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ON THE SHELFTotally Awesome

Essayists examine what evokes our sense of power and wonder.

Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Art and Science

Edited by Roald Hoffmann and Iain Boyd Whyte, Oxford University Press: 2011. 208 pages.

Roald Hoffmann, coeditor of this slim yet affecting volume, speculates that most scientists find little relevance in contemplating the sublime, a state that Edmund Burke once described as “tranquility tinged with terror.” Yet while science and engineering encourage dispassionate scrutiny of their subjects, many practitioners would admit to a sense of wonder when encountering the mysterious and infinite. So why not accept that? Hoffmann asks. This basic premise underlies most of these nine essays, authored by academics whose interests range from cinema studies and art history to physics, the Hubble Space Telescope, neuroscience, optical technologies, and architecture. Hoffmann himself was awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In more recent years, however, his philosophical musings have found expression in poetry and plays, and now in this collection exploring the sublime in art and science.

Much of the discussion in these essays is given over to defining the sublime, often grounded in Burke’s 1757 conceptualization of that which is vast, powerful, and awe inspiring, distinctly separate from the beautiful. Also influential is Immanuel Kant, who clarified that the sublime is not located in “the natural object, the mountain or ocean,” notes art historian John Onians, “but in the human response to it.” In his essay, Onians is intrigued by scientific explanations of such reactions. When the brain senses an enormous, looming shape, it generates a fearful, alert response; yet the chemical response also engenders feelings of well-being or transcendence. New findings in neuroscience may help develop “a practical critique of the sublime,” Onians believes.

Several authors draw distinctions between the sublime and other categories of aesthetics. Stanford film studies specialist Scott Bukatman considers cinematic “disobedient machines” that he terms either uncannily disturbing or sublimely terrifying. The former are rooted in domestic “conundrums of logic and rationality,” while the latter transcend boundaries – think Frankenstein and King Kong. The sorcerer’s apprentice in Walt Disney’s Fantasia incorporates aspects of the uncanny in the figure of the enchanted brooms; but the sublimely terrifying occurs “on the darkest levels” when these mindless automata begin to reproduce rapidly and spin out of control, seemingly without end.

Elizabeth A. Kessler, a cultural historian, also compares opposing categories of “pretty” and “sublime,” in her discussion of Hubble Space Telescope images. Produced for the general public, these pictures undergo adjustments of color and focus, cropping, rotational orientation, and an artful combination of data, transforming what are often monochromatic, fuzzy, and unremarkable images. Astronomers disparage as “pretty pictures” these attempts to heighten the appeal for non-specialists and “sell science.” Yet the manipulations do help communicate the enormity of the cosmos, power of nature, and insignificance of humans. Though imperfect reinterpretations, they help suggest the sublime, Kessler concludes, as well as “our ability to imagine and strive for” perfect representation.

While other essays in the collection explore further aspects in quantum physics, the unconscious, and “the biology of the soul,” art critic James Elkins takes a stance of opposition. He argues that the term “sublime” is “damaged goods…asked to do too much work for too many reasons.” His objections lie with varying uses of the concept during different historical periods; the fact that it can be used to shroud discussion of religion; and its absence in the working vocabulary of most scientists. Elkins proposes a moratorium on the term: “Let us say what we admire in art and science, but let us say it directly, using words that are fresh and exact,” he declares.

Whether you agree with Elkins or find “sublime” tripping upon your tongue as physicists close in upon the long elusive Higgs boson particle, there is, indeed, much to contemplate in these musings of wonder, terror, and the human situation in Beyond the Finite.


Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.




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