The Awesome, or the metamodern sublime

Under postmodernism, cyberspace served as the most prominent cultural example of the sublime. Today, however, the concept of opacity has emerged which negates the corrosive effect of web links, providing a way “out” of the otherwise never-ending link labyrinth. Moreover, this opacity provides us with a notion that negotiates between beauty and sublimity – the awesome.

Beauty and sublimity have long been discussed as a dichotomy of experiences and concepts. The beautiful strives for some sort of formal harmony, a pleasing coherence, albeit often with an aura of the ineffable. Beauty can be “framed,” literally or otherwise. Sublimity marks the impossibility of framing: sublimity is a signpost pointing to an abyss, a thunderstorm rolling over the Alps, the high-pitched whine of a shell shocked mind; sublimity blows out the speakers, overwhelms the levels, and fries the circuits.

Derrida and Lyotard, among others, seized upon the sublime during the development and rise of postmodern theory. Its utility lay in exposing the fundamental epistemological “gap” between reason and understanding, where both “prove inadequate to the task of making the world and our concepts conform to each other” (Sim 31). To fetishize the sublime meant, in effect, to foreground the paradoxes, quandaries, and limitations of signification generally.[i] Once identified, this non-negotiable lacuna deep within the fabric of the modern project was blown up into the lack (of origin, of foundation; of truly re-presenting reality) at the center of the postmodern epoch.

Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives” and Derrida’s concepts of differánce and deconstruction are inextricably bound up with the sublime.Lyotard argued that attempts to construct metaphysical systems that seek to totalize all of experience are bound to go awry because totality itself is sublime and, therefore, beyond comprehension or representation:

This is what must be understood […][when] Kant qualifies the activity of the imagination in the sublime. It is the seriousness of melancholy, the suffering of an irreparable lack, an absolute nostalgia for form’s only always being form […] The concept places itself out of the reach of all presentation: the imagination founders, inanimate. All of its forms are inane before the absolute (Lyotard’s “Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime”, quoted in Sim 32).

Derrida takes the argument further, demonstrating that even the “totality” or coherence of supposed discrete works and utterances must be called into question. With it, “beauty” itself – the quaint, naïve notion that something might be self-contained, coherent, discursively pure – goes instantly out of fashion. Ultimately, differánce became the mise-en-abyme into which the postmodern subject plummeted, as Raoul Eshelman argued:

For the subject, postmodernism presents a mighty, seemingly inescapable trap. Any attempt it makes to find itself through a search for meaning is bound to go awry, for every sign promising some sort of originary knowledge is embedded in further contexts whose explication requires the setting of even more signs. Attempting to find itself through meaning, the subject drowns in a flood of ever expanding cross-references. Yet even if the subject clings to form it fares no better. For postmodernism sees in form not an antidote to meaning, but rather a trace leading back to already existing, semantically loaded contexts. Every fixation of meaning is dispersed through cross-connected forms; every use of form links up with already existing meanings; every approach to an origin leads back to an alien sign. Searching for itself, the subject quickly ends where it began: in the endlessly expanding field of the postmodern (Eshelman ¶ 1).

The best corollary to the postmodern sublime is the internet. Site by site, query by query, it may seem structured and organized. But scattered on every page are traces to others, supplementing it meaningfully, peripherally, randomly, and/or spuriously; each supplement, in turn, containing its own web of traces; so on and so on ad infinitum.

And from the point of view of the text – the internet; the world –  there is no “correct,” “logical,” or “most meaningful” way to proceed, no authorial will to uncover, and no “master” text to refer to for guidance. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the internet and postmodernism rely heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome.  Several rules (#34, for instance) and laws (Godwin’s, e.g.) of the internet arise from this structure, along with countless memes (the Rick Roll, lolcats), not to mention the phenomenon itself . Spend your time long enough on the internet and you’ll know what it’s like to be an undergrad cutting your teeth on deconstruction: the feeling of being everywhere/nowhere all at once and there being absolutely no distinction between the two.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Or rather, it’s the end of one story and the beginning of another. Now that we have entered a metamodern era – an era that can be characterized by practices and sensibilities such as post-milenniallism, performatism or the new sincerity – is it time to recast our notions of the sublime and the beautiful? Do we need a new way to talk about it? Do these concepts have a new role to play?

If the approach so far taken at Notes on Metamodernism holds here, the answer to those questions is yes and no. A metamodern treatment of the sublime/beautiful dichotomy would lead us somewhere “[…] historically beyond; epistemologically with; and ontologically between […]” the discussion as it stands (“Etymology of the term metamodernism,” ¶ 3). It may seem hard to swallow the beautiful with the sublime, given that the sublime is theoretically unswallowable, but thankfully (for you and me both) we aren’t pulling these ideas out of the ether. It’s already in practice, running rampant on the internet, and you’re already fully acquainted with it – I am, of course, speaking about the “awesome.”

Linguistically, “awesome” serves as a perfect bridge for the two concepts. Etymologically it gestures at the sublime through “awe,” an experience that mingles abject fear and profound ecstasy. In today’s vernacular, it denotes delight (“Hall & Oates is coming to the state fair? That’s awesome!”) And while the everyday use of “awesome” may be used to describe mundane, not-terribly-profound things, in the broadening of its definition it forces us to broaden our aesthetic understanding of the space between the sublime and the beautiful. From a classical or postmodern standpoint, there is no space between the two, and absolutely nooverlap. But as Jesse Thorn’s Manifesto for the New Sincerity illustrates, “boggling the mind” is exactly what the new sublime is all about:

What is The New Sincerity? Think of it as irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power. Or think of it as the absence of irony and sincerity, where less is (obviously) more. If those strain the brain, just think of Evel Knievel.

Let’s be frank. There’s no way to appreciate Evel Knievel literally. Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things. Here is a real man who feels at home as Spidey on the cover of a comic book. Simply put, Evel Knievel boggles the mind.

But by the same token, he isn’t to be taken ironically, either. The fact of the matter is that Evel is, in a word, awesome. His jumpsuit looks great. His stunts were amazing. As he once said of his own life: “I’ve had every airplane, every ship, every yacht, every racehorse, every diamond, and probably, with the exception of two or three, every woman I wanted in my lifetime. I’ve lived a better life than any king or prince or president.” And as patently ridiculous as those words are, they’re pretty much true.

“Awesome,” here, is the cornerstone of an entire ethos. Evel Knievel makes no sense on paper but is relentlessly, awesomely real. Raoul Eshelman would call Evel Knievel “opaque,” meaning that his presence disrupts the postmodern tendency to dissolve all seemingly coherent, autonomous entities into their constituent and often contradictory traces (Eshelman ¶ 2). Similarly, we can look at it and see a delight in affect, which finds the intent[ii] behind cultural expressions more interesting, more vital than the perfunctory re-[re-(re-)]presentational acrobatics involved in their formulation.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of opacity to the metamodern  era. There is no “progress,” no movement beyond or outside postmodernism without it. Among the first examples of opacity on the internet were Hampster Dance and Killer Japanese Seizure Robots (the latter, sadly, now plastered with junk links to “dating” sites). In stark contrast to the rest of the internet, these were “dead ends”—once you arrived, there were no links to follow, no other place to go. Just this one web page with its repeating GIFs and annoying MIDI music. And the only way to talk about it was to reference the thing itself –“It’s… hampsters. Dancing. To music,” or, “It’s… Killer Japanese Seizure Robots. Just come look.” There’s no hidden message, no “joke” to get, and absolutely no snark. What you see is what you get, period.

After 30+ years of the postmodern paradigm, an experience of this sort is genuinely mind-boggling. When the dominant critical practice is that of dissolving texts into various discourses, of tracing allusions, sniffing out irony, and contemplating the terminally arbitrary nature of signification itself, you aren’t prepared for Evel Knievel. You aren’t prepared for the Star Wars Kid. When someone tattoos this permanently onto their body, your belief in irony as the be-all-end-all of enlightened cultural expression has to be shaken.

There is, in fact, a strain of proto-postmodern thinking that presages just this aesthetic fascination in the writing of Theodor Adorno. Though the term is absent, Adorno is dismantling metanarratives with an argument very much like Lyotard’s:

The name of dialectics says no more [… ] than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder [….] The thoughts of transcendental apperception or of Being could satisfy philosophers so long as they found those concepts identical with their own thoughts [….] Since the basic character of every general concept dissolves in the face of a distinct identity, a total philosophy is no longer to be hoped for […] (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, quoted in Sim, p. 35-6.)

Let me paraphrase Adorno: not only is the dizzying, helter-skelter richnessof the internet standing in the way of encapsulating it in some sort of concept, this guy’s standing lying right in the way, too. The new fetish, the post-postmodern fetish, is focused exactly on these “remainders,” and it combines the formal requirements of beauty with the chaotic undertow of the sublime.

Though we aren’t terribly far into this new epoch, we do have enough hindsight to see how and why we got here. Once we plunged over the edge of totality into the kaleidoscope of differánce, once we accepted the futility of Unity on the grandest scale, where else was there to turn? To some extent, this is a development of the micronarrative thinking encouraged by Lyotard. No Absolute Truth, no, but contextual, in situmini-truths that provisionally gesture at ethical, moral, or aesthetic universals. This was the focus of my essay on the Office and the work of Sacha Baron Cohen (Da Ali G Show, Borat, Brüno): just because a vacuum develops in regards to normative beliefs and behaviors on a grand scale doesn’t mean that anything goes in day to day life, especially in a communal setting.

We are no longer hung up on the bankruptcy of metarantive projects. We embrace the “remainder,” the sometimes paradoxical, reliably quirky, often unsettling, ocassionally inspiring, unexpectedly hilarious distinct quantity. We are drawn to their seeming “authenticity,” their “truth” just as we were once drawn to ever more abstract be-all end-all theories of everything. In popular culture, this means that (returning to the American Office) Dwight Schrute, an idioscyncratic nerd, becomes something of a hero; it forever hallows the name of the Star Wars Kid on the internet; and provides the perfect opening for a persona like Stephen Colbert.

By now it should be clear that the awesome is an inversion of the postmodern sublime. From a textual, “universal” point of view, the awesome is “sublime” in that it defies categorization. Whether the example is frivolous or profound, as a proposition it “boggles the mind.” In its instantiation, however, in its narrative manifestation, it strives toward the category of the “beautiful” in that it seeks and/or achieves a sort of harmony for the sake of harmony, generating its own frame that can either be believed or disbelieved (Eshelman ¶ 10). Not that its reception really matters. Whether or not you “believe” that Evel Knievel can leap across the Grand Canyon in a rocket powered car, he will still attempt to do so—and he may very well succeed.[iii]


Top image courtesy well-bred insolence ; lower image (“Evel Knievel”) courtesy Jesse Thorn.

[i] See the MIT Press’s Sublime for an entire section of works, including Lyotard and Derrida, on “The Unpresentable.”

[ii] Lyotard would call this a “transcendental illusion”: the  “desire to take the will for the deed, to treat the current spectacle as something other than a strictly sublime event, one that by its nature cannot give rise to truth claims or probative arguments of any kind.” Christopher Norris, What’s Wrong With Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy.Quoted in Sim, p. 66.

[iii] A software program called Sketch2Photo provides an incredible and interactive demonstration of this aesthetic, which revels in the challenge of figuring out how to make radically disparate elements somehow hang together. It was designed to generate a photorealistic image given various basic inputs. What makes it “awesome” is how it generates the image. You begin by labeling the background (“tree,” in the example video, yields a park). On top of this layer you sketch rough shapes which are also labeled (“dog,” “helicopter,” “raptor…”). Generating the image involves a lot of sophisticated computer magic, but the end result is an uncannily convincing rendering of whatever random nonsense you feed it, and all of it is composed from the entirety of the visual media available on the internet. Sketch2Photo is a living, breathing embodiment of the “awesome,” (as put it: “Photoshop + Image Recognition = Awesome”).

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  1. #POMPLAGATE | music, money, + the gift economy | One Percent Jihad

    […] But here’s the thing – Richardson is right.  Artists have never made money from art in the sense that say, bakers make money from donuts or carpenters from chairs.  When I buy a donut, it’s because I want to eat it and thus give myself some calories and a brief moment of sugar-derived pleasure.  I could make myself a donut but it probably wouldn’t be as good as the one I could buy, and if time is factored in, it probably would not be much cheaper either.  Same goes for a chair, except that a chair has even more use value to me, and would be even harder to make – hence why it is more expensive.  Music – art – has *absolutely* *no* *use* *value.*  It exists outside of the spectrum of what can be put to practical use.  This is what makes it art, and this is what makes it capital-A Awesome. […]

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