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The sublime is a widely shared emotion that all human beings, regardless of their race, gender, or nationality, are capable of experiencing, for we all are endowed with the same bodily senses. When W. E. B. Du Bois visited the Grand Canyon, the railroads forced him to travel in a segregated railway car because he was Black, but this did not prevent him from appreciating its grandeur. Du Bois declared unequivocally, “I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and the possibility of infinite development.” His meditation on the enormous chasm concluded with these words: “It is not—it cannot be a mere, inert, unfeeling, brute fact—its grandeur is too serene—its beauty too divine! It is not red, and blue, and green, but, ah! the shadows and the shades of all the world, glad colorings touched with a hesitant spiritual delicacy.” Du Bois understood that the capacity to experience the sublime is universal.
This book focuses less on formal philosophy than on personal experiences, such as visiting a national park, skyscraper, disaster site, battleground, or virtual reality. To experience the sublime, it is not necessary to travel to famous locations. During travel restrictions due to the pandemic in 2020–2021, many people discovered solace and inspiration in local microadventures. They camped in nearby parks; they climbed trees; they disrupted routines; they stared at the night sky; they took walks in unfamiliar places. Recent studies confirm what philosophers have long said: confronted with the sublime, people commonly feel a sense of humility. These experiences of awe reduce self-interest and increase social cohesion.
The sublime is a powerful individual moment, but it also has cultural effects, helping to hold groups together. This is a useful starting point for an historical assessment of the sublime, considered not as a static category but as an evolving realm of experiences with at least seven distinct forms. Sublime phenomena may be experienced either directly through the senses or indirectly through instruments, such as telescopes, microscopes, sensors, and computers. By focusing on this distinction, I found that there appear to be four forms of the tangible sublime (natural, technological, disastrous, and martial) and three forms of the intangible sublime (scientific, digital, and environmental). This book devotes a chapter to each of these.
While developing these chapters, I realized that the different sublimes did not merely focus on different classes of objects. Each implies a distinct perception of space and time, and therefore they can be on odds with one another. A waterfall or canyon exemplifies the natural sublime to some, and yet other people value more highly a large hydroelectric dam that obliterates these landscapes and exemplifies the technological sublime. Likewise, virtual reality makes possible new perceptions but engages only a few of the senses, in contrast to the all-encompassing sensory engagement with a local ecology that is the hallmark of the environmental sublime. The martial sublime and the technological sublime are based on the mastery of many of the same technologies, but they work toward quite different ends and express incompatible values. In short, the seven sublimes share certain characteristics, but they are not a coherent system. They are related but not congruent.
Gazing from the top of a mountain at a vista is not the same thing as looking at a metropolis from the observation deck of a skyscraper. Watching a military bombardment is not like visiting Niagara Falls. Looking at images constructed from Hubble Space Telescope data is not the same as experiencing a powerful earthquake or visiting a battlefield. In different ways, each of these experiences may be sublime, but the expanded terminology developed in Seven Sublimes is needed to distinguish between them. This work is framed by philosophy but focused on historical examples.