150: David Nye’s American Technological Sublime

In American Technological Sublime, David Nye investigates the history of the social construction of the sublime in America from about 1820 to the early 1990s.  Nye’s American sublime is somewhat like 18th century European concepts of the sublime, which involve human apprehension of something so big, beautiful, and incomprehensible that the mind is seized with terror, awe, and pleasure all at once; these extremes dominate the human mind, so that the person transcends the material world and comes into contact with the divine.  However, while the European sublime was a category of experience accessible only to educated individuals in contact with nature or sacred architecture, the American sublime has distinctly populist, nationalist, and capitalist overtones.  As early as the 1830s, American travellers in the West were reporting on the sublimity of the natural landscape, while people in the presence of massive new technologies were experiencing a transcendence usually reserved for nature or high art, and revivalists were recommending sublime tourist sites like Niagara as places to get in touch with the divine.  The American sublime was thus a popular, communal experience rather than an elite individual one; it was associated with emotions of awe, pleasure and terror rather than worldly transcendence; it could involve feats of engineering as well as high art and natural beauty; and its ties to American technological transformations of the landscape meant that the experience could be incorporated into nationalist narratives (love of country) and commodified into landscapes of fantasy and pleasure (Disneyland).  As Nye argues, the American sublime is key to American cultural identity.

Although the chapters are roughly chronological, Nye is more interested in talking about sublimeS rather than THE sublime, so that differences of time, place, and personal experience only add to his discussion.  Technological sublimes include the railroad as a “dynamic sublime” that awed in its ability to unite, expand, and enrich the nation; bridges and skyscrapers as a “geometric sublime” that “appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk…. the triumph of reason in concrete form;” factories, electric power plants, and other manufactories as a new “mechanical sublime, which regulates the mind and technologically supersedes nature;” the electrified urban landscape as an accidental “electrical sublime” that dominated night, embodied the values of capitalism and “transformed the appearance of the world;” the atomic bomb as a new, more terrifying form of the dynamic sublime, and Vegas and Disneyland (with nods to Niagara and the Grand Canyon) as the “consumer sublime,” commodified pleasure landscapes that provide the rush associated with dislocation from the world of work in simulation of the sublime.

Throughout, Nye traces the ways in which increased articulations between the sublime and mass American culture have led to a watering down of what was once a transcendent, otherworldly dislocation from reality, even as they make that experience accessible to more people.  While he argues that the sublime is at once an individual and collective experience, he also shows how top-down and structurally conditioned that experience has been.

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