Manifest Destiny and the Sublime – Part 3: Necessarily Dangerous

In this final blog on the sublime and manifest destiny I will argue that the sublime is always at risk of leading to the violence of manifest destiny.

I’ll also give more precise definitions and respond to a series of objections, referring back to the connection of manifest destiny to the sublime in the nineteenth century.

The first objection comes from a widespread definition situating the sublime in objects. This popular view has almost no philosophical backers yet remains a common one.

When we say ‘It is sublime’, we are describing the superiority of a natural or manufactured object. This is the main dictionary definition, with the meaning ‘extremely good, highest, greatest or most beautiful’.

In the erudite introduction to his important edited collection on the sublime, Timothy M. Costelloe demonstrates how the reference to the greatest heights occurs in many languages and settings.

The popular definition conceals this history by omitting the process of reaching for the heights, in the senses of ‘upwards’ in Greek, or ‘heroic and lofty ambition’ in Latin, or ‘move up to’ in French. Timothy M. Costelloe, ‘The Sublime: A Short Introduction to a Long History’, in Costelloe (ed.) The Sublime: From Antiquity to the Present, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 1–7.

If we can rank objects and distinguish between sublime and ordinary ones, then my claim that the sublime is multiple and changeable fails. Some things and events would not be sublime, whereas we could generally agree on the sublimity of others.

There are two flaws in this definition. First, despite the implication of an agreed and universal ranking in the sense of ‘highest’, assent breaks down as soon as an object is given: It is sublime for you, but an ugly agent of destruction to me.

Second, in pointing to an object as sublime, there is no explicit explanation as to why it is so. The showing fills a gap in understanding, but gives no precise reasons.

This is risky because presenting a sublime object involves a value claim. If we are to avoid shrouding values in mystery, imposing them through the force of repetition, then we require an explanation as to why something is sublime.

The risk is amplified because a fully effective showing must bring about the sublime. We need to feel it. Like teaching someone flavours: they must taste the saltiness.

Repeated showing ties together images, strong emotions and potentially false ideas, without submitting them to rational critical evaluation.

One of the horrors of the paintings of manifest destiny lies in the image of the ‘prairie Madonna’: fragile yet resilient, in the vanguard of the movement of manifest destiny, threatened by lands and indigenous people repeatedly portrayed as dark and savage. In Osage Scalp Dance by John Mix Stanley:

The sublime image of manifest destiny is racist:

As much as their work reflects the history of nation building, it also records the racial theories and territorial imperatives on which that nation-building was based. That is, the artists, no less than other groups and individuals in nineteenth-century America, became enmeshed in the discourse of power.

Matthew Baigell ‘Territory, Race, Religion: Images of Manifest Destiny’ Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 4, No. 3/4 (Summer – Autumn, 1990), pp. 2-21, pp 19-20

In contrast to showing objects, philosophical definitions explain how the sublime indicates the greatest.

Longinus seeks unambiguous truth in oratory. Kant distinguishes the sublime from the beautiful. His sublime is an instigator in morals and politics, within a typically limited register. Kant’s claim to universality depends on a valid model for humanity (Kant, the sublime, objects and ethics). Historically, such models have always turned out to be imposed on lives that did not fit them.

Žižek severs the link between the sublime and value, highlighting how the sublime leads to misery. Against Kant and very far from Žižek’s negativity, Spuybroek takes Ruskin’s lead and reconnects the sublime to the picturesque and to organic nature, where nature and animals (including human animals) are entwined.

I define the sublime further as an event-like process:

Sublime event = context + catalyst + emotional tension + drive + aim + action

A sublime event occurs in a context, when a catalyst sets off an emotional tension between attraction and repulsion, leading to a drive with aims and acts. Sometimes the aim or action is missing and the drive goes nowhere, or turns on itself.

Osage Scalp Dance was never and will never be sublime alone. It became sublime in the context of violent imperial conquest, religious doctrine and myths about the West and indigenous peoples. Its sublimity depended upon fear and horror counterbalanced by admiration and enthusiasm. These passions fed the drive towards the West, bolstered by purported values of pacification, conversion, settlement, exploitation and expansion.

There was opposition to this imperialist racism, notably among Whig thinkers and politicians, but they were exceptions:

‘In the mid-nineteenth century opponents of aggressive expansionism for the most part did not object when other races were condemned to permanent inferiority.’

Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: the Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981, p 271

My definition leads to the following reasons against limiting the sublime to objects:

  1. The sublimity of any object depends on a context (where, how, to whom, who by, with which history, with what intensity, with which outcomes and leading to what principles)
  2. The sublime object cannot be separated from its operation as a catalyst, where powerful and contradictory emotions of attraction and repulsion are triggered
  3. The object and sublime emotions are completed by a new drive that determines the lasting nature of the sublime
  4. Types of sublimity connect objects to drives, aims and acts (the religious sublime, the technological sublime, the environmental sublime)
  5. In these acts, aims, drives and high emotions, sublime objects are always political

Burke and Schopenhauer realise how the contradictory feelings of the sublime event depend on contexts. Burke draws attention to the importance of line and contours for the sublime, as well as the roles of expectation and contrast. Schopenhauer observes the importance of states such as boredom and hunger in preparing us for sublime experiences in different natural settings.

The paintings associated with manifest destiny exploit light and darkness for these emotional contradictions. From Enlightenment and religious roots, light is good and darkness bad. In an American setting, progress moves from right to left, from East to West. In Progress by Asher B. Durand:

Burke takes the terror and attraction of darkness and blackness as necessary because they trigger a sense of privation: ‘all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree.’ (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, London: Dodsley, 1757, pp 141-2) His racist remarks on darkness (‘universally terrible’) and black faces (‘struck with great horror at the sight’) are bleak.

Kant’s anthropological racism is bleaker: ‘so essential is the difference between these two human kinds, and it seems to be just as great with regard to the capacities of the mind as it is with respect to colour.’ (Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p 59).

In opposing claims to necessary connections and any form of essentialism, I invite a further criticism. My work on signs and definition of the sublime deny any necessary connections between a thing and a set of values and meanings. If that is the case, are paintings and writings of manifest destiny really sublime – is anything?

No object or event is necessarily sublime. Sublimity varies, depending on context, emotions, drives, acts and aims. The sublime is open to challenge and dependent on time and place – sublimity fades. This matters due to the risk of combining high passions with a strong determination to act.

To counter the righteous certainties of the sublime we should be anarchic, always making the sublime self-destructive and secondary to democratic scrutiny.

Albert Boime has advocated a ‘breaking of icons’ for manifest destiny and national symbols:

The political aim in assaulting a national icon redolent with assigned symbolic associations is to decode the belief system that undergirds it and render visible to the world the gulf between the professed associations and the achieved reality.

Albert Boime The Unveiling of the National Icons: a Plea for Patriotic Iconoclasm in a Nationalist Era Cambridge University Press, 1998. p 6

For Boime, Durand’s Progress depends upon a ‘magisterial gaze’. Progress sweeps inevitably and at speed across two separate realms. The East is dark, backwards and doomed; the West is the future coming to the East:

The diagonal line of sight is synonymous with the magisterial gaze, taking us rapidly from an elevated geographical zone to a lower register, telescoping progress synchronically in space and time.

Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle 1848-1871, The University of Chicago Press, 2007, p 451

Roger Cushing Aikin makes a similar point but adds kinetic imagination:

Some paintings of the American wilderness by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church point the viewer toward the west. Physically, politically, and spiritually, we imagine ourselves moving into that landscape to occupy, settle, and own it.’

Roger Cushing Aikin ‘Paintings of Manifest Destiny: Mapping the Nation’ American Art, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 78-89, p 84

If Boime is right then the painting cannot be sublime, since the unstoppable quality of progress and the certainty and control of the magisterial gaze would remove the negative emotions required for the sublime. Ryan Mead comes to the opposite view, seeing the romantic sublime as supporting nationalism. Ryan Mead, ‘Surveys, Illustrations and Paintings: Framing Manifest Destiny in the Early American Republic’, Review (Fernand Braudel Center), Vol. 35, No. 1 (2012), pp. 31-60

Depending on the effects of the painting, Boime may be right, or Mead, or more recent re-evaluations of Progress as a work of regret. According to my definition they can all be correct, since sublimity follows from the contingency of context, emotion, drive, aim and act. But even if all these conditions are met, why would the sublime always be at risk from the dangers of manifest destiny?

To say that the sublime is contingent is not to renounce any necessary statements about it. A distinction needs to be drawn between the referent of my definition (the sublime event) and the structure of the definition (how its parts fit together).

If we define the violence of manifest destiny as an enthused drive to act, with limited regard for others, on the grounds of an uncritical sense of mission, then the sublime is always liable to fall into this destiny. This is because the sublime combines a trigger for disorienting and powerful feelings with a drive to act on values coming out of a restricted context. The sublime will always be dangerous.