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Introductory Presentation: The Sublime in the Anthropocene

  • Lombard, David
Publication Date
Mar 11, 2022
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Introduced as an aesthetic and rhetorical concept by Longinus in ancient thought, the notion of the sublime has a venerable history in arts and culture. From Thomas Burnett and Joseph Addison to Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and the romantic poets, theorists of the “natural sublime” have described a fraught relationship between humans and a natural world perceived as vast and overpowering. While the natural sublime is still prevalent in nature writing and photography, versions more attuned to environmental disruption, technology or (non-)human agency have emerged. These revisions of the sublime avoid romanticized representations of nature to include technology in the presumably pure and untrammeled wilderness (e.g., the “technological sublime”). Besides, they shed light on ecological responsibility and concerns (e.g., the “ecosublime” [Rozelle 2006] or “organic sublime” [Outka 2011]) such as on variable forms of toxicity (the “toxic sublime” [Peeples 2011]) or on an embodied and multi-sensorial experience of landscapes and materiality (the “haptic sublime” [McNee 2016]). However, no comprehensive notion of an “Anthropocene sublime” yet exists, and the jury is still out on whether the sublime can be a viable aesthetic mode in the context of the Anthropocene at all. This international one-day conference will engage in discussions on the affordances and limits of the sublime for figuring modes of materiality and (non-)human agency in contemporary photography, performing arts, literature, and cinema. Participants will mobilize recent theories in new materialism, material ecocriticism, object-oriented ontology, (critical) posthumanism, and affect theory to elaborate and interrogate a materialist account of affect and the sublime adapted for the environmental reality of the Anthropocene. In order to develop a rich and multifaceted account of an “Anthropocene sublime,” the conference will query the sublime’s relation to other adjacent aesthetic categories and affects such as the weird, the gothic, the beautiful, the “stuplime” (Ngai 2005), or wonder (Economides 2016). Presentations will position the sublime as a key artistic strategy to represent (non-)human materiality and agency as well as the affects customarily associated with the Anthropocene and related environmental crises.

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