Saturday, May 21, 2011

on sharks and nature now

Damien Hirst’s Shark: Nature, Capitalism and the Sublime

by Luke White

The sheer volume of recent writings and academic conferences on the contemporary sublime suggest the subject is very much a matter of current concern [1]. But there is also a sense in which the sublime is not ever quite contemporary. To discuss the sublime now, we find ourselves inevitably tracing our way back to a historical discourse, to eighteenth-century thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant who theorised sublimity in its ‘classic’ form, or to nineteenth-century artists such as Caspar David Friedrich or J.M.W. Turner, with whom the aesthetic of the sublime is tightly associated. In fact, the very eighteenth-century thinkers who developed the notion of the sublime in its familiar, modern form were already looking back to the ancient world and to Longinus, and thus found themselves already caught up in the untimeliness of the idea [2].

Such a notion of a ‘contemporary sublime’ thus seems to me to raise two closely linked questions. First: what does it mean for the sublime to be at once a matter of current concern, but also a very old idea? And second: what is the relationship between the sublime that cultural historians of the eighteenth century studied and the sublime now?

Answering these questions is complicated by the peculiarly intermittent unfolding of the history the sublime, which has cycled repeatedly between being a key aesthetic or critical idea and becoming something seemingly irrelevant and outmoded, rising from its grave repeatedly, like those movie-monsters who are never quite killed off because they are already (un)dead. This insistent repetition of the sublime – like the return of the repressed – involves us in the temporality that Freud called Nachträglichkeit (sometimes translated as ‘afterwardsness’). Entwined as it is with a temporality of return, I understand the ‘contemporary sublime’ as a matter of our culture’s haunting by the history of sublimity. In such Freudian terms, haunting and Nachträglichkeit speak in turn of trauma; and the trauma that I would argue lies at the heart of this haunting is the rise of the capitalist modernity in which, as Marx’s translators put it, ‘all that is solid melts into air’, a phrase itself redolent with alchemical notions of sublimation [3]. After all, parallel to the aesthetic revolution of the sublime ran the ‘financial revolution’ of the 1680s to 1750s [4]. If we find ourselves tangling with the sublime again today, the reason for this might be our embrace within a capitalist modernity whose form of capital has come once more to bear uncanny resemblances to the imperial, hyper-liquid and perplexingly spectral capital of the eighteenth century.

Monday, May 16, 2011

forward leaning

So much has happened since the last post here - too much, too quickly for a running critical round-up, or the stamina of a scurvy tune.

Of the bad news, from Fukushima to the ongoing dirty wars to xenophobic progroms (in Athens, right now, sickeningly), what more to say than has already been said here, repeatedly, about the splicing of terror and war machine? Disaster drones on and will do, the logic holding.

But these months have also seen a momentous reaching for liberation, a stirring emergence of self-empowered subjectivities rolling across North Africa and into the Middle East - a heartening, amazing and humbling movement from below, still unfolding, still gathering and spreading. How far, how deep? The subjects that have emerged, massively and historically, will decide that for themselves.

And they will have to, for the old enforcers will not easily get out of their way. Scrambling, dissembling, bombing here, turning the blind eye there, the old order will do all it can to contain, capture and exhaust these energies, and to restore privileged access to gas and oil and addicted markets for arms.