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.


  1. Good tie-in to the present and very nice imagery. You should refer Brent Aldrich to your blog. I'm sure he'd have a lot to say.

  2. This disaster really reminds me of that dark side of romanticism concept of technology-gone-awry. Basically what we have is an ecological Frankenstein monster that is unstoppable. Another allusion that comes to mind is Pandora's box, in the way that they've opened up something out of control that is unleashing black pollution into the world on a massive scale. It's quite terrifiying. And therefore, excellent material.

  3. Katherine,
    Thanks for spending some time with that review; the book itself is a great introductory collection of essays that seems really relevant for your research, so you might see if you can get your hands on a copy. The idea of the sublime isn’t something that I necessarily have researched a lot until recently, although it’s always somewhere in the back of my head... To explain some, I’m primarily an artist and I’m really interested in this translation of the land into representation. The Sublime, as such, is one of those devices – it’s a way of interpreting or representing, but it’s so interesting because it’s the point at which language or images fail. This technological sublime, though, is so intriguing, these computer-generated images that have no basis in ‘natural’ landscapes. I’m currently working on a project that tries to tie some of these sorts of CGI images to Burke’s description of the sublime, and it sounds similar to some of your research; I’d be excited to hear more about what you’re working on after I’ve spent some time on this blog, and show you some of what I’m working on. One video in particular that might be relevant is here:
    Let's keep in touch