The sublime – and the Artemis Space Program

My very first publication, written almost ten years ago now, was on the concept of the sublime in philosophical aesthetics.

What is the sublime? Probably everybody old enough to have refined aesthetic experiences will know what it feels like, even if they don’t know its name. It’s the sense of being wondrously overwhelmed by the vastness and force of something, usually a landscape, artwork, or building.

Perhaps you’ve felt it when looking up at a mighty snow-capped mountain, or when listening to the climax of a four-hour Wagnerian opera. I vividly remember standing beneath Cologne Cathedral, a gothic masterpiece blackened by centuries’ worth of grime, and being awestruck by its sheer presence. The sublime carries a sense of feeling small before greatness, and it can be so powerful as to move you to tears.

In the 18th and 19th centuries philosophers like Immanuel Kant typically contrasted the sublime with the beautiful. Beauty is much more pleasurable to experience, and is typically brought about by something elegant, light, harmonious and contained. Think of an ornamental pond dotted with water lilies, as opposed to the roar and churn of the iron-grey Atlantic Ocean.

But in the last hundred-odd years the sublime has largely disappeared from mainstream philosophical and cultural discourse. And the reason why is the diminished role it has in modern life in general.

The processes of modernity set in chain during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – experimental science, the industrial revolution, international capitalism – have drastically shrunk the Earth. Human settlements are no longer islands in the vastness of the natural world. It might have been possible to still think that way two hundred years ago, but today Earthly nature has been subsumed by our global techno-capitalist civilisation. There is no terra incognita to explore, no mountain left to ascend, or pole to reach. The Earth’s mysteries have been unravelled, conquered through measurement and exploited through commodification. Although this leaves plenty of room for appreciating the beauty of the natural world, there are fewer opportunities to experience it as vast, powerful, and overwhelming – and thereby sublime.

If this is one key reason why the sublime has become less relevant to modern humanity, the other is the change in our built environments. Pre-modern societies constructed monuments and buildings that gave physical expression to great and abstract ideas – most obviously their conceptions of the gods, the afterlife, and our place in the universe. Well-known examples might be Stonehenge, the pyramids at Giza, or the Leshan Buddha. An encounter with any of these is still a sublime window into a very different culture. Today, however, our greatest buildings are skyscrapers and shopping malls, which symbolise little more than the capitalist mode of production. One of the many unfortunate consequences of this is to diminish the place of the sublime in modern life.

This is broadly what I argued in my MA dissertation, which formed the basis of my first ever publication. It might be too pessimistic for some readers, but I broadly stand by it. And the reason why these thoughts came back to me yesterday was hearing the news of NASA’s Artemis Space Program.

Artemis represents the first exploration of extraterrestrial bodies with actual human beings since 1972: in this case, putting (female and African-American) astronauts on the Moon. Why now, though, fifty years since the last such mission? The answer is quite predictable: because of the new space race commencing with China for control of the Moon’s territory, resources, and strategic importance. In other words: superpower competition.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m keenly aware of the threat China poses to democracies around the world. But I can’t get excited about the Artemis mission, because what it really represents is a major step forward in the conquering, taming, and commodifying of extraterrestrial nature.

Think of it this way: when human beings first set foot on the Moon, the event altered the Moon’s significance for us. It ceased to be the most prominent feature of the mysterious heavens above us, and became simply another destination for human beings. With the half-century that’s passed since the last person went to the Moon, it has at least stabilised in that significance: as somewhere human beings once went, but never returned to. With Artemis, though, the significance of the Moon will change again: becoming a research centre, military base, and way-station for missions to Mars.

Why does this matter? Because gazing at the night sky is one of the most common ways in which modern human beings can still encounter the sublime. Faced with the vastness of space we’re reminded of our finitude before the infinite depths of the universe. We have that dizzying sense of overwhelmed wonder, and our lives are the richer for it. It is very likely an experience that human beings have shared for as long as our species has existed. But if we look up at the Moon, strip-mined and inhabited, will we still feel that way?

There is, though, one reason to remain partly optimistic. And this is to do with how a humanity that has colonised other celestial bodies might then feel about the Earth.

Some years ago I watched the fascinating documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (2007), which recounts the experiences of the twelve Apollo astronauts who set foot on it. Many of them described the experience of seeing the Earth from the Moon in almost religious terms. Not because it struck them as sublime, but quite the opposite: as beautiful. Once the Earth is seen as a green-blue jewel set against the otherwise monochrome sky, its beauty as a whole is revealed to us. Elegant, fragile, and neatly contained, its uniqueness as the cradle of life in the known universe is brought home to us. And the more conscious we are of that fact, the better.

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