Posted in 03 The beautiful and the sublime, Coursework

Exercise 1.6: The Contemporary Abyss

Read Simon Morely’s essay ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’


Next choose any body of work that you feel explores the sublime. It may be photographic, literay, cinematic or any other medium. Write at least 300 words describing how you believe the work you’ve selected relates to the sublime. Use Morely’s text to support your argument.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Morely’s essay, it was well structured and written in an entertaining, thought-provoking and informed manner. The little paths of inspiration led me to create a mindmap in my sketchbook where I documented not only his points but my thoughts. I find it very helpful to have a separate (rather messy and discombobulated) sketchbook to record my thoughts, ideas, gather reviews, write to-do lists and cut up random photos. It’s also full of my sketches regarding the course and I will submit it alongside my assignments for assessment. I tend to find order within chaos when it comes to brainstorming.

When it came to choosing a piece representing an experience with the sublime I found it quite challenging, I have a very wild imagination and such a zest for life. Despite having such a different and challenging life so far and being ill since I was a small child I really love my life (minus the illness) I’ve learnt to appreciate all the little things, enjoy everything and I experience everything in stunning technicolour. I’ve often been likened to an enthusiastic puppy. So I really wanted to focus on something that created a feeling even stronger than the norm.

My chosen pieces differ greatly in that one is a piece of fiction and the other is a dark story with such hope. They both carry messages about the world we live in (interestingly the real life one is about hope and courage whereas the fiction is a dark and disturbing look at human nature) but the emotions felt were quite a stark contrast.I couldn’t choose between them so decided to review both.

The first is the movie Nerve, it centres around a terrifying new game which enables one to become either a watcher or a player. Watchers watch the players and the players perform the dares they are challenged to do, for money. At first, the dares are harmless, immature and embarrassing but they soon take a darker turn risking lives, breaking laws. Near the end of the movie, it’s night, one of the main characters is dangling over a city off a crane, on a skyscraper…with one hand. Watching it I was frozen to my chair, my heart was pounding, I desperately wanted to avert my gaze but it was though I was petrified, fixated in horrified fascination. For me this felt like an encounter with the sublime, ‘an agreeable kind of horror’ the way my body reacted certainly was backing up the theory. Despite knowing that it wasn’t real that it was all green screen with wires and actors the feeling seemed no more intense than if it was a real situation. It made me think the feeling generated when one has an encounter with the sublime must surely have a scientific reasoning behind it. Perhaps it is more an internal influence, a chemical reaction than external.

Later on, the movie got more intense and took an almost Lord of the Flies theme as the crowd bayed for blood, for one of the characters to shoot the other all for the sake of a sick, twisted and psychopathic game. It threw a macabre, disturbing look at human nature. When you strip away the psyche (Sigmund Freud’s theory) all that is left behind is the impulsive ID that wants gratification immediately. It is unsettling, to say the least. This seemed a different experience, as though given an aerial view of one potential path of humanity, the helplessness to stop it, the grim reality of friends turning on friends, people against people, the reactions of people, when faced with extreme circumstances, is a concept which shows up in many works of art, Lord of the Flies, A Brave New World, the Prisoner. When I first spoke to my tutor on Skype he said he was interested in myths, at the time I thought he meant myths such as the giant on Snowdon, or the Hydra, Cerberus the Three Headed Dog however he said it was a different type of myth, the myth that we are free.  Controlling governments, controlled freedom all themes which are depicted in art such as 1984 and the Prisoner trying to escape a claustrophobic and controlling situation. Whilst these works of art are all fiction the fact that it is a theme that crops up so much is an allegory for the truth, showing us the controlling system that is warped all around us. Morely wrote, “Thus discussions of the sublime in contemporary art can sometimes be covert or camouflaged devices for talking about the kinds of things that were once addressed by religious discourses and nevertheless seem to remain pertinent within an otherwise religiously sceptical and secularised world.” They are a way of showing us a reality we may never face, generate suitable emotions, raise questions, inspire those to challenge the system. This makes me think about Morely and his statment that we all desire to be bound by no code, end rationality and be free.

I always feel like the sublime is about experiencing something so wonderful, emotional or terrifying that one transcends to another level, not necessarily a spiritual level, but a level that is somehow different. It is a physical change in your body.

My second experience of the sublime wasn’t an ‘agreeable kind of horror’ but of a strong, almost indescribable feeling of being so moved that you feel the sublime in your chest trying to break free. I have an insatiable appetite for knowledge and several days ago was researching the best way to learn morse code. I came across a website  stating why one should learn morse code in the modern age. There were two stories of how morse code had been used to save lives, the first of an American soldier who’s plane was shot down in the Vietnamese war; captured and tortured he was forced to take part in a televised press conference, to pretend everything was ok and say he was being well treated. He did exactly this but that wasn’t the only message he was sending, through the blinking of his eyes he communicated a message back home in the form of morse code over and over again. One word repeated. T.O.R.T.U.R.E His actions changed the course of the Vietnamese War and revealed the suspected truth that the prisoners were being tortured. He was eventually rescued.

The story I am focusing on however is very similar and happened in Columbia, 2010. A communist Guerilla movement kidnapped many soldiers, imprisoning them in a brutal camp. Many were rescued and another rescue was planned but Colonel Jose Espejo needed to find a way to reach the soldiers, to send a message of hope, telling them to stay strong, that a rescue was underway. Their saviour came in the form of radio, the Guerilla camps always had music playing which the prisoners could hear. The Colonel teamed up with composers, the radio station and musicians to create a song, the lyrics pointed to listening to the riff. And hidden like an enigma inside the riff was the message. In morse code.

“19 people rescued, you’re next. Don’t lose hope.”

The song reached the Guerilla camps but as most of them were farmers they had no knowledge of morse code yet the captured soldiers did. Their message of hope was received, they were able to alert other prisoners and many escaped to safety.

Below is the song and I feel the experience of the sublime, personally, comes from hearing the riff. At first, it sounds like standard music but then when you know the story, your mind shifts the right gears like an enigma machine decoding it and the morse code stands out. When I first listened I couldn’t describe the feeling, which is why I feel it was an experience of the sublime, it was so powerful, so indescribable like something was trying to break out of my body with sheer hope. What it meant for the prisoners, the surge of fear for them as to whether they would hear it, whether the guerrillas would detect it. It may be a feeling you feel when you watch an especially intense movie like James Bond but with the realism that this is a true story, it makes the feeling even more intense. The sublime is something you can’t describe, something that defies words, it’s something you feel but can’t say. Like being told an incredible secret but then losing your tongue so you will never be able to explain it. Perhaps that is where the feeling comes from.

Posted in 03 The beautiful and the sublime, Coursework, Research and Reflection

The Sublime and Taoism

Approaching Assignment One I have decided to focus on my interpretation of the sublime. At first, I had intended to focus on beauty, after all, it is something that is believed to be innate to all, we have our own perception and definition of it and therefore can convey what it means to us. However the more I researched the sublime the more I found myself drawn down the path. Perhaps the element that most intrigues me is the fact that it is a term that breaches human comprehension, there is no set definition of the sublime, despite all the complex investigations and analysis there doesn’t seem to be an agreed or determined meaning. In that sense, it feels almost spiritual, unearthly, transcending into a new level. The course states that the sublime is something that we may have all felt at some point in our lives yet we have been unable to articulate the feeling into words. Recently I was researching Philosophy and religions in National Geographics ‘Knowledge Book’ and was introduced to Taoism in Chinese religion and philosophy.

Originating in fourth century B.C, Taoism is believed to have been founded by Tao Tzu who authored the Tao Te Ching (A piece of writing consists of 81 verses discussing the Tao) Tao means simply,  ‘way‘ and each person has their own Tao which should not be tainted or disturbed by immoral, corrupt or sinful acts. This makes me think of the Super Ego in Sigmund Freud diagram of the psyche (with the ID being impulsive and impatient, the Ego, ensuring that the ID is thoughtful and balanced and the Super Ego where moral lessons, family lessons and judgement lie.

The Tao is not a God which people, especially in Western cultures, can be led to believe (though there are deities in Taoism that are worshipped they are part of the Universe and bear references to historical figures)

“There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,
Which existed before Heaven and Earth.
Soundless and formless it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.
It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.”

– Tao Te Ching

The Tao has no being, it is the blueprint of life in the Universe, yet it is more of that, it existed before the Universe, before Heaven and Earth, before life and death. It is described as the nameless yet it’s origin and meaning are a less significant, more important so is living at one with the Tao, the Universe, using it almost as a teaching to leave in harmony and peace which Taoism promotes. Some view it as a system of guidance. A way to go beyond the world and discover a place of peace.

Stepping past the limitations of the purely rational mind reveal a world very different to the one most of us believe to be real. A world less rooted in dominance, control, oppression and violence than the world created by the purely rational mind. Damien Walters

In my personal opinion I feel that the Tao and the Sublime are inextricably linked (and the psyche too) both are open to interpretations and exist I feel on a higher level beyond human comprehension.  The Sublime is articulated quite well through  The Tao Chin. This version below has been translated by Stephen Mitchell though there are many variations.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realise the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

– Tao Te Ching

Though I am new to Chinese Philosophy and Taoism, it feels to me like what is described here is not just the Tao, but the unconscious mind, the psyche and in regards to this assignment, the sublime too. Something that is heavenly, ethereal, transcendental. “The unnameable is the eternally real” in short, to put it into words would make it redundant and strip away such powers of majesty and wonder.

“No true translation can ever be achieved because the subject itself is beyond communication in language” Le Guin

Therefore it cannot exist when it is written down and forced to become a theory, an analysis or a definition. It is like catching clouds, you can’t pin a cloud down just as you can’t pin the Tao down or the sublime.  And in that respect this is why I feel the sublime is in the same genre, it is something that is spiritual and powerful, a feeling that many, if not everyone, has felt at some point, yet its power is realised in the fact that it cannot be articulated. The Sublime resists comprehension and understanding, throughout this learning log I often refer to my metaphorical butterfly, I feel there is no better way for to convey my thoughts on the subject  The more something is pinned down and classified the more it will fail to be beautiful or ethereal and will be surely a calculation, a mathematical equation. Like a butterfly once free and now impaled in a frame for all to admire or stare in horror at. Just like the butterfly, if the sublime was to possess a cemented definition then it would fail to become the sublime as it’s beauty comes from its resistance, from being devoid of control, devoid from classification. And as ‘The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao,’ the sublime that can be described is indeed, not the sublime.

“There’s a certain beauty in your resistance, your defiance of categorisation…but it’s a beauty we can’t afford.”  Jeanine – Divergent 



The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao


National Geographic – The Knowledge

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