Sublime interventions

American Technological Sublime
September 8, 1995

Potential readers who are perplexed by a book title made of three adjectives may find "French flamboyant gothic" a useful parallel construction; other readers will already be familiar with the sublime as a concern of Edmund Burke and with the subsequent subdivision of the sublime by Immanuel Kant into the mathematical and dynamical.

In less technical contexts, the word "sublime" qualifies some-thing that is elevated or lofty, usually in a figurative sense, and which inspires awe or admiration. (By etymology, "subliminal" has the same origin, deriving from Latin limen - a beam either spanning two uprights as a lintel or lying on the ground to form a threshold; subliminal refers to a sensation that is so weak that it does not rise to the threshold of perception, whereas "sublime", curiously, refers to an entity so lofty as almost to reach the top of the door.) Both technical and common usage are freely employed by David Nye, professor and chair at the Center for American Studies at Odense University, Denmark. Thus, he makes his dedication to "Leo Marx, sublime teacher". Likewise, "If any man-made object can be called sublime, surely the Golden Gate Bridge can".

On the technical side, the discussion begins with resolution of the sublime into pleasure and pain, mental attraction and repulsion, reverential awe (which "may be called a negative pleasure"), and other feelings, sensations, and emotional states which distinguish "the sublime" from the simple use of "sublime" as an adjective. Categories now arise. The mathematical sublime is exemplified by viewing the flow of water at Niagara Falls, the Amoskeag Mills (said to manufacture cloth at 50 miles per hour), the extreme magnitude of spectacular electrical illumination, and in general the sensation engendered by encounters with incomparable or immeasurable magnitudes akin to the infinity of mathematical analysis.

The dynamical sublime involves a terrifying natural force (reassuringly, "Kant notes that we can, however, view an object as fearful without being afraid of it"). Examples include experiencing the thunder of Niagara Falls, the roar of a modern airplane, the Saturn V rocket lifting off, the irresistible power of shifting illumination in the White Way viewed from within Times Square, the telegraph, the railways, the steamboat, and in general the triumph of machines over space and time. As Nye says, the dynamical sublime of Kant referred to natural force only, but the sublime is not a static concept and indeed Nye is a principal agent of change. We meet the arithmetical sublime, which "emerged when engineers began to build massive objects whose scale and permanence made them appear to be triumphs over the physical powers of nature", the geometrical sublime ("triumphs over nature more emphatic than those of the antebellum period"), pioneered by the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi and the Brooklyn Bridge and maintained by the Golden Gate Bridge; consumer's sublime, manifested in Las Vegas; and the electrical sublime (the subject of Nye's Electrifying America). The technological sublime, a post-second world war synthesis, is an integral part of contemporary consciousness that has emerged and exfoliated into several distinct forms, and is a feeling that is essentially religious, as aroused by the Grand Canyon and the New York skyline, for example. It is impossible to do justice to these new concepts by forcing sharp definitions upon them at a moment when they are clearly still crystallising.

Setting aside the sublime in literature, which is deeply rooted in the Peri Hypsous of Pseudo-Longinus, the author aims to generalise the sublime to the cultural practice of certain historical subjects. The subject matter goes beyond technology and history of technology to portray the public perceptions of a range of artifacts and natural objects whose scale is apt to arouse awe. The many stories are told in emotional terms, drawing heavily on contemporary quotations ("Buffalo Bill wrote that the Grand Canyon was 'too sublime for expression, too wonderful to behold without awe, and beyond all power of mortal description'"), and recreate the intensity of feeling experienced by viewers of the great bridges, the skyscrapers, the dams, the railroads, the factories, the world fairs, the Statue of Liberty and other spectacles. It is indeed enjoyable to be reminded of these past experiences, often portrayed in vivid detail, some not so long ago, and to be aroused by them. One need not therefore complain if a secondary theme fails to convince.

This is the claim that "the technological sublime has been one of America's central 'ideas about itself' - a defining ideal, helping to bind together a multicultural society. Americans have long found the sublime more necessary than Europeans . . .". Later we read that "The American public celebrated the fact that a spectacular sight was the biggest waterfall, the longest railway bridge, or the grandest canyon, and they did so with a touch of pride that Europe boasted no such wonders." The Erie Canal (1825) is presented as "a demonstration of American engineering skill, and one of the first icons of the technological sublime". The excitement in Baltimore on July 4 1828 when construction of a railroad began is evoked again in the reader - "the sheer mass of people had a sublime quality". But whereas the public in Baltimore gathered to celebrate technological advancement, the English resented it. What was "the moral influence of steam" to the Americans was class strife, frankensteinian monsters and satanic mills to the English. Nye does not mention that the great Erie Canal was preceded in 1681 by the 150-mile Languedoc Canal connecting the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, bypassing Spain, with 100 locks in rugged terrain, or that the full canal network linking the Bristol Channel to the Thames, and the North Sea to the Irish Sea, was essentially in place by 1822. The Erie Canal was surely not the first icon of its kind.

Likewise, it is naive to contrast Baltimorean enthusiasm for the railroad-to-be-built with English resentment without weighing later American suffering caused by steam. Nye's infectious boosting of the sublime is matched by his neglect of reaction against the dark side of technology. After the civil war tens of railroad bridges in the United States fell down each year with loss of life, while construction gangs were driven to exhaustion and beyond by commercial forces as well as by sublimity. The river steamboat, which in 1818 was declared to be sublime by the American Journal of Science, suffered from disastrous boiler explosions, being lost in 1859-60. It would probably be fair to say that the negative impact of the new steam technology was felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

I imagine the French felt a touch of pride in their many canals, as they do today over the train a grande vitesse (TGV); that the Swiss thought as much of the Alps as did the American travellers that reached the Grand Canyon (oblivious of other larger canyons); and that the English crowds lining Stephenson's Stockton and Darlington railway when it opened in 1825 experienced awe. In 1801 Trevithick had drawn the first passengers with a steam locomotive that, by 1803, was running down Oxford Street to Paddington and back via Islington. An old illustration of the circular track on the site of Euston Square shows an interested crowd enthusiastically paying a shilling a head in 1808 to watch the train going round - with no extra charge for those brave enough to ride it.

So erudite is the author that it would seem crass to attribute the upbeat music of American technological sublime to frontier mentality. Still, one might compare America with other remote and equally large spaces with few immigrants. In Australia we see similar pride in achievements such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, the Snowy River Scheme, the city of Melbourne, pioneering aviators and technical contributions to aviation, and many technological feats memorialised on the currency notes.

In Brazil the Amazon is considered to be at least the equal of the Mississippi, the waterfall at Iguassu on the Paran dwarfs Niagara Falls, the bay at Rio surpasses Sydney Harbour, they say, while the skyline is felt to be surely as divine as that of New York. On the technological side, Brazilians will assure you that the Wright brothers concede to Alberto Santos-Dumont in the matter of the first motor driven flight from unassisted takeoff; that the first practical telephone was demonstrated in Brazil by none other than Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell, thanks to encouragement by Emperor Dom Pedro; that the awesome Maracana stadium can contain the Louisiana Superdome; and that the Itaipu Dam outdoes the Hoover Dam. The short distances between European countries may act to tone down brash overstatements of national pride, while a human tendency to boast may be less restrained in remote places where frontier mentality, thought of as a cultural glue that works to hold the place together, can flourish.

Ronald Bracewell is emeritus professor of electrical engineering, Stanford University.

American Technological Sublime

Author - David E. Nye
ISBN - 0 262 14056 X
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £31.50
Pages - 362

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