ACE! FAB! OMG! EXCELLENT! FAN-BLOODY-TASTIC! AWESOME & AM-A-ZING!!
Some might argue such a preponderance of superlatives has something to with the hyper-mediated nature of postmodernity. Others might more breezily blame the internet. Whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of awesome around.
Indeed, science writer and film-maker John Pavlus recently argued that a sense of awe was the first principle of engagement with science. Pavlus has a point, and in many respects I liked his post. Still, I think there is a politics embedded in popular science’s use of the awesome, and it’s worth being aware of this. So here’s a brief trip through some of the history, ideas and history-of-ideas wrapped up in popular science’s long-standing obsession with this sum-of-awe.
I’ll start with a bit of etymology, and here I think it’s worth acknowledging the overlaps between awesome and other words associated with a sense of wonderment. In unpicking the history of a sense of ‘curiosity’, Neil Kenny (1998) argues that it shares much with other similar terms enacted to reflect a desire for knowledge: interest, wonder, marvel, strangeness, subtlety, secret and rarity being the few he flags up. He also emphasises that all these terms have an especially notable plurality of meaning (see also Marr, 2006: 2-3) These are flexibily applied words, and the boundaries of what curiosity was supposed to be applied to or might mean was, throughout the Early Modern period, ‘in a constant process of being not only inscribed but also dissolved’. Indeed, the notion of being curious and useful might be, at once, linked to each other and dissociated within a single page (Kenny, 1998: 109). Similarly, ‘interesting’ achieved prominence in the latter half of the seventeenth century, gradually displacing curiosity as the Enlightenment got underway (Kenny, 1998: 143). The history of ‘interesting’ is equally complex, with multiple, occasionally contradictory, meanings, and Kenny argues that such semantic twists arose largely because the terms reflected aspiration and self-interest (Kenny, 1998: 144). They were political terms, reflecting and ascribing a politics to the objects defined as ‘wondrous’. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary characteristics of ‘curiosity’ was its transformation, in the early modern period, into a morally good or neutral quality, but suggests that even this had some flexibility, with theological communities tending to conceive of it as a pejorative term (Kenny, 1998: 14-15). Curiosity killed the cat, after all. Or Faust maybe (c.f. Haynes, 1994).
Such references to theological communities let’s get onto ideas of the sublime, which is when the history of the awesome really kicks in as a sense of awe is so key. In many respects, a history of awe is tied up with religion. As Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1959) argues, the first writers on the sublime were 17th century explorers who sought a vocabulary to express the new experiences and vistas they discovered. Trained in the classics and the Bible, these were, understandably, the discourses they applied. As Hope puts it, they ‘read into mountains emotions once reserved for God’ (Nicolson, 1959: 271, 224). This isn’t to suggest popular science which invokes wonder is necessarily doing so in glory of God – I’m not playing a lazy game of spot-the-religious-discourse – only that the history of the language used to express wonder at aspects of the natural world, including studying this (including formalised study, such as science) shares something with the history of language used to refer to God. As I mentioned in a recent post about Victorian children’s books, reading about science was seen a form of devotional activity; it is possible to connect the two. Still, Kenny’s point about the multiple uses of curiosity suggests, such a shared history can lead to spats as much as anything else. As Simon Locke’s (2005) study of ‘enchantment’ around images of science in superhero comics emphasises, this may all seem contradictory, but it is a normal everyday part of the multiple meanings and feelings towards science which we all carry around.
There are, of course, differences between Early Modern forms of wonder and curiosity, and those we see today. Yet, as Mosco (2004) has emphasised in the context of allusions to the sublime in contemporary digital culture, some very old attitudes to knowledge and nature echo through contemporary culture within science and technology’s appeals to wonderment. In contrast, George Rousseau (2006) argues that, aside from the occasional ‘bland attribute ascribed to Newton-style geniuses’, the vogue for curiosity in science ended with the Victorians (Rousseau, 2006: 254). By arguing for the prevalence of discourses of curious wonderment in contemporary popular science, I do not necessarily argue against Rousseau. Rather, I suggest that it is not just historians who retrieve a sense of curiosity from the past; a range of people commenting on science today apply a sense of ‘good old fashioned wonder’ nostalgically (e.g. The Dangerous Book for Boys). Perhaps because we feel a sense of awe so deeply it gets folded into ideas of authenticity. Moreover, Jon Turney, in discussing allusions to the sublime in contemporary popular science, suggests that if anything those qualities noted by the first writers on the sublime have only been amplified by the various tools of contemporary science: ‘The universe has become larger, older, and more violent’ (Turney, 2004: 94).
This point about being large, old and more violent is key, and brings me back to the meanings of the sublime and, in particular, the politics of awesome.
For our purposes, the sublime is probably best introduced as a sense of being near greatness, an aesthetic experience of finding something beautiful, but one that is mingled with awe. Traditional examples come from the experiences of 17th or 18th century explorers. As Hope Nicolson emphasises, it is generally associated with large scales, evoked in reference to grand scale views such as those from and over mountain ranges. Such large scales can refer to both time and space; the point is that the sublime object is so great it is (almost) inconceivable as it takes over the subject’s ability to comprehend. As Nicholson’s book suggests, the sublime describes the sense of majesty we might feel when faced with a mountain range. Rainforests or waterfalls are also classic examples, as is the night sky.
Formalised ideas of the sublime date back to the 18th century philosophical work of Edmund Burke (1756) and Immanuel Kant (1760). Crucially, Burke associates the sublime with a sense of terror, using this as a distinction between simple beauty and the sublime. Kant further distinguishes between what he dubbed the ‘dynamic’ and the ‘mathematical’ sublime. The former is akin to Burke’s notion of transfixing terror; the latter, however, extends notions of the sublime to something more abstract. In the presence of a large scale, of a sense of apparent infinity, Kant’s subject experiences the feelings of weakness and insignificance which go with being in awe. Yet, crucially, as the mathematical sublime is slightly more conceptual than the dynamic sublime: the subject then recovers a sense of superior self-worth with the thought that their mind was able to conceive something so large and powerful. As David Nye (1994) neatly puts it in his inspiring book American Technological Sublime, ‘the subject passes through humiliation and awe to a heightened awareness of reason’ (Nye, 1994: 7).
Yes, I have noticed the similarities between this and Douglas Adams’s tale of Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Total Perspective Vortex.
What I want to emphasise here is that the pleasure of experiencing the sublime, including this sense of intellectual superiority that comes with it, can be tied up in a sense of one’s significance in the world. Because of the feelings of awe and insignificance tied up in the experience of a sublime presence, allusions to the sublime ascribe power to the sublime object, or at least admit power and formalise it to some degree. Nye suggests the technological sublime invites the observer to interpret the power of technology as an expansion of human power and thus an achievement they can feel linked to (which is also why this is American technological sublime, it’s part of a sense of national identity). No longer do they necessarily feel like an insignificant human with respect to the power of nature: ‘One is both the all-seeing observer in a high tower and the ant-like pedestrian inching along the pavement below’ (Nye, 1994: 285).
I think we can extend Nye’s point to science too. Nye says a sense of awe at an awesome piece of technology makes us, in some ways, go wow at the people who made it (e.g. I bloody love bridges, skyscrapers make be go wow too, and all those twinkly lights on the side of Harrods at night are incredible). I say a sense of awe at science can make us go wow at clever scientists who worked things out too. Again, this is an achievement we can feel linked to in some way because they are other humans, even if we might also feel that these people are a bit cleverer than us. I’d also stress that I think this makes the sense of one’s significance in the world is in some respects a form of social significance. A sense of awe at science is not just a power relationship which mixes a sense of superiority and inferiority with nature (or an idea of a Maker) but with other people.
So, my point is that celebrating the awesome in popular science is in many respects celebrating the awesomeness of other people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, maybe it’s a good thing. At best, the sense of a shared human ability to comprehend might mean non scientists feel a connection with science through invoking a sense of awe (a collective feeling of “omg, people are amaz-ing”). At worst, that sense of majesty gets carried over to the scientists, and audiences see a difference between their puny little brains and the great cleverness of others (a more divisive feeling connected to disconnects with scientific communities). I’m not sure which one wins out. My best guess is bits of both, and probably neither most of the time, entirely depends on context and individuals involved.
So, there is a politics embedded in the awesome – a story of human connection with natural objects, ideas and other people – and I think is worth bearing in mind.
- Burke, Edmund (1757/ 1987) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, edited by James T Boulton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
- Haynes, Rosalind (1994) From Faust to Strangelove: representations of the scientist in western literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
- Nye, David (1994) American Technological Sublime (Camb, Mass: MIT Press).
- Kenny, Neil (1998) Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998).
- Kant, Immanuel (1760/ 1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, trans. JT Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press).
- Locke, Simon (2005) ‘Fantastically Reasonable: Ambivalence in the Representation of Science and Technology in Super-hero Comics’, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 14 (1): 25-46.
- Marr, Alexander (2006) ‘Introduction’, in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 1-20.
- Mosco, Vincent (2004) The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press).
- Nicolson, Marjorie Hope (1959/ 1997) Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press).
- Rousseau, George (2006) ‘Curiosity and the lusus naturae: The case of ‘Porteus’ Hill’ and Epilogue in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 213-250, 251-254.
- Turney, Jon (2004) ‘The Abstract Sublime: Life as Information Waiting to be Rewritten’, Science as Culture, vol.13 no.1, pp.89-103.