The Eco-Politics of the Sublime: Nature, Environmentalism, and Covid-Ecology

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Enis Yucekoralp / October 16, 2021
A conception of the sublime, liberated from its racist, sexist and domineering classic form, should form a part of any ecosocialist imaginary. 9678 words / 38 min read

Image: J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship

“Let’s have critically rigorous socialist awe, and the locus for that, I think, is a kind of radical quotidian sublime,” stated China Miéville in a 2012 Social Text interview. Four years later, speaking about the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) in Poland, Jan Sowa clamoured: “We need to bring back the sublime in politics. The left needs it.” Now, as the dawn of a new decade yields novel swarms of immiseration and pandemic trauma, the urgency of a political sublime in 2021 is arguably more pressing than ever.

The contemporary political landscape has been altered indelibly by the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). The conditions of life under automated global capitalism and over a year of hopelessness have seemed often to assert nothing more than failure: in fact, the failure to fulfil the promise of transcendence is not even lamented but merely affirmed remorselessly. The sublime sentiment is essentially one of failed transcendence – nothing could be more distressingly accurate in explaining where we find ourselves today. And it is in that transcendent failure that this figuration of the sublime sprawls, between the lines of lost communication and unheeded alerts to the international community.

The state and capital itself often refuse the acknowledgement of even the possibility of transcendence. On the structural level, there is perhaps a sense that asserting the sublime can give us purchase and a crucial means by which to assert the necessity of transcendence. Against the sclerotic systems which subtend contemporary life, the sublime is a fluid sleight of hand: a strategy of resistance. Clearly, the current social order is inadequate to the crises that threaten the immediate future. Rather than allow this fact to drift towards entropy we need to salvage what we can from the conceptual wreckage of the sublime and try to formulate a set of responses.

Against the sclerotic systems which subtend contemporary life, the sublime is a fluid sleight of hand: a strategy of resistance. Clearly, the current social order is inadequate to the crises that threaten the immediate future.

Crucially, the sublime is not simply a universal term for the retributive power of nature (“nature is healing/we are the virus”) nor is it merely a touchstone for the decaying state of the environment. An eco-political sublime takes umbrage with the Kantian supremacy of reason and concludes that Nature can never be mastered. Instead, it represents a figuration of Nature that will never be totally knowable and that holds a mirror up to our own limitations of conceptualisation. At root, it forms part of a rhetoric of eco-socialism that opposes capitalist ideologies of exploitation by rewilding sublimity as an ecocentric model rather than an egocentric one. A passive attitude towards neoliberal technologies of “progress” is tantamount to a tacit acceptance of the techno-bureaucratic degradation of the environment. This destruction of wild habitats has agonisingly clarified the link between public health and the Earth’s natural resources – a symbiotic relationship between the organic complexities of the planet and our own physical wellbeing.

It is helpful to think of the sublime as having two stages. First, a realisation that we are alienated from nature and it is completely other from us; secondly, a boundless enveloping experience which explodes the self into a vast, interrelated matrix with nature. We might think too about Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm. There, in his critique of constructionism and hybridism, Malm suggests that a meaningful politics needs a distinction between humanity and nature. “Nature is not reducible to humans, who are part of it; humans are not reducible to nature, which is part of them; it is precisely in the interstices of that unity-in-difference that something like global warming can develop,” Malm states. “Any countermeasures will occupy the same precarious place of inception.”1

The sublime, however, as way of understanding the ramifying relationships between society and nature, presents a way of conceiving both an alienation from nature as other (a humanity/nature split) and the presence of humanity in nature and nature in humanity. The naked disaggregation of agency and unifying oppositions. This is what makes the sublime both foreboding and appealing – a self-negating fetishisation that encloses humanity within nature. This humility in the face of nature therefore opens up an array of environmental and conservationist opportunities. If we understand eco-socialism to be a proposition sensitive to the connections between capitalist exploitation of both labour and the environment, then it becomes clear that it is an ethical model which stands to benefit from watering its intellectual roots with an eco-political sublime.

A contemporary political sublime would be one that constellates around crises. It draws on its disruptive texture of incommensurability and incomprehensible events to reveal the fissures and conditions of society, and, what they could possibly be. The Covid-19 pandemic represents a ‘sublime’ event insofar as its seismic calamity — by the force of its tragedy — also represents a naked revelation of societal immiserations and the possibilities for alternative socio-political formations. The key here is to understand the sublime not as a necessarily aesthetic category, but as a retooled politico-ethical one. Rather than only an eighteenth-century convention – the aesthetic rush of Nature’s emotive Romantic terror – we are talking about an experience of transcendence better understood as an overwhelming disharmony: the ‘event’ of a crisis in thought.

A contemporary political sublime would be one that constellates around crises. It draws on its disruptive texture of incommensurability and incomprehensible events to reveal the fissures and conditions of society, and, what they could possibly be.

Though the sublime begins as a purely aesthetic concept, aspects of its formulation necessarily bled into discourses of morality and ethics, and, therefore, of politics. Principally, the sublime represents a mode of engaging with nature; it follows, then, that it also inspires the motivation to preserve or at least to respect the natural world. The injunction implied by what I am calling an eco-political sublime is therefore one of conservationism. In the context of the coronavirus, it also represents a range of possible answers to the questions posed by its precipitating emergence. Covid-19, lying dormant in animal genomes, has been instigated by destructive human interference in the natural world and propelled by capitalist drives and anthropocentric exploitation.

Covid sublimity is envisaged as a disruptive event, a moment which brings critical thinking to a juncture of crisis in its turbulence. What is valuable about this figuration of the sublime is its resistance to being arrogated by rationalism; a resistance, which fundamentally and in whatever manifestation, is political. But in an age of biodiverse extinction, that its emergence and resultant geopolitical insidiousness have an ecological provenance makes it a kind of desublimation: it is a phase transition from transcendent event to immanent violence.

Eco-socialism and zoonotic Sublimity

It goes without saying that capitalism which, at its heart, is an economic machine fuelled by maximising profit at ruthless socio-ecological expense, is entirely incompatible with a sustainable future for the planet. Liberal attempts at ‘green capitalism’ and market reform are misguided, creeping towards the clearings of eco-fascist rhetoric or presenting apologies for a profit-motive ecomodernism. While protecting the environment and designing innovative sources of renewable energy are clearly prime drivers for eco-socialism too, in eco-modernism these political interests are marginalised and replaced by other political interests determined by corporate power. An impulse for modernising political ecology is fuelled by the robust intent to masquerade economic growth as an increased ability to save the planet. A red-green approach, in contrast, posits a radical alternative which hands society proper control over the means of production and which prioritises social and ecological health in the struggle against the rapacity of neoliberal capitalism.

Max Ajl, writing on the Verso blog, outlines more exactly a survey of the current landscape of political ecology:

From nativist conservationist grassroots eco-fascism; modernizing authoritarian eco-fascism; eco-socialisms based on environmentally unequal exchange and livelihoods and social reproduction; eco-socialisms putting center-stage smallholders and forest dwellers; modernization-curious eco-socialisms; and eco-modernist manifestos targeting moonshots, asteroid mining, factories in the stars, and cascades of techno-fixes for the industrial capitalist socio-ecological catastrophe, there is many a solution to the climate crisis and the ecological crisis in which it is nested.

Each possible arrangement hopes to find its own way of navigating the power dynamics of environmental acts and political decision – some, clearly, in more heinous ways than others. An eco-fascism married to neoliberal capitalism represents the worst territorial and irredentist impulses of colonialism and private enterprise. It speaks also to a notion of climate apartheid cruelly imagined through uninhabitable dead zones, ethnic cleansing, and the hoarding of natural resources by elites: a core-periphery dynamic fuelled by trophic cascades, bourgeois nationalism, and self-regarding toxicity. Eco-fascism is therefore entirely caught up with issues of scarcity, drought-enforced population migration and general climate crisis displacement; but also, with right-wing political imperatives that would nourish accumulative industry at the scornful cost of sustainability. Eco-fascism likely has its own standard-bearer survivalists preaching a totalitarian ‘blood and soil’ image of the sublime. With frightening prescience, however, Ajl closes his 2019 survey of the fascist political ecology of climate with the claim that,

The ecological crisis will not stop at human-made borders. The consequences of biodiversity loss and extinctions and the rising seas will care little for the concrete walls and automated drones which may stop the human tide and even stem rising waters – at least until they don’t. The multiplication of avian and porcine flus, multi-drug-resistant bacteria, and fatal super-funguses heed human-made border posts even less, and the idea of quarantines to keep out viruses and fungi is a chimera.

In a long read I wrote for the Independent at the height of Covid-19 transmission, I argued that epidemiology is an environmental issue and therefore a deeply political one. Indeed, the last three or four decades have seen a vertiginous rise in infectious emerging diseases, the aetiology of which can essentially be traced back to the destruction of the world’s biodiverse ecosystems. Radical changes in demography and disruptive human behaviour are nearly always the cause of zoonotic spillover, with 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases the result of animal-to-human pathogens. Covid-19 is now the latest in that lineage.

The emergence of Covid-19 and a rise in infectious diseases is therefore symptomatic of the troubled bond between health and environmental policy. According to the World Health Organisation, vector-borne diseases account for more than 17 per cent of all infectious diseases, causing more than 700,000 deaths annually. They can be caused by either parasites, bacteria or viruses. These types of diseases, where infectious pathogens are transmitted to humans by living organisms, have increased over recent decades – between the 1950s and the 1980s, the emergence of infectious diseases more than tripled. Zoonotic outbreaks have been proliferating in recent years. As well as Covid-19 (Sars-CoV-2), there are nearly 70 other diseases transmitted from animals to humans, including: ebola, bird flu, swine flu, the Zika virus, West Nile virus, Nipah virus, Rift Valley fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), and sudden acute respiratory syndrome (Sars). Despite being a putative zoonotic disease, Covid-19 is an anthropogenic virus.
If anthropocentric, capitalist avarice is not brought to a swift and abrupt end this will not be the last pandemic that wreaks havoc on the world. Decades of deforestation and ecological desecration tell of an abjection, rather than a sublimation, of any kind of Wordsworthian beauty in Nature. Vigilant in shunning the dungeon of eco-fascism, however, the key message is rather that continuous disintegration of wild habitats in the name of acid-gloved profiteering and quantitative expansion has brought humanity closer than ever to disease-harbouring organisms.

We are in the midst of an incubatory climate emergency, a crisis breeding a hostile environment on this planet in multifarious and distressing ways. As Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has lamented, this is also a case of climate apartheid: ostensibly, a condition whereby elites alone are afforded social protection from rising climate crises leaving everyone else to languish and suffer the environmental devastation. As he states:

Researchers say that we can expect more climate change–related wildfires, heat waves, and floods before the end of the year, all of which will compound the economic damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet how all this destruction will affect us has less to do with the wind, rain, or sea levels and more to do with our institutions, a simple question of whom and what the political system chooses to protect.

We know that the prevailing system will fall on its racial and economic prejudices; in this case the United States context, but which holds true for the UK and an international society underpinned by the settler colonial complex. The urgency of the climate crisis can also serve as a precipitant for a certain radical rethinking of socio-political parameters. Contained within that, potentially, is a space for the eco-political sublime as one of the pieces of conceptual equipment with which to navigate the myriad crises of today. The hope would be to inoculate against right-wing populism, neoliberal capitalism, climate scepticism, and other ideologies of exploitative hatred.

In a government by public health mayhem and empty Tory boosterism – what some have termed a “pandemocracy” – a radical understanding of the pandemic through the lens of the sublime provides us with a crucial means of challenging institutionalised modes of power and authority. It seems trite to say, but we have never ‘all been in this together’. The threat of infection is real for everyone, but the danger is more hazardous for those in forced into precarious positions by the immiserating impacts of capitalism.

The impending doom of ecocatastrophe has left desolate the cache of options available to political decision. In whatever form it takes, the approach of ecological politics must be global, collaborative, and ever mindful of the hazards presented by eco-fascism and the nationalist sublime of the right. Attention to the metabolic rift of capitalism, and the widening gulfs between rich and poor, shows that the ecological ramifications engendered by capitalist rampancy have been played out against class struggle and structural inequality. As always, some are blighted more than others. We have seen how the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated egregious socio-economic inequalities. Far from the great leveller, vaccine imperialism and the lethal distress of Covid-19 in India, for instance, has placed global politics of discrimination squarely under a microscope. An engagement with eco-socialism necessarily means engaging with sustainability and with the impossibility of a sustainable future under the conditions of capitalism. For Marx:

Capitalist production disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural conditions for the lasting fertility of the soil. […] All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil. The more a country develops itself on the basis of great industry, the more this process of destruction takes place quickly. Capitalist production only develops […] by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.

In a Marxian sense, we see dialectically outlined the incongruous logic of a capitalism that heedlessly pushes for progress at the expense of undermining the very resources of nature it depends upon (and cannot do anything but this). While the context here is one explicitly of the land its dangerous logic also holds true for the exploitation of workers. Capitalist encroachment into the diversity of wild nature has incubated the spread of viral diseases by dissolving the ecosystemic space between host animals and humans. The planet’s ecosystems are a heterogeneity of plants, animals, and other non-human organisms and bacteria. These biospheres contain a store of viruses, many of which exist harmlessly within wildlife. Laying waste to natural habitats for resources, land, and expansive poaching of wild animals, creates the conditions for exposure to these microbes – this has led to dangerous zoonotic transmissions and of subsequent human-to-human infection.

In the incommensurable and unfathomable threat of contagion and its “natural” source is the possibility for a politics of sustainable solidarity. The ineffability of a purely natural sublime impels us to concede humility as environmental actors. What is explicitly ecological about the political sublime is the dynamic interplay between limit and excess that underpins a non-deterministic relationship with Nature – a relationship constituted by capitalism that also differentiates between humans on grounds of race, gender and class. Within that, and in relation to coronavirus, is the ensuing drama of microbiological entities which form the subtending network of non-human entities. The excessive precipitation of a ‘natural’ mode is magnified by instability and the trespassing of limits – from the pathogenic to the ontology of a global public. An eco-political sublime, therefore, responds to the coronavirus crisis by collaborating with the intentions of an eco-socialist imperative towards sustainability. Humility before nature—especially with respect to its pathogenic threat—is a key element of this formulation of the sublime.

In the incommensurable and unfathomable threat of contagion and its “natural” source is the possibility for a politics of sustainable solidarity. The ineffability of a purely natural sublime impels us to concede humility as environmental actors.

The viral and microbiological Sublime

Nature is external to us and it is wholly other. We cannot help that. But it is a category error to say that we are not also immersed within it and it in us. There is, then, certainly an ethical demand that we must place upon ourselves to counter our estrangement from the non-human environment around us. Undoubtedly, we share affinities with the processes of the natural world and must make peace with the concession that we are merely nodes within its networked system (the coronavirus outbreak has forced that point with distressing duress). But an eco-political sublime fully accepts the dissonance implied in the symphony of society, that is, the incongruity of humanity with the natural world, but also welcomes the alterity of Nature as something advantageous to conservationism.

Some, perhaps rightly in certain discussions, suggest that the proper realm of critique for the sublime is not nature, but art in the strictest sense. Suzi Morris’ painting series, The Viral Sublime, is definitely attuned to that particular theme. Her art draws together history, experience, science and imaginary perceptions of the internal body, together with the knowledge that the human body consists, depends upon, the hosting of its own microbiome. “The unseen power of viruses to destroy and to heal is what connects them with notion of the Sublime,” her doctoral abstract states – it is a fascination with the recondite and invisible world of microbiology, its intangible importance, and the phenomenal way microorganisms mutate, replicate, and evolve. Rather than a case of art imitating life, Morris’ corpus is a useful heuristic in understanding the symbioses between virology and sublimity that I am also trying to educe.

As much as we are natural beings existing in a world of nature, we are also part of the microbiological world and share our somatic experiences with various microbes. Genomic medicine has explored the twin aspect of viruses, their simultaneous malignancy and benignity – perhaps something of that irony qualifies ‘the viral’ as sublime? This discourse of microbiological nature throws up questions of infection, regeneration, and a nuanced understanding of the body’s virome; some viruses, like bacteriophages inside the gut, can actually be good for us and promote healthy somatic processes. Equally, genomic medicine is endlessly expanded by knowledge and the study of infectious agents which can develop and improve virology and human health at large.

One other interest of bacterial colonies is that they are a mass, a cluster of microorganisms which all originate from a single mother cell as identical clones. This ‘Sameness’ belies the different complexities of microbiology and its ecologies, and, in its infinitude and obscurity the nature of microbes matches sublime criteria. It also demonstrates that microbes are in themselves a community of organisms each bound to the other. So much so, in fact, that an aesthetics of microbes has inspired what the artist Rogan Brown calls “the microbiological sublime”: an exploration of finessed paper-cut pathogens almost indistinguishable from “real” microbes. Here, however, a microbiological sublime would explore the sense of a non-human, non-animal perspective on the environment and in relation to the politics of the coronavirus. Microbiological nature is a hidden world. That which is normally invisible to the naked eye has clothed the world with demonstrably perceptible impact in 2020 and 2021. The empirical woe of coronavirus has thrust the unseen universe of pathogens into centre stage.

A reverential awe for Nature necessarily entails a decentring of the human and a brief centrifugal moment in the anthropocentric narrative of the modern world. An ecological agitation, or an apprehensive self-critique of our engagement with the natural world is the product of this feeble attempt to grasp the unattainable: a pandemic sublimity grapples with this experience of self-effacement. To accept Covid-19 as the product of anthro-capitalist intrusion is also to open the door to a sense of ecological ethics rising up from the deep. Here we encounter an obvious humbling at work in the sublime, which might hope to desperately motivate the political energies of conservation and environmentalism. The spatial and temporal dimensions of a global disease are in themselves a phenomenon of sublimity in the most basic of senses, but so too is the contraction of the distance between human subject and microbiological pathogen in a cityscape.

Biological life, like politics, is chaotic and unruly. It does not always rationally follow lines of order and perfection – and in its troubled vicissitudes and dysfunctional instability, a minor moment can sometimes leave it utterly transfigured as idealism withers on the vine. Indeed, with such a pandemonium of processes – in life, in nature, and in politics – is it any wonder that the interconnectivity of microbiological nature has brought chaos theory to the lips of science? But this is not a matter of eschatology or any kind of ecological Ragnarök. What we are talking about is a certain acknowledgement that disruption is always inevitable.

Lyotard and the sublime Event

The overwhelming independence of nature and its potent otherness is what generates a sense of humility. Crucially, the otherness of non-human nature demonstrates that it exists in a world entirely apart from us and is indifferent to society’s wants and demands. This radical otherness is also one of language, beyond the borders and hinterlands of comprehension – humans did not create rainforests, microbes, and diverse fauna: they ‘exist’ in a different way to us. Even in the very nomenclature of, for instance, Sars Cov-2, what we are trying to taxonomise is a Nature resistant to the borders of a human linguistic universe.

When words fail us, we are in the sublime. Generally speaking, we resort to the feeling of the sublime at a point of inertia when usual and established understanding is incompatible with experience, or when the ineffable and incommensurable render words and points of reference obsolete. Certainly, the desolation of global mortality rates; lockdowns, quarantines, and indecipherable government-led crisis responses; and the invisible spectacles of microbiological nature also speak to that transcendent collapse. Manoeuvring through a contemporary sublime imagined by the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, we can establish a series of insightful consultations with the political alienation and microbiological crisis that has brought the world to its knees.

When words fail us, we are in the sublime. Generally speaking, we resort to the feeling of the sublime at a point of inertia when usual and established understanding is incompatible with experience, or when the ineffable and incommensurable render words and points of reference obsolete.

In his essay, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”, Lyotard accepts the immanence of the sublime over a transcendence beyond reason and expression, as well as claiming it as a form of intensification. In other words, the sublime works centrifugally to hasten the advent of the “now”, not to substantiate what is known or to disclose the transcendent. He understands the “now” as an event, an occurrence, inferring that it must crucially be understood in terms of temporality. This event is not something which has already happened, nor is it a particular, recognisable, or comprehensible form – it is better appreciated as the question mark equivalent of a Sword of Damocles. We are not talking about Covid as a ‘thing’ to be apprehended nor we are now to ask “what happens or what this might mean?’. Instead, the Covid event is the line of questioning “is it happening, is this it, is it possible?” At this stage we have no knowledge of what the event is or will be: we are not even sure of whether it is happening at all. In this abstract game of the event, something inchoate is presenting itself to us. This sensation of weightless confusion is a familiar aspect both of Lyotard’s philosophical style and public experience of life under Covid.

In the United Kingdom of 2020 and early 2021 – all death, restrictive confusion, and Tory government ineptitude – there was a sublimation of occurrences, of events where we have harrowingly and in rapid succession asked ourselves: ‘is this actually happening?’ Take, for instance, Dominic Cummings’ pandemic strategy discussion and the skill-sharing invitation of 40 tech giants to Downing Street in March 2020. Cummings’ brazen disregard for government lockdown guidelines in the fateful trip to Durham in May of last year perhaps pointed to another subtle discourse competing in the background.

That meeting represents a certain logic of the Lyotardian sublime, destabilising boundaries by letting us transcend them while at once overemphasising and sparing them. Here, the government’s proclivity towards a big data-led policy and the expansion of intelligence collection on the public is both laid bare and negated. What we are witnessing, then, is a kind of neo-feudal privatisation of state functions. There is perhaps nothing more sublime (in this Lyotardian sense of immediate uncertainty) than Tories dismantling public realms right before our eyes, opening them up to unaccountable corporate protectionism and its associations of extreme inequality, endemic precarity, monopoly power, and wholesale changes at the state level. We are not privy to these contracts, which, rather than going out for public tender were offered directly to Cummings’ friends and associates as masses of private NHS data is seemingly being shared with private industry.

We see this also in the Department of Health handing PPE Medpro a lucrative, £122 million contract to supply medical gowns to healthcare workers. In the spirit of cronyism, the contract to supply 25 million such gowns was not advertised to other bidders. PPE Medpro, set up just seven weeks earlier and with no history of delivering personal protective equipment, has extremely close connections to an associate of a Conservative peer, Baroness Mone. With two directors listed as resident in the Isle of Man and millions in taxpayer money being cynically siphoned off it prompted Labour MP for Sefton, Bill Esterton, to brand it the very “definition of corruption”.

For Lyotard, in the sublime moment we are confronted with an event that defies the application of both classification and regulation. We can be sure that ‘something happens’ because of, for instance, the irrepressible fact of Covid-19 or Tory crony capitalism, but we are unable to decide ‘what happens’ because it seems unintelligible to our normal interpretative systems. Here it is vital we note the difference between ‘something’ and ‘what’. In the sense of ‘what happens’ the sublime event is delimited and less prone to change because its ‘what’ gives it specificity. In the realm of the ‘something happens’ there is an open-endedness in the response to its uncertainty and a preservation of the particularity of the event.

In this way, what is sublime about the ‘event’ of the coronavirus is the awareness of a moment where something happens and we are made to respond without knowing in advance how to do so. That panicked unease precipitates the sublime event. It is an indeterminacy of ‘something’ emerging. Lyotard goes on to claim that the sublime is principally the encounter with terror, the terror which originates from a fundamental fear of “the possibility of nothing happening [which] is often associated with a feeling of anxiety”. But this is counterbalanced by the positive value that suspense can have – the pleasure of inviting the unknown, or of the pleasurable state of intensified “being” experienced in the event.

When faced with the Lyotardian event we are faced with the ineffable making a forceful entrance into the order of language: this ineffability being the unspeakable which is beyond the capacity, control or capability of our language systems and discourses. Lyotard’s différend is this beyond: the formless primordial space around language, (an)Other region of generative chaos. The différend is therefore the fountainhead where the interstitial difference of incompatible discourses is generated. This compels Lyotard to claim that, “The sublime feeling is neither moral universality nor aesthetic universalization, but is, rather, the destruction of one by the other in the violence of their différend. This différend cannot demand, even subjectively, to be communicated to all thought.”2

The sublime, then, features in Lyotard exactly because it occupies itself within difference itself, at the interstitial limits of expression and communication, with, essentially, what is unrepresentable. Sublimity is in this suspense, interval or boundary of the human and the “transcendent”. It is there, in this space of radical doubt and opportunity, that the sublime offers a very real and radical emancipatory potential for a political challenge where politics itself presents as sublime.

For post-Kantians like Lyotard, the sublime is accepted as an idea of limitlessness or as a gesture that traverses some kind of boundary, but there is a hesitation to call that transcendence. Instead, the incommensurable vastness of a world without gods or Truth is better understood as an infinite network. Understood through the lens of ecology, this could be the reticular awareness of the illimitable processes which engender the propagation of viruses and pathogenic spillovers. The sublime is the wholly other, that which Lyotard would call beyond the realms of intelligibility and the order of language. It is then a form of alienation, but an estrangement from the very act of thinking and conceptualising; we are seized by the sublime moment. Our encounter with the sublimity of the pandemic moment and of its Natural aetiology is that moment of self-abnegation, where language – the parameter by which we define ourselves – fails us and bewilders our sense of self.

Though the sublime retains its relevance in the contemporary mode it has lost the divine/spiritual qualities which Immanuel Kant’s ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ and, in turn, Romanticism claimed for it. The aporia of the sublime is, for Lyotard, of the essence; by charting the boundaries of conception and exposing the limitations of human reason it reveals the unstable, unsubstantiated and pluralistic view of modernity. We return to an encounter with the event, but one which sets up an encounter with the otherness of Nature. That Lyotard engages with Kant for the Lessons on the Analytic of Sublime makes a proper historical understanding of the sublime all the more pressing – we are talking here about a need to contextualise the sublime in its own toxic steeping in history.

Condemning Kant: racist Legacies of the Sublime

The arresting nature of the sublime – the experience of the event of sublimity – should be an ethical injunction towards pluralism, negotiation, and respect, rather than Kant’s universalising sensus communis of rigid morality. It is also ethically incumbent on us to be vigorously critical of the tradition of the sublime as a concept. Emerging initially with the work of Longinus in the first century, it was in the eighteenth century that the sublime really gained velocity through conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. As a political energy, it is utterly crucial to acknowledge the twisted intellectual history from which the philosophical sublime emerged to ensure that it is not merely an abstract theorisation. The popularity and everyday usage of the term came to dictate an entire generation of European aesthetic taste; but a pleasure in terror had serious ramifications on the legacy of the world. A turn towards mountainous landscapes, ruins, storms, and the supernatural meant a further revolution in an appetite for the untrammelled, the monstrous, and the wild over order and harmony. Among slavery, colonialism, and war, perhaps a new Enlightenment proclivity for the sublime explains much of the violence and Terror of the eighteenth century.

Traditionally, then, the sublime involves some kind of relationship between a sublime object and an experiential response in the subject – usually a kind of cognitive dissonance. At its zenith in the late eighteenth century, theoretical discussions abounded and pushed the sublime into the centre of aesthetic conversations about its value in both art and nature. An aspect common to the majority of these formulations is that the perfect sublime object is natural, that is, of Nature: oceans, thunder, volcanoes, the expanse of the firmament. Vast in scope and dimension, colossal in power and intensity, it induces an acute emotional response which overwhelms the subject in a paradoxical wave: at once anxious with vulnerability and awe-inspiringly pleasurable. In the minds of the Enlightenment, the sublime experience was one of natural imagery, envisioned predominantly as a disorienting confrontation with an object of Nature and the dialectic between self and nature.

The notion of otherness inherent to classic figurations of the sublime presupposes a discourse whereby the sublime operates as a mechanism to reinforce the authority and power of the subject over a hostile other. Read in its historical context, it is not difficult to read Enlightenment discourses of the sublime as an open endorsement for British imperialism and ideologies of Western dominance. The sublime, rooted in a chauvinistic discourse of male dominion, implicates its values of power, greatness, and scale and opens itself up to a valid charge of being a sexist, patriarchal hierarchising. When it is anthropocentric, it is also male-focused and guilty of serving hegemonic culture. When those values are installed and seen within Nature itself, machismo masquerading as ancestral mother ‘Gaia’ makes for an ironic gambit. This is particularly the case in Burke and in Kant.

The notion of otherness inherent to classic figurations of the sublime presupposes a discourse whereby the sublime operates as a mechanism to reinforce the authority and power of the subject over a hostile other.

Burke’s 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful set out the roster of traditional notions of sublimity and the natural world. “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment,” he wrote, “and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror”.16 This sublime object is formless, disruptive and wild, and educes a specific type of nameless horror. At least in the Burkean sense, this speaks counter to the delicate order, delight, smooth grandeur, and small-framed form of what he calls ‘beauty’. However formative Burkean notions of a systematic sublime were to the Romantic conception of the sublime they were disempowering. His gendered binaries of masculine and feminine, sublime and beautiful, were elsewhere met with critical condemnation by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Men. In this sense, it is easy to see how a conservative topography of the sublime mapped the tradition of a heteropatriarchal canonical discourse.

To turn to Kant, his philosophy of the sublime is traced heavily by a sense of mastery and superiority – the supposed victory of reason over incalculably large alterity. The supposedly pure high priest of regularity and detachment has been conveniently exonerated for being one of the Enlightenment’s more vocal proponents of racism. As Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze powerfully brought to Western scholarly attention in the 1990s, a moral conviction in the supremacy of the white European race formed a central tenet of Kant’s thinking.3 Indeed, Kant is seen as one of the founding figures of modern “scientific” racism.

An ersatz hierophant of morality, Kant used the same pen of ‘moral philosophy’ to write that, “[Whites] contain all the impulses of nature in affects and passions, all talents, all dispositions to culture and civilization and can as readily obey as govern. They are the only ones who always advance to perfection.”4 Elsewhere, in his lesser-known anthropological work, such as the reprehensible 1775 essay, “On the Different Races of Man”, Kant outlined a systemised racist hierarchy replete with disgraceful language and further white supremacy. Even a well-known philosophical, as opposed to anthropological, work like The Critique of Judgment is freighted with sexism and racial essentialism to the point of white supremacy.

The racism and sexism of The Critique of Judgement is not an aberration or personal quirk that could be removed without affecting the wider argument, the text is saturated with and determined by it. Kant exalts human reason to the extent that rationality is elevated to the level of transcendence. In a movement of arrogant apotheosis, ultimately, for Kant, what is sublime is our moral selfhood and faculties of reason: we are not just part of nature, we’re better than it. In this sense, an anti-Kantian ecological response would counter this sublimation of human reason by acknowledging that a mastery of nature is not just impossible, but unethical to attempt (and the impossibility of this mastery is in part what determines the increasing violence of the attempts). In his theory of aesthetic judgment, there are essentially two types of the sublime: the mathematical and the dynamical sublime – one, a question of quantitative scale and physical magnitude, the other concerned with the pure power of a natural object. In both a kind of distance is implied to allow the sense of fear to be translated into Kant’s problematic victory of moral reason and mastery over nature. Crucially, however, this age-old understanding of the sublime concerns itself with an oscillation between an object of nature’s formless grandeur, one that is “received as sublime with a pleasure that is only possible through the mediation of a displeasure.”5 The sublime is both a positive and negative transactional experience.

The racism and sexism of The Critique of Judgement is not an aberration or personal quirk that could be removed without affecting the wider argument, the text is saturated with and determined by it.

The mathematical sublime represents a crisis of the mind, of a cognitive inability to process something so incommensurably overbearing that it overwhelms our faculties of both reason and imagination. This sublime experience can also be understood as a struggle between finitude and infinity. It is also a revelation that the mind is inconsistent in always perceiving the world around us in a purely rational way. For Lyotard, the idea that an object can be recognised as a thing while simultaneously being incomprehensible or only partly perceived is a profoundly compelling conceit. In Kant, reason always triumphs and neatly applies the borders and limits; whereas, for Lyotard, the notion that some things are incapable of tidy taxonomies and domestication is a boon for resisting generalising totalities. Here, the sublime points to the positive deficiencies of both reason and the imagination, and, in that dark night of the mind, this crisis moment provides the tipping point for new forms of radical thinking.

For some, however, the sublime can only represent a political conservatism following Donald Pease’s pronouncement that, “Despite all the revolutionary rhetoric invested in the term, the sublime has, in what we could call the politics of historical formation, always served conservative purposes.” A conservative sublime is essentially a philosophy of authority and one dubious about change. Change, of course, is inevitable, particularly in Nature. But the ways in which changes can be made to the social structure of the nation are subject to political whim. If change allows conservative and/or institutional interests to flourish it will be welcomed. The very historical drama of the sublime dictates the ideological stories of progress that the establishment tells itself: of ‘Man’ triumphing over ‘Nature’. The politically conservative sublime is therefore also a weaponised ideology: a defender of the realm. Is it any wonder that conservative figures are so often on the wrong side of history? A politically conservative sublime would be one which seeks to establish ingrained ideas of pure morality and to implant the bourgeois narrative of the striving individual. It is the sublime of traditional creed, of ersatz struggle and modesty aping real instability, and one which holds in contempt the idea of revolution. In Burke – as the longed-for father figure or figurehead of modern Conservatism – for instance, there are shades and shouts of all these ideas, least of all his vocal opposition to the French Revolution.

In the hope of rescuing certain parts of its misused potential I still maintain that the sublime has real transformative power in its sewing and severing of the fabric of radical politics. Instead, it feels more appropriate to agree with Michael J. Shapiro, who suggests in The Political Sublime that, “the crucial political initiatives that challenge authoritative and institutionalized modes of power and authority are precipitated by disruptive events that provoke the formation of oppositional communities of sense, which register the existence of multiple experiential and thought worlds.”6 The sublime event is a disruptive moment of self-consciousness. We are overwhelmed by nature, but, in the same breath, subsumed by humility. The sublime event is therefore also an awareness of being alive in a very radical sense, that is, the organic awareness of oneself ‘being’ a (just one) living organism like so many uncountable others: human, animal, and non-human. Therefore, this experience of the sublime – rather than an elitist, aesthetic experience – is a thorough democratisation: a relationship based on assimilation and respect.

Contra Kant, there is also a charge of speciesism to be levelled alongside several counts of racism, chauvinism, and anthropocentrism. Kant’s promotion of the human mind as the paragon of rational freedom is a thorny difficulty for environmental conservation. Land ownership, territorialism, and the anthropic collisions between human beings and a nature supposedly created for their use and enjoyment is inimical to sustainable approaches to ecology. This kind of canonical Enlightenment thinking remains somewhat persistent in certain politico-ethical discussions today. What a proper eco-political sublime should do is undermine the hierarchy of things. It should demarcate the limits of the human experience, humble us with a reality check, but also interpellate us as ‘part of nature’, where, in that recognition of ourselves in nature, there lies a key to a sublime ecology.

The Future is green: the Ethics of sublime Environmentalism

In the sublime, Nature is the engine which drives the process of individuation. We know who we are through our relationship with the environment and its ecological contexts. This sense of moral determinism in the sublime drives an ethics of conservationism and of sustainable practices in our politics. Christopher Hitt, in repudiating critics of the sublime, believes that, “the concept of the sublime offers a unique opportunity for the realization of a new, more responsible perspective on our relationship with the natural environment.” In the field of literary eco-criticism, Hitt’s “Toward an Ecological Sublime” tries to clarify the nuances of the sublime legacy and to properly understand why, if the criticism is valid, “the sublime encounter with the wild otherness of nature has functioned to reinforce or ratify our estrangement from it.”7

William Cronon, in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” sets the stage for a rebuttal of a sublime nature. He claims that the aesthetic of the sublime is a Romantic beautiful savagery, but ultimately an unrealistic one and which undermines itself by association with a dependence on the othered distance between us and the non-human wilderness of nature. However, as Hitt also notices, there is a key moment where Cronon seems to allow himself a vulnerable moment of sublime advocacy:

On the one hand, one of my own most important environmental ethics is that people should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives. Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature—as wilderness tends to do—is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior.

On the other hand, I also think it no less crucial for us to recognize and honor nonhuman nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is. The autonomy of nonhuman nature seems to me an indispensable corrective to human arrogance. Any way of looking at nature that helps us remember—as wilderness also tends to do—that the interests of people are not necessarily identical to those of every other creature or of the earth itself is likely to foster responsible behavior. To the extent that wilderness has served as an important vehicle for articulating deep moral values regarding our obligations and responsibilities to the nonhuman world, I would not want to jettison the contributions it has made to our culture’s ways of thinking about nature.

As a critic of the sublime, it seems strange that Cronon surrenders an unequivocal position, and yet, in this almost sublime moment of breaking the faith, he illuminates the contradictory mechanism that powers it. Indeed, in its very nature, there is something jarring about the sublime. Perhaps something of its incompatibility with itself is what informs his ambivalence. Both chastening and empowering as a force of nature, it is far more productive, in an ecological sense, to break from the false authority of Enlightenment and contemporary capitalist logic and focus on the former rather than the latter. As Hitt rounds off, “Part of the sublime experience, in other words, is the realisation that we are mortal creatures, “beings of nature” whose lives are entirely dependent on forces greater than we are.”8

Citing humility – which he suggests we could call the “cornerstone of any environmental ethic” – together with both Kantian and Burkean mentions of wonder, awe, admiration, and respect, Hitt suggests that there remains something salvageable in a retooled version of “an ecological sublime”. This, he says, is “the recognition that the traditional natural sublime, for all its problems, involves what look to us like ecocentric principles. In imagining an ecological sublime, we would need to preserve these (and any other) positive aspects of the conventional sublime while identifying and critiquing its negative aspects.”9 Must we, then, stop seeing ourselves as the wardens of the natural world and rather as tourists to the physical dominion of the environment? The pandemic has shown us that any pretensions humankind has to controlling influence is always limited by the sublime force of Nature and, crucially, microbiological nature. This is not necessarily a deep ecology standpoint, nor one that actively supports a green anarchism that would springboard a pandemic-reactive biophilia, but simply a sad litany of fact. The coronavirus has so far failed to teach state leaders and governments that it is counter-intuitive to ratify human sovereignty over a world we have no claim to hegemonise.

Writing in 1999, Christopher Hitt presciently stated that the “rapidly increasing impact of technology on the world has only heightened the urgency of the need to reconsider the sublime. In an age in which humankind, in its moments of hubris, imagines that it can ensure its own survival through technological means – that it will ultimately win its war with nature – the sublime is more relevant than ever before.”10 While, of course, recent advances in technology and scientific innovation have provided a level of ascendent influence over the natural world and its processes, this represents a repositioning rather than a complete undermining of the laws of the sublime.

Some critics of the sublime denigrate it as an obsolete hangover from the Enlightenment, outdated and irrelevant in the contemporary world. Perhaps the eighteenth-century sublime – of “uncharted territory” and unscalable mountains – is somewhat passé in a universe of accelerated development and eco-modernist digital extortion. Yet the overhanging colonial consequences of this are anything but: what is “uncharted” if not an elision of the people who live there? The coercive violence and layers of accountability within globalisation and European colonising travelled in a terminal direction both metaphorically and literally. The arrogant sublime of an unexplored world also failed to consider the totalisation of capital and the unification of the world through its effects. The world was unified through capital’s consequences, but also microbiologically. The “unification of the globe through disease”11 perversely played out via plague epidemics, syphilis, and the various diseases that played their role in the genocide in America.

Perhaps still, this makes a reformatted version of the sublime all the more vital in conversations about ecology and political environmentalism. Maybe an argument could be made that we are less over-awed by Nature’s phenomena empowered as we are by machine-mastered technological development. However, the moralising hubris of the 1700s has not abated with any possible latent advents of the Anthropocene.

Those very technocratic advancements are energising the pervasiveness of capitalist exploitation, which continue to ravage the environment and split the atom of biological apocalypticism. A natural sublime now speaks not to an oceanic fascination with feral scenery but to the disembodying violence of natural phenomena: the climate emergency’s threat of environmental disaster and Holocene extinction. An appropriate sense of dread pervades the worlds of art, society, politics, and environmentalism; and, undimmed by fear, destructive human interference has disturbed the fine balance of the planet’s climate and ecosystems.

Bad faith actors, whose eyes have been incomprehensibly and voluntarily shut, are realising with unsettling haste that they are perhaps not at the centre of the universe. Indeed, any claim of a putative anthropocentrism needs to be alive to the precept of multiple forms supremacy which underpin it; a claim that humans are at the centre of the universe is also a statement that particular groups deserve to be there and that others do not. It is always imperative to resist totalising formulations about a universal ‘humanity’.

A claim that humans are at the centre of the universe is also a statement that particular groups deserve to be there and that others do not. It is always imperative to resist totalising formulations about a universal ‘humanity’.

What makes this moment sublime, crucially, is that it paves the way for increased understanding and drives a process of new knowledge about the environment we live in. There is a major spanner in the works, however; namely the consistent narrative of conventional sublime nature. In a traditional sense, it is one where an individual or community transcendentally achieves dominion over the natural world, and, in the erasure of the alienating otherness of nature, is validated by conquering or negating the reality of what the sublime really represents.
Centuries of history teem with ideologies that desperately try to deny the innate vulnerability of a humanity exposed to the elements. In this sense, then, we cannot simply expect that a phenomenon such as Covid-19 will suddenly lead to an acquiescence before Nature. Yet, the exponentially growing threats of environmental cataclysm – some of which are already here – might yet prove to erode the obstinacy of climate deniers, corporate polluters, and the tyrants of deforestation.

In asking “Must a Concern for the Environment Be Centred on Human Beings?”, Bernard Williams responds to his own reflections on the natural sublime by asserting that “our sense of restraint in the face of nature, a sense very basic to conservation concerns, will be grounded in a form of fear: a fear not just of the power of nature itself, but what might be called Promethean fear, a fear of taking too lightly or inconsiderably our relations to nature.”12 This idea of a Promethean fear, then, is one which honours the boundary between ourselves and Nature. It is a sublime respect for the sheer treacherous potency that Nature can unleash, understood here as an indifferent viral power. While ecological interests and conservationism will not always be predicated on neutralising natural dangers, Williams’ invocation of Prometheus obviously signals a human culpability for the increased frequency of sublime disasters such as Covid-19. This fear is both a primeval survival instinct that warns against folly, but also a key to understand our values and priorities which are endangered by imminent jeopardy.

Our admiration and daunted respect for nature can enact a shift in perspective, a shift which forms the foundation for an ethical response to our ecological policies. “The environmental ethic that the sublime underpins is thus relational and non-anthropocentric, but not in a way that excludes the human perspective,” suggests Emily Brady in a discussion of her book The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature. “You can’t exclude that when you’re discussing aesthetic judgment and experience, but you can dehumanize that perspective to some extent,” she adds. “If we balance humility and humanity in the sublime, we can also find a great deal of room for admiration and respect for nature.”

When we are ‘in’ nature, our sense of self changes. Confronted with the sublime otherness of the environment, egotism is dissolved by the awareness that, subsumed by Nature, we are simply one of many other biological organisms. In these contexts, we are demoted from special occupations or roles in society. Non-human otherness teaches us respect; respect for the natural world and respect for difference itself (particularly an anxious respect for the viral hazards of ecological destruction). In Kant, this displeasing pleasure takes the form of moral reason and a surmounting of nature; here, however, we are more concerned with a decentring of the human and a respect for nonhuman actors. Explicitly resisting a realm where pathogens have ‘real’ agency, there is still validity to undermining human superiority over non-human nature. That ecological demand is what motivates this version of the sublime.

This is also a matter of sympathy and understanding, of – radically – allowing Nature to run its course in its own way. Part of this is speaks to an impulse towards ‘rewilding’ practices, but this is also a conceptual demand. A respect for nature as-it-is, irrespective of human, or capitalist, desire. To impose on nature something counter to its benefit is a form a desublimation, that is, an act of ecological vandalism. In its very non-humanity, what is sublime about nature is its radical difference; it opens up a non-linguistic space that decentres us, but which also makes us keenly aware that we still have our own humble place in the world. In an ideal world, the natural world should impel us into an appreciative self-critical mode and strike in us the ethical awe of sublimity.

The sublime is a lesson in ethical compassion. It represents a system of networks and shared imbrications that remind us of our ineluctable, sometimes painful, connections with the natural world. In this sense, the feeling of sublimity is also very much a political demand for ethical and environmental responses. In this ecological sense, the sublime is a moment of self-effacement: a drive towards common identity and an understanding that the symbiotic relationships between human behaviour, pathogenic development, and natural processes are entwined in a colossal knot. This eco-political sublime shows us that we are inclusive of nature and that the environment is an extension of the self. The sublime should teach us that a kinship with a wholly other nature can be extended to an ethical compassion for others, that is, to contract the distance between those around us in a move towards a kind of eco-socialism.

The crisis of sublime nature compels us to make political decisions and judgments; to choose what we want to preserve and which path we want to follow. Up to now, governments have seen fit to maintain industrial capitalism and systems of oppressive hierarchy rather than empowering grassroots organisation and sustainable community-led initiatives. What we need, however, is a radical alternative that would sublimate and prioritise an emancipatory politics of ethical ecology.

  1. Andreas Malm. 2018. The Progress of this Storm. London: Verso. p. 163. 

  2. Jean-François Lyotard. 1994. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg, edited by Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery. Stanford: Stanford University Press. pp. 238-39. 

  3. Emanuel Chukwudi Eze. 1997. “The Colour of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology”, in Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. Edited by Emanuel Chukwudi Eze. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 103-131. 

  4. Immanuel Kant cited in Charles W. Mills. 2017. Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 95. And see the analysis and other quotes, pp. 95-7. “Now if the only Kant one knows is the Kant sanitized for public consumption, these views will obviously come as a great shock. Kant believed in a natural racial hierarchy, with whites at the top, and blacks and Native Americans (“savages”) at the bottom. He saw the last two races as natural slaves incapable of cultural achievement, and accordingly (like an old-time southern segregationist) he opposed intermarriage as leading to the degradation of whites. Ultimately, he thought, the planet would become all white.” (p. 97). 

  5. Immanuel Kant. [1790]. 2017. The Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 95. 

  6. Michael J. Shapiro. 2018. The Political Sublime. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 4. 

  7. Christopher Hitt. 1999. “Toward an Ecological Sublime” New Literary History. Vol. 30, No. 3, Ecocriticism. p. 605. 

  8. Hitt. “Towards an Ecological Sublime”. p. 618. 

  9. Hitt. “Towards an Ecological Sublime”. p. 607. 

  10. Hitt. “Towards an Ecological Sublime”. p. 607. 

  11. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. “A Concept: The Unification of the Globe by Disease (Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries) in The Mind and Method of the Historian. Chicago: Chicago University Press. pp. 28-83. 

  12. Bernard Williams. 1995. “Must a Concern for the Environment Be Centred on Human Beings?” in Making Sense of Humanity and Other Philosophical Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 240. 


Enis Yucekoralp (@Enis__Y)

Enis Yucekoralp is a freelance writer currently based in London. He holds an M.Phil. in English from the University of Cambridge.