Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Things I've Missed

I've already talked about the new possibilities made available through this research blog as an alternative to more traditional academic writing, as well as some challenges that I've faced throughout the process. One thing I would further like to say is what I've missed in this term away from conventional research writing. First, the all-nighter before the final paper's due. You might think I'm being sarcastic, but I honestly love those super-focused, distraction-free nights where I can fully immerse myself in a paper. When written without breaks or opportunities for the mind to wander, my papers form so much more naturally and smoothly. In this blog I was able to spend much more time exploring and altering my project, but with each post I'd come in with a different mindset, different ideas, and often a different thesis. The fact that I actually miss severe procrastination may be a sign that I've become somewhat addicted to it, and that this blog can be the first step on my path to recovery, but it could also mean that blogging lacks the depth of focus of conventional research papers.

Another thing that I feel these blog projects lack is a clear and strong final result. Although you can insert the same information found in a research paper into a blog, through links and multiple posts, it lacks some of the cohesiveness of a printed paper. This is compounded by the fact that, for the most part, the members of our class were writing these posts separately, and in all cases each post had to be able to stand alone, causing the arguments to lose a lot of their flow and focus. I think it might be more useful to record the writing process on a blog, to allow for collaboration and the spreading of ideas, but to still produce a final result of a conventional Times New Roman double-spaced 12 pt. font printed and stapled paper.

Besides these details, though, I really don't see any ways in which our research blogs are weaker than conventional research papers, and in fact I think the social collaborative aspect that they provide really enhances the writing process, allowing for a freer spread of ideas and a more transparent process. As a whole, I think these projects (you can look at the side of the page to find links to the other students' blogs) have shown that the use of research blogs fully upholds the classroom and university objectives, perhaps even more so than conventional papers because of their added ability to spread information to a greater audience.

Becca's Cellular Gender Exploration: A Review

I've been asked to review and critique my classmate Becca Hay's blog, The Best Things in Life Aren't Hard To Find, based on criteria for the literature course we're both taking.

Becca's posts begin without very clear focus beyond the hermaphrodite idea, and then as they progress you can see how she narrowed her topic in and found a clear thesis, which she built upon continually. This is exactly the kind of development we were aiming for. She always backs up her ideas and developments with clear allusions to her research and comments by her classmates.

Focus and Cohesion:
Although it was hard to find the focus in some of the earlier posts, and some of them don't stand well on their own, as her project progresses you can see much clearer allusions to her purpose, and better definitions of important terms and concepts. These are really essential since her topic is focused and difficult to understand without some background. Some posts are still a little difficult to understand, but Becca consistently links to more basic information that helps to clarify. There are a lot of posts, and they're pretty long, which might make it difficult to get a quick idea of her project and how it has taken shape if you're a first-timer to the blog.

Post Variety:
For the most part Becca's posts are a combination of exploration, with a lot of her personal thoughts, and expository. She incorporates a good amount of literature, some appropriate media, and mentions some events and some people in her posts. It would be nice to have some more media or lighter/shorter posts, to break up the heavy analysis, but she keeps a very friendly and casual tone despite the depth of her information, which keeps things interesting and makes the depth easier to get through. She does have to be careful of adopting too casual of a tone, since sometimes I felt like the tone drew away from the substance of the information.

Becca's blog shows A LOT of personality, which is great, and while keeping it bright and fun you can see that her information is still very academic. It might help if she displayed her information a little more professionally, since I feel like this blog might not appeal at a glance to contain a lot of substance (it's very pink), but that could just be me.

Interactivity and Community:
Becca shows clear interactivity, linking to classmates' blogs and referencing ideas she's gotten from classmates. She also reached out to some other scholars she found through her research, though I'm not sure whether she got replies from them yet.

Some Strong Points:
This blog very thoroughly explores gender roles, and Becca's created a great amount of volume. Visitors to her blog can find out a lot of information. She did a great job linking to other students, and has incorporated a lot of great resources. She's also kept things interesting and casual while still including a lot of information.

Some Shortcomings:
As I said before, I think the blog may appear too "fluffy" for it to be taken seriously at a glance, though with some reading you quickly find substance. It's also way too pink for me to handle. Some of the blog posts are a little long and unmanageable, though this improves as time goes on. At times the content can also be a little confusing, especially since I don't know much of anything about her topic, but she has some good explanatory posts that she links to to keep things in context. Overall this is a great blog, with a lot of information and very effective strategies for keeping the reader's attention.

The Process

This blog has been an experiment in modernizing the writing process and product. Instead of researching and writing in isolation, then turning my papers in to my professor, never to be seen by anyone else, my classmates and I have been keeping regularly updated blogs detailing the progression of our ideas. We have also been seeking out greater collaboration with our classmates and others in the academic and online community.

My project has seen a long and enlightening progression. I began with the idea of the sublime, which I'd studied in literature previously, and decided (with encouragement from my professor, Gideon Burton) to apply this concept to the digital age. I began with a few questions and ideas and jumped right in, scouring the web for information and content worth having. One of my first successes was early on, when I posted a simple question to my Facebook page: "Does access to limitless knowledge via the internet remove the sense of wonder for the world?" which managed to spark a mini-debate between three of my Facebook friends. They made some interesting points that gave me ideas for my research, but what I liked the most about this experience was the fact that none of them knew each other: one attends BYU like myself, one is a student at Western Washington University, and one is an old Sunday School teacher of mine, who I haven't seen since I was eight years old. Just through Facebook I was able to interact with three people from very different backgrounds and locations in the same conversation.

Another exciting moment of collaboration came after I found a great book review by Brent Aldrich on The Englewood Review of Books, which I wrote about in this previous post. I left a quick comment with a link to my blog, and within a few days he wrote back
on my blog, and directed me to some of his work. This made me realize how easy it can be to find and communicate with other people online with my research interests. This sort of collaboration has the potential to really alter the dynamics of academic research, and I'm sure already has, by bringing in actual interaction with people rather than just articles and books.

One of the most useful things that I've gained from this experience is a love for the social bookmarking site Diigo, introduced to me by Professor Burton, which has been an amazing aid for my research both for this class and the other course I'm taking this term. Although we were introduced to a lot of really useful resources this term (Wordle is a fun one too, and I believe I've mastered the art of Google Scholar), this is one that I know I'll keep using, and often. This has also been my first blogging experience, and I've found it surprisingly fulfilling, though unexpectedly difficult.

This has been a new experience for all of us, and for me it has been very difficult to get used to publicizing my work in process and approaching others who I've discovered have similar research interests. It has also been a challenge to find an appropriate balance between academic and accessible writing, to make my work both academically viable and approachable for the typical, non-English-major blogger. But it has also opened my eyes to the possibilities of collaboration and open information that are now presented to academia, has introduced me to a whole new way of approaching the writing process, and has converted me, to some degree, to the art of blogging. It hasn't been a typical course, and has definitely been overwhelming and frustrating at times, but I think I've actually learned quite a few things that I'll be able to use in the future to improve my research and writing processes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wordsworth and the Modern Sublime

I'm a sucker for all things natural. I love the outdoors; I dislike cars, cities and other polluters; I cried during both Fern Gully and Avatar when the trees were being destroyed (does anyone else see uncanny similarities between these movies?; And yes, I did choose a Fern Gully image over Avatar): as a whole, I willingly admit to having a very romantic idea of nature as pure, beautiful, and transcendent. In my mind, all our problems stem from industrialization and technology, no matter how naive and unreasonable this opinion may be (and how ironic that I've created a blog focused around the technological sublime). It's only natural, then, that William Wordsworth has always been one of my favorite poets. There's a time for abstract, deep, depressing poetry to make you think and feel horrible, but when I want something calming and fulfilling, I turn to Wordsworth and revel in his sublime depictions of the natural world. Now, since the purpose of this blog is to show how the sublime can be found in our modern, technology-driven world, and the ways in which this technological sublime is both similar to and differs from traditional perceptions of the sublime, I've decided to revisit one of Wordsworth's great poems, "Tintern Abbey*," and apply to it the technological sublime that I've been researching.

In the poem "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth describes his second visit to the River Wye in Wales, describing the wonder he feels at the beauty of the area and relating his present experience to the memory of five years previous, when he had visited the same place "in the hour of thoughtless youth" (lines 86-87). Although Wordsworth describes a sublimity arising from nature, and surviving only in spite of humanity's impact, many aspects of the sublime that he describes can also be experienced through modern technology, especially the internet.

Wordsworth establishes the sense of the sublime within the first few lines of the poem, when he describes the "steep and lofty cliffs,/ That on a wild secluded scene impress/ Thoughts of more deep seclusion" (lines 5-8). This depiction shows where, in many cases, the sublime arises: from those things much greater than ourselves, in this case "steep and lofty cliffs." Because of their scale and separateness from civilization or the control of man, these cause in Wordsworth "thoughts of more deep seclusion," emphasizing for him how far he is from the familiar. Though he already is in a secluded area, this level of seclusion is something more, a mental as well as a physical separateness from humanity, which allows the sense of the sublime - the recognition of those things greater than the mind can comprehend - to take hold. This relates in an interesting and unexpected way to the technological sublime of the internet. The immediate assumption would be that such a feeling of seclusion would be unreachable in something as intimately connected to ourselves as technology, which is created by and for mankind. And yet we can see how the internet draws us away from the physical world and the familiar into a new and very complicated universe. Though created by us, the number of contributors and complexity of the information has morphed the internet into something far greater than ourselves, so great and all-encompassing that it really is incomprehensible. And this can bring a paradoxical sense of seclusion, of separateness from the familiar and manageable, despite the supreme connectedness that the internet represents. The internet becomes an object as much larger than ourselves as Wordsworth's "lofty cliffs," and just as outside of our control.

Despite the sublimity of the internet that we can see if we truly meditate on it, on a typical day as we're surfing the web or stalking our friends on Facebook we're not likely to be overcome by a sense of awe at the grandness of this worldwide network. Instead, we usually flit between windows and tabs, pleased and impressed with the convenience, entertainment, and utility of the technology, but giving no thought to its full extent and potential. This is similar to how Wordsworth describes his first visit to the River Wye, "when like a roe/ [he] bounded o'er the mountains . . . The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,/ Their colours and their forms, were then to [him]/ An appetite" (lines 77-80). At this time he experienced and enjoyed nature, loving it for all its elements, hungry to experience more; and yet he did not yet have the perspective that would give him a true understanding of nature's sublimity. Just as it takes true introspection and consideration of the internet or other modern technology to understand its true potential greatness or terror, Wordsworth needed time and experience to truly put nature into perspective and see it's sublimity. He describes how he looks at nature differently now, after his experiences in the world and now that he has gained an understanding of humanity. He now sees not only the beauty of nature, but its full connectivity and scope, and the power it has to connect all things:

"For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things." (lines 85-102)

Though the internet may not literally contain "the light of setting suns," it contains images and media that can be equally impressive. It is a thing "deeply interfused" and can be considered to "roll through all things," in the way that it connects the world, all places and all people into one network unlimited by space. In it we can find this same kind of power to influence our thoughts and actions that Wordsworth experiences in nature, if only we make the effort to see it. The internet is incredibly grand and powerful, uncontrollable, and both intimately connected with and utterly separate from ourselves. It is a perfect example of the sublime.

* The full name of the poem is "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What it all boils down to

The images in this post are visualizations of the internet from the BarabasiLa gallery and An Atlas of Cyberspaces.

The sublime is a concept that has fascinated scholars and evaded description for hundreds of years. Even the term itself is difficult to define: it is used both to describe things so great and awe-inspiring that any description of them is inadequate, and to explain the inexpressible feeling caused by such objects or concepts. So when you see something sublime, it invokes in you a sense of "the sublime:" a kind of overpowering feeling of terror, inadequacy, awesomeness, and transcendence. Confused? You should be. The very nature of the sublime is incomprehensible and unreachable. Yet this sense, which once was believed to be discoverable only in the farthest, most dramatic reaches of nature, has become in many ways inseparable from our daily lives, through new media and technology.

With the technological wonders that have become so commonplace in our world, sublime experiences are in front of our eyes and at our fingertips at every moment, if we only take the time to notice them. The technologies we've created have grown to such an extent that even the thought of what we've accomplished and what we have the potential to do in the future can evoke a feeling of the sublime. Just look at the internet for the ultimate example: this human invention is really more an idea rather than anything substantial, and yet it is far more expansive than anything that exists in our world. The internet contains information on every imaginable subject (and many that the typical person would never imagine), access to innumerable articles and books, maps and images of much of the world, international communities, virtual worlds that mimic reality, and so much more. This invisible thing made up of who knows what (radio waves? Magic?) connects all of us to the world, and to each other. And each day as we connect to it and write on our blogs or add photos to our Facebooks or search Google we change and add to it. Multiply that by about a billion internet users and you have an infinitely connected, constantly changing, and very sublime worldwide network.
This technological sublime, which is so much a part of us and at the same time so outside of ourselves, has grown to such greatness that it can match and perhaps even surpass the natural sublime that so enthralled Romantic and Gothic authors and philosophers. Yet having the sublime so intimately connected to ourselves has drastically changed both our understanding of the concept and the ways in which we experience it. This is what I've been exploring in this blog. After some definitions and connections, I've looked at the adaptive nature of the sublime, and given some examples of where I see the technological sublime, including the BP oil spill and In my next post I'll tie this to William Wordsworth's depiction of the sublime in his poem Tintern Abbey, to solidify the link between the old sublime and the new.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Expanse and Horror of Amazon

I've been looking on to try to find some more books, articles and authors on the sublime, and I found an absolutely overwhelming array of information. I now have dozens of new sources to explore that have to do with every aspect of the sublime, from original definitions to artistic renditions and purely modern applications. I'm beginning to understand what Burke meant when he described "that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror" (On the Sublime and Beautiful), because this is the exact state I feel myself in with this project. There is just so much information, so many places to look, aspects to consider, people to contact, books and articles to read. Maybe there's a reason that they call it Amazon, because I feel like one of those early jungle explorers, faced with a new, unfamiliar and terrifying world. I start somewhere that makes sense to me, like with Edmund Burke or Emmanuel Kant, two prominent theorists on the sublime, and then I make natural connections from there: to related articles/books, citations within the book, books that have cited books I'm interested in, other books with the same tags, and so on ad nauseam. Soon I have no idea where I am or how I got there, and no chance of finding my way back to the safety of familiar text. The research and possibilities have become so expansive and all-encompassing that I hardly know what to do with them, and after spending hours on Amazon, Google Scholar and in the Blogosphere I have enormous amounts of information but no ability to process it all into anything cohesive. It's my motions of thought that have been suspended, and the infinite realms of academic and philosophical possibility that's brought me a sense of Burke's horror. I think the sublimity of the internet may be too much for me - I've been desperately craving some good literary analysis with just me, a solid, entirely non-digital text, and a pen. Maybe after some of that I'll be ready to jump back in and try to tackle this ridiculous expanse of information that we call the Internet.

The image at the beginning of this post, by the way, is of the Amazon rainforest burning. I think it well depicts an aspect of terror and the inability to control outside forces, which is a key element of the sublime. It is also what I would like to do to and modern technology: strip it down so that only the strongest materials are left, remove all the cluttering underbrush and give it the chance to start fresh.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sublime events

I've been looking for events and people currently involved with research related to the sublime. It's a common enough topic in the literary world, as well as in art and architecture, and it's been looked at from many very diverse perspectives, which makes it interesting trying to find sources that I can relate to my research, which is on the search for the sublime in our modern technological world. It's been difficult to find actual events or conferences on or including this topic, and I haven't managed to find online events or recorded content that I'd actually be able to listen to or participate in, but I have found some past and present conferences that deal with the sublime - predominantly in the UK, interestingly enough.

First I found a conference on Medieval and Early Modern Authorship, by the Swiss Association of Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, which will take place between June 30th and July 2nd this year at the University of Geneva. In this conference Patrick Cheney, a Penn State professor, will present on English Authorship and the Early Modern Sublime. I looked up Cheney and found that one of his research interests is theories of the sublime, and he wrote a book called Marlowe's Republican Authorship: Lucan, Liberty, and the Sublime. I couldn't make any sense of the reviews I found for this book, but it may be interesting to look at. I also found that Cheney spoke at a conference on The Classical Sublime at Cambridge University in 2008, which focused on classical theorizations and representations of the sublime and their impact on later understanding of the sublime. The information about this conference was on the blog Rogueclassicism, which details another conference at the Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition, University of Briston. This conference, which will take place July 8-9 this year, is titled Reception and the Gift of Beauty in the Western Tradition, and one of the major topics of discussion is the sublime (focusing on the 'beauty' aspect). This event has a Facebook page as well, though there is very little content on the page.

I don't know how helpful any of this might be for my research, but it does show me that the idea of the sublime is continuing to be explored, and it has given me some new people with connections to the sublime who I can further research or even attempt to contact. I also am continually reminded of the multidisciplinary nature of the sublime, as I find the term popping up on pages relating not only to literature, but philosophy, religion, art and even medicine. I'm hoping that I can find more that relates directly to the modern technological aspect I'm focusing on, but I have been able to find connections between my project and many different studies of the sublime; in fact, connections to more traditional literary uses of the sublime is essential to my exploration of this topic. Let me know any of your thoughts/findings.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill: Terrifying Sublime

I'm sure many of you have been following the continual pouring of oil into the Gulf of Mexico - I know I've had a sick feeling in my stomach ever since the blast on April 20th. For those of you who haven't, here's the latest update from the New York Times (as of 8pm on June 3rd): Maybe it's just because I'm an Environmental Science student and an overall environmentally focused person, but this whole situation has been horribly traumatic for me. Every day there are more pictures of oil-covered beaches and wildlife, more statistics about the ever-increasing extent of the damage, more reports of failed attempts to stop the flow, and hundreds of thousands more gallons of oil in the Gulf. Currently the lowest estimates say that just over 500,000 gallons are leaked each day. Think about that for a minute. And this has been going on now for 44 days! It's absolutely horrifying. I think the worst part might be the fact that I'm just stuck watching this happen, knowing that there really is nothing I can do to stop it or repair the damage it's caused.

So how does this tie into the sublime? I actually found the connection while exploring The Englewood Review of Books, a book review blog run by the Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. Brent Aldrich, one of their writers, wrote a review of the book The Sublime by Simon Morley, and in this review Aldrich expressed his own experience when watching the first public footage of the leak. Though the video itself is grainy, short and unimpressive, the knowledge of what it entails was enough to give Aldrich the terror of the sublime:

"This is a frightful image in its murky greenness. And the scope of what this simple video loop suggests is nearly beyond the capacity to describe. It certainly follows several of Burke’s [Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful] qualifications of the sublime – the terror of the scope, the obscurity and privation of the bottom of the ocean, the suggestion of infinity – but it also raises even more questions in regard to what a particularly contemporary sublime might encompass."

This contemporary sublime is essentially the purpose of my research and this blog, and the oil spill video is a prime example of it. This is not an image of nature, of something so outside ourselves that we can never fully comprehend it. This is a man-made video of a man-made disaster, and through it we see both the potential we have to cause destruction and horror and our inadequacy to end it. We are incredibly advanced technologically, and able to do some things which may have seemed impossible, such as building a well in the deep ocean. Just the possibility of what we can do is sublime - our potential truly is unbounded and incomprehensible. But as much as we accomplish, we still do not have complete control, and we can still make mistakes - and the greater our technology becomes, the more devastating and earth-altering these mistakes can be. This form of the sublime that we find so often in today's world is one found in reflection on ourselves and our creations, and arises both from our incredible power and our terrible inadequacy to control this power. It produces a terror perhaps even greater than that found in nature by the Romantics, because it is inseparable from ourselves, and yet beyond the scope of our understanding and control.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Ever-adapting Sublime

Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound-
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that 'pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!

(From Mont Blanc: Lines Written In the Vale of Chamouni, lines 32-48, by Percy Shelley, 1816)

The definition and understanding of the sublime has changed constantly through time, always adapting to the unique circumstances and sensibilities of the present. The Romantic idea of the sublime, which I described in my previous post, can be explored in Edmund Burke's philosophical treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke asserted that the sublime depends first on novelty: the excitement and interest of things new and unfamiliar to us. Yet he also argues that "things which engage us merely by their novelty cannot attach us for any length of time." Curiosity, the driving force behind our interest in novelty, "changes its object perpetually, [and] has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied." Because of this, those novel things which initially attract our interest would quickly lose their power over us, and in fact the whole world would soon become normal and dull, if it weren't for the many things that are "adapted to affect the mind by means of other powers besides novelty in them, and of other passions besides curiosity in ourselves." This is where the sublime comes in: when the curiosity and interest of an object does not weaken with time, but rather grows in our minds, in a sense becoming more unfamiliar and unreachable the more we come in contact with it. This concept is the basis of the continual understanding of the sublime, surviving even as the world has changed dramatically.

In 1996, David E. Nye expressed this same concept in his book
American Technological Sublime:
"Even an innocent observer can only be certain of an object’s sublimity by continually reexperiencing it to see if it gains rather than loses force through deeper acquaintance." Nye relates this to modern technology and the preconceptions that come along with it. Today it is unlikely that anyone will come upon a natural object without any previous exposure, through photographs, descriptions and even video found in print media or on the internet. This brings up some question of whether the natural sublime, that overpowering and all-consuming sense of wonder found by Percy Shelley in Mont Blanc (as quoted above), can truly be found in today's world. Nye argues that, despite the thorough understanding and continual representations of nature that we find in the modern media, "the sublime object cannot be extirpated by expectations" (Nye, p. 15). He gives the example of the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980. This event was heavily publicized before, during, and after the actual eruption, and thousands of photos and videos were taken. Yet none of these could capture the true greatness of the event: "the witnesses to the eruption had an experience that was not only visual but also visceral. The ground shook. Lightning flashed out of the spreading cloud. There was thunder, and a sulfuric odor" (Nye). The sublime was not found in the human representations and recordings of the event, but in the actual thing, with all the elements coming together into one grand and all-powerful experience. No matter how many images and explanations of this eruption a person sees, unless they were actually there when it happened, they have not had an equally sublime experience.

With this in mind, we see how the Romantic, natural sublime retains its prevalence and power even in today's increasingly technologically advanced society. No matter how hard we try to replicate nature's grandness through photography and video, the kind of overpowering awe experienced by Percy Shelley at Mont Blanc can still only be experienced by visiting the mountain itself. This is not to say that new media cannot produce its own brand of the sublime - in fact this will be the topic of my next post, which will explore the new sublime made possible to us through modern technology.