Friday, May 16, 2008

American Technological Sublime

David Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994)

Nye teaches at the University of Southern Denmark, and has written several other books on technology and modernity in the US, including Electrifying America (on my list) and Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. I'm not sure if he was trained in American Studies, but he apparently got his degree from Minnesota, so it seems likely. Regardless, this book could easily be used to answer the question "What does an ideal American Studies book look like?"

This book approaches its subject not through some artificially delineated rubric defined by race, age, gender, or time ("Italian immigrants in the cities, 1881-1911"). Nye picks an idea - that there is a particularly American form of expression/social interaction, called the "technological sublime" - and then picks a bunch of examples throughout American history in order to develop this idea. He effectively, then, creates a new rubric or a new category. And he uses the breadth of methodological sources that I would want from an American Studies book - responses from observers both "high" and "low"; examples from public entertainment settings (such as from expositions) and from cityscapes and defense departments (this shows how "technological sublime" is produced and managed by various agencies, with a larger or smaller degree of intent); the inclusion of fiction. I do think he could have had more in here about film, though.

Nye traces how the sublime, originally a concept articulated by Burke and Kant in order to describe a response to a natural object of great magnitude or impressiveness, shifted its boundaries in America to encompass the technological. On the way, Nye argues, the experience of facing the sublime shifted from an individual to a crowd context; from being provoked by nature to being provoked by machinery; and from an experience of "substance" into an electric image (277). His examples of various varieties of "technological sublime" include the electric sublime (see: lighting displays at World's Fairs); the industrial sublime (the curving, uniform lines of the factory walls at Manchester, NH's Amoskeag Mills - "complexity and order on a massive scale" [113]); the geometric sublime (skyscrapers and dams) and the dynamic sublime (the railroads).

His penultimate chapter, which describes the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, shows how the technological sublime as practiced in these public contexts participates in a utopianism that promises not a difference in social interactions but a difference in the kind of "stuff" that we own. These sort of un-radical (or even repressive) historical precedents for the technological sublime of television can be found way earlier, however, in the "industrial sublime," which subsumed images of workers below images of machinery, beginning in the late nineteenth century, and in the "geometric sublime," embodied by skyscrapers that shut out and alienated the street-level public while impressing a generalized "public" with their mass.

There is interesting thought in here too about the interplay between nature and technology - Nye claims that if a naturally sublime site faces down a technologically sublime possibility, as in the case of dam construction, the naturally sublime will always lose to the potential of construction, because while the natural sublime speaks of limits, the technological sublime speaks of "the idea of reason in constant evolution" (60).

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