As a transfer into a new medium, the virtual will be sublime only if it triggers a tension in emotions that drives us towards aims and acts. The tension is a sign that something extraordinary and overwhelming is happening. This sublime process takes place in specific contexts – determined by the virtual catalyst, transfer and medium.

The catalyst is unlikely to be the whole medium. Instead, a sound, gesture, event or encounter in the transfer to the virtual medium can produce the shock and tension required. When transported into another world we might sense how others feel, or how we might feel differently – the shock of living as another, or of becoming another. If this connects to new ideas we act upon, that’s a virtual sublime.

The association of the virtual sublime with a new form of technology is therefore a trap, if we assume the technology is necessary either for the virtual or for the sublime. That would be to confuse the effects of technology with the feeling of the sublime. It would also limit the virtual medium to what we, often mistakenly, judge to be the dominant technology of an epoch (writing, signs and numbers might still be the dominant technologies of the internet age).

In The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu combines virtual technologies and sublime imagery based on physics and cosmology. We might think that the virtual sublime depends on new technologies:

The V-suit was a very popular piece of equipment among gamers, made up of a panoramic viewing helmet and a haptic feedback suit. The suit allowed the player to experience the sensations of the game: being struck by a fist, being stabbed by a knife, being burned by flames, and so on. It was also capable of generating feelings of extreme heat and cold, even simulating the sensation of being exposed in a snowstorm.

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, Trans. Ken Liu, London: Head of Zeus, 2015, pp 85-6

These enhanced experiences aren’t sublime, since they are tied to the standards of the world outside the game. However, there can be a virtual sublime in the novel, but it will not come from the replication of feelings and images in a new medium. It will come from the transformation of ideas and feelings, in their transfer to the Three-Body game and world described in the book.

Finally, my definition of the virtual sublime implies a series of exclusions. The virtual sublime is not due to the medium alone (computer-generated imagery, for instance). It is not sublime, if it merely mesmerises us, makes us admire or bask, if it gives us a new sense of the beautiful, or any other emotion that isn’t also a deep tension between attraction and repulsion.

The virtual sublime is not a special kind of experience; it must also be a drive to act according to aims. Without this drive to change, the virtual sublime would leave us stuck in a state of tension. Far from the highest values, we’d remain stunned by a powerful distraction – like an addiction to games, alcohol, pornography or gambling.

There is no virtual sublime, if there is not also a change in how we think, in what we want and in the way we act. The virtual sublime cannot only be a metaphor for what we already know, or an analogy for how we already act. The sublime has to be a drive to change, because it depends on drawing us out of ourselves. Perhaps this is where the virtual sublime gains its greatest strength and difference, because the virtual is already a transfer into a new medium.

The virtual sublime cannot just replicate other sublimes, or inflate them, or combine them, or colour them differently, or set them in other places. Taken alone, the images of space, mountains, buildings, nature, deserts in films, books, digital arts, architectural imaginings and games are not sublime. They are simply beautiful and serve to support an already given order, not to make a new one.

The virtual sublime must transport us into new ideas and actions, energised by a difficult combination of pleasure and pain. The virtual sublime will be a hard lesson, not an easy win. It will not be a single event for all, but many different events – for many. This does not mean that they cannot be collective, only that a collective is neither necessary for, nor unique to the virtual sublime. A collective is a political achievement, not a sublime event.