April 24, 2022

Seven Sublimes

After the American Century

Seven Sublimes – The The MIT Press, May 2022 

  • “With brilliant clarity, Nye delineates the nuances of the sublime, from the natural to the technological, from the infinite to the infinitesimal. Building on Kant and Burke, this book is a revelation of how we see and experience the world.”

    Miles Orvell, 

    Temple University, author of Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction. Oxford University Press, 2021

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.

Hardcover  $35.00     ISBN: 9780262046923

232 pp.  19 figures   May 2022

March 01, 2022

Republicans fail to unite in biggest crisis since 1962

After the American Century

This is the greatest foreign confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It is not time for domestic squabbles. There are Ukrainians dying every day. There are missiles being launched into residential areas of their cities. The Russians are using cluster bombs. And the Republicans? They are trying to ignore the crisis or blame it on President Biden. The Republicans have lost the thread. They seem only interested in petty complaints. The Russians are threatening to use nuclear weapons, and the Republicans make the US weaker, divided, and less able to act decisively in a crisis. History will judge them harshly.

One of the oddest things about the Trump presidency was his bromance with Putin.  This cartoon playfully reminds us that Reagan had a quite different view of Russia. He famously called ithe Soviet Union "the evil empire."  Trump is now trying to walk back his remarks about Putin that he made literally as Russian troops were massed at the border.  He declared to supporters at a rally, " I mean, he's taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I'd say that's pretty smart." He added,"He's taking over a country, really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people and just walking right in." (verification of remarks, as reported in Newsweek). 

I believe in freedom of speech, and Trump can say whatever he likes. In fact, the more he talks, the more he contradicts himself and reveals the disorderly contents of his mind.  Sadly, however, Trump is not alone in his ignorance of history and his self-serving confusion. There is a Putin-friendly wing of the Republican Party that has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and prefers to talk about divisive domestic issues. 

The problem for Republicans is that most Americans understand that during a world crisis, politicians must take a clear stand. Republicans are not clear. They want to deny the vote to millions of Americans but then turn around and demand democracy for Ukraine. They want to block Biden at every turn and then call him weak. They want to enable white supremacy groups to get their votes, and then look the other way when those groups openly support Putin against Ukraine. 

Not all Republicans have failed in this crisis. To his credit, Mitt Romney strongly condemned Putin's war, and it seems that some Republicans are starting to agree with him. Those who can remember Reagan might be recovering their sanity. Might be. 

In the meantime, Europe is showing the necessary resolve, and Biden is doing the best he can while saddled with a bickering, confused, ignorant, and deeply unpatriotic Republican opposition.

January 06, 2022

American Democracy could fail by 2025

After the American Century

The year 2026 will be the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. Will the United States celebrate that event as a democracy? Many fear that it will not, notably writers in the Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Economist. A century ago, during World War I, democracy also was under threat, and Joseph Pennell produced the image below, showing an air attack on New York, where the Statue of Liberty's torch had been destroyed. The dangers in 2022 come not from an external enemy, however, but from within.

Joseph Pennell, courtesy of Library of Congress

One year ago, today, a mob attacked the Congress of the United States. They mistakenly believed that the American elections had been rigged against Donald Trump. In fact, he had lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote. But Republicans were encouraged to attack the legislative branch of government, seeking to win through violence what they had lost in the election. Calling themselves patriots, they proved themselves traitors to democracy.

One year later, more than 50 million Republicans still believe the Big Lie that the election was stolen, and many of them think the attack on Congress was justified. The government of the United States is in danger of being transformed into a sham democracy, dominated by a militant minority.

The next three years will be the most difficult test of the US system of government since the Civil War. It is possible that demagogues, led by Donald Trump, will succeed in their quest to dominate all three branches of government. The elections in November, 2022 will be the first test of strength between the two sides. The 2024 presidential election may be a fateful contest that decides whether democracy will survive in America.

During human history, democracy has not been dominant, but rather has emerged and disappeared many times. The democracies of ancient Athens and Rome each lasted a few hundred years. Some Italian city states during the Renaissance had elements of democracy, as did parts of Switzerland. The British government evolved slowly toward democracy, but even today it retains the House of Lords, which is not democratically elected. The French Revolution created a democracy for about ten years before it was taken over by Napoleon. Many northern European nations developed into constitutional monarchies that became more democratic over time. But the democratic system has not been universal, even in Europe, where it only became the dominant kind of government after World War I.

During the last century, maintaining the appearance of democracy has become the international norm. Elections are al in the EU, for the most part, but elsewhere dictators hold elections to legitimize their rule. China has sham elections, but it is a one party state. Democracy existed on paper in Russia for a few years in the 1990s but now is a sham again, and Hungary is close to losing all but the semblance of democracy as well. Poland is moving in the same direction, as it undermines the independence of its judiciary, concentrating power in the executive.  The United States is in danger of becoming another sham democracy.

Since the American Revolution, the United States has seen itself as the bastion of democracy, and while it has struggled to realize fully the ideals enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, on the whole it has moved toward equality and full citizenship rights for all. But since 2016, the Republican Party has moved aggressively to curtail the voting rights of many citizens, and it has often claimed that any election lost was an election rigged against it. (Investigations have found, however, no election fraud.) But voter suppression might not be sufficient, as the Democrats are a larger party, But by redrawing district lines, Republicans seek to ensure they can win a majority of seats in each state legislature, despite having a minority of the voters. 

Through these and many other actions, the Republicans continue to undermine public confidence that democracy is real in the United States, seeking to persuade its voters that they might even turn to violence to take back control of the nation. All manner of absurd conspiracy theories have been promoted to convince the public that a left-wing conspiracy now controls the United States and must be opposed by any means necessary, including voter suppressive, intimidation, fake news, personal attacks, and slander. And if all these measures fail, then violence is presented as the "legitimate right" of the supposedly victimized Republicans. Indeed, one poll found that 40% of all Republicans thought violence against their fellow Americans could be justified.

The year 2026 will be the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. Will the United States celebrate that event as a democracy?

January 03, 2022

Denmark's Organic Airplane Fuel: 
A Classic Example of a Technological Fix 

After the American Century

The Danish prime minister announced in her New Year's speech that in order to meet its goals for reduced carbon emissions, it would develop clean, organic airline fuel and require its use on domestic airline routes by 2030. This is a classic example of a technological fix.  Note the following aspects of this plan.

1. It will begin with research and development toward a goal that cannot possibly be achieved before the next election that must be held in 2024.
2. No one really knows whether it can be achieved by 2030.
3. The Danish media liked the story and gave it considerable coverage, without, however, attempting to understand what is necessary, practically speaking, to achieve this goal.
4. It sounds impressive, but actually will have no effect on the majority of the nation's air traffic. Denmark is a small country and taking the train or driving a car is a faster than air travel to get to most places anyway.
5. The public need not do anything at all, as this plan will be carried out by researchers and then imposed on a few domestic routes. The plan basically tells the public that people can continue to travel just as much and in the same ways as they are accustomed to. No change in values or behavior is necessary. Just leave it to the researchers!
6. The proposed solution addresses only a small part of a much larger problem

The prime minster emphasized that Denmark remains a world leader in the shift toward a green economy. But to the extent that this may be true (and it is debatable), it has little to do with her administration. Before the last election it promised to ban throw-away plastic bags, but instead imposed a tax on them. This has reduced their use in favor of sturdier multiple-use bags, but it has hardly eliminated them. It is difficult to see any important changes in policy. The public has been shifting toward electric cars, especially in 2021, but the government can claim little credit for this change.

The reliance on automobiles has increased markedly in Denmark during the last 30 years. In 1990 there were 1.6 million automobiles in the country. In 2018, just before the pandemic, the number has risen to 2.6 million. Since then, the public has been reluctant to take public transportation, fearing exposure to COVID-19, and reliance on cars has further increased. The government has done almost nothing to reverse this trend. 

Moreover, a study from DTU engineering suggests that both the level of car ownership and the amount of driving will continue to increase in Denmark. By 2040, the report estimates that per capita car ownership will rise by more than 20%, from about 50% to over 60%. These vehicles will be driven on average at least 2,000 kilometers further than the cars on the Danish roads today. In short, Denmark is headed in the wrong direction, and will have more cars that will be driven greater distances. The roads will be more congested, parking ever more costly and difficult, and public transport alternatives will be less utilized than they are today. No wonder the prime minister chose to say nothing about automobiles.

Even if all of these new vehicles are electric, their production and eventual disposal imposes large ecological costs. Producing an automobile requires more energy and resources than using that car for five years. They use large quantities of steel, lead, rubber, plastic, and glass, and are full of computer chips. Automobile manufacturing consumes vast amounts of energy. One third of the environmental damage from automobiles occurs before they are purchased, and more arises from their eventual disassembly and disposal. It just happens that Denmark does not manufacture cars, and therefore these costs will be displaced to other countries. However, the infrastructure for automobiles demands vast amounts of space, and it entails enormous CO2 pollution released during the construction of roads and bridges. Add to this traffic noise and visual pollution, and it is impossible to regard the increasing Danish reliance on automobiles as part of a green environmental strategy.

Given this larger picture, how useful is the proposed transformation of domestic airplane fuel?  It is merely a gimmick to distract attention from larger transportation problems and worrying trends. It is a technological fix that might or might not work for a small part of the problem of creating a sustainable and egalitarian transportation system. Shame on the majority of Danish political commentators who were deceived and distracted by the prime minister's announcement. 

For more on technological fixes, see David E. Nye, Technology Matters. (MIT Press, 2006), 142-144.
For more on the history of automobile manufacturing, see David E. Nye, America's Assembly Line (MIT Press, 2013)

May 08, 2021

Bibliography and Index to publications of David E. Nye

After the American Century

                      Joseph Pennel, Sunset from Williamsburg Bridge, Courtesy Library of Congress

To help readers find their way in my publications, I have made a comprehensive bibliography and index. 

The bibliography lists everything, including books, journal articles, chapters in books, book reviews, encyclopedia articles, introductions written for collections of essays, translations of my work into other languages, and textbooks.  

The index is restricted to 14 books and 101 articles and book chapters - all of which have been peer-reviewed. Taken together, this is about 5,500 published pages. I have learned from contacts with readers that it can be difficult to track down where I have written about many topics. I hope this will make the work more accessible.

This document can be downloaded free from the University of Minnesota, Digital Conservancy, using the link below.

February 24, 2021

The Lone Star will not always shine if disconnected from the national grid

After the American Century

The Texas Blackout reveals the state's ambivalence toward the rest of the US. 

Texas liked to think of itself as a separate place, almost a country in itself. It is called the "lone start state" suggesting it can and will stand alone. Historically speaking, Texas was briefly a country that declared its independence of Mexico and then joined the US. It is the only state that ever came into the union in that way. 

These facts are related to the electrical blackout that it is now recovering from. Because Texas has been the only state to reject being a part of the national electrical grid. Instead, Texas electricity is regulated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Joining would mean that Texas would begin to buy and sell electricity across state lines, for example with Oklahoma or New Mexico. As soon as one engages in such interstate commerce, one becomes subject to regulation from Washington. As the Constitution puts it in Article 1, section 8, Congress has the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states."   

Why did Texas wish to escape regulation? Because regulation means that profits cease to be the only consideration for energy companies. The production and transmission of energy is costly in itself, but Federal regulations demand that the technologies involved meet a high standard. Take Texas gas lines as an example. There are gas lines all over the United States, and those that are federally regulated must be well-insulated and meet other quality control standards. Texas state regulators knew that their gas lines could freeze and cease to function if it got cold enough, and indeed they were told about the problem in 2011 when they did seize up under a shorter cold snap. Windmills in Minnesota or Massachusetts seldom freeze up in the winter, but they did in Texas because it was cheaper not to weatherize them.

Why multiply examples? Texas energy companies did not need to invest in the best available technologies, because state regulators put profits ahead of performance safety.  And because the energy market in Texas is competitive, it would be startling if one or another company spent more money than legally necessary to produce and transmit electricity or gas, because that would put them at a disadvantage in the marketplace. 

Imagine if the same thing were true for automobiles. If Texas automobiles cost less because they had brakes that did not work well in cold weather, would that be a good idea? 

So what happens now? The citizens of Texas are suffering cold, water shortages from broken pipes, and much else. Fortunately, the Texas energy companies have saved up several billion dollars over the years and they are going to pay for all the damages. Wrong. They have not saved, and suddenly Texas feels it is definitely a part of the United States. They have asked for, and received a Federal bailout.  President Biden is sending 60 electricity generators, food, water, blankets, and meals to Texas. 

Strictly speaking, however, it would be only fair if Texas were told that no Federal funds would be handed out unless its utilities agreed to bring their technologies up to the national standard, and to have systems of reserve production like the rest of the country. Then Texas blackouts would be less frequent and less severe. But of course, this would be an inhumane thing to do, with 13 million Texans lacking water. So, Texas just became a big-time recipient of welfare. (So much for all the blustering and posturing about state's rights. The fact of the matter is that the so-called Red states, including Texas receive enormous sums every year from the Federal government, while the Blue states pay more in taxes than they get back. But that is the subject for another blog.)

There is a reason the US has a national gird - because like the states, energy systems are stronger if they work together. An electrical grid allows companies to trade electricity extremely quickly, because it moves at about the speed of light. If Chicago or Philadelphia needs more electricity, it can buy it from other systems on the same grid. If Houston or Dallas lacks power, however, they can only get it from within Texas. The Lone Star will not always shine, given the lack of a grid. 

Electricity has become too important to pretend that a state can go it alone without incurring massive problems. Hospitals need to keep those electrons flowing. Factories cannot function without it. Families, churches, pretty much everyone and everything needs electricity. When the lights go out, it is a universal crisis.

For a social history of blackouts, have a look at When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts 

February 14, 2021

Trump: Guilty but not Impeached

After the American Century

For more than two centuries, impeachment of a US president has never proven possible, due to the demand that two-thirds of the Senate must vote to impeach. This leads to absurd results. The leaders of both the Republicans and Democrats consider Trump to be responsible for the attack on the Houses of Congress. All the Democratic Senators and seven Republicans voted "guilty" but their 57 votes were nullified by the votes of 43 Republicans who said Trump was not-guilty. 

There would seem to be two solutions to the problem. One is to lower the percentage of the Senators who must vote for an impeachment. The percentage should not be lowered to a simple majority, for then the power could be abused by whoever won an election to cast out prominent members of the other party. Perhaps the law might be changed to a demand that 60% of the Senators vote to impeach, and that such a vote cannot consist entirely of members of a single party.

The other alternative would be to abolish impeachment, because in practice it has proven to be an unworkable mechanism for removing knaves from power. 

The chief effect of these impeachment proceedings seems to be on the Republican Party, which remains deeply divided. The US needs two fair-minded and internally democratic parties if it is to remain a functioning democracy. 

The Republicans rapidly have evolved toward authoritarianism during the last five years, and the failure of impeachment proceedings suggests their journey into a lawless wilderness of intimidation is not yet over.