Beauty, Terror and the Sublime

The Sublime is not strictly speaking something which is proven or demonstrated, but a marvel, which seizes one, strikes one, and makes one feel.
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

The passion caused by the great and Sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.
Edmund Burke

Recently I have been teasing out my understanding of and feelings around the concept of the Sublime. I get quite tangled up in picking apart how the idea of beauty fits into the contemporary art world and where the sublime can take its place or, perhaps, exist along side it.

I find the concept of beauty very difficult to conceptualise. In a traditional art sense it is tied up in ideals around formal harmony and elegance, but this is only one aspect of the way we experience beauty. Beauty is far more than just visual pleasure and prettiness – these things can be expressed by the decorative and without having a visceral impact on the viewer. The aspects of beauty that interest me are far closer to those expressed by the sublime.

In everyday parlance the word ‘sublime’ might still evoke something that is elevated or lofty, but it is in the soft guise of being pleasing, delectable and existing in positive way. For example; ‘this strawberry ice cream is sublime’. We don’t tend to use it in its truer sense; to describe something that induces awe or a sense of the overwhelm, for which it is used in an art or philosophy context.

The word comes from the latin sublimus where ‘limen’ is a threshold, boundary or limit. It also has a cousin in the alchemical concept of sublimare – to elevate, purify and transform. So for something to be sublime it must be pushing right up to the limits. I would say that in this respect it can be used in tandem with the concept of beauty, where beauty is right at the limits of enjoyment, where the experience of the beauty becomes overwhelming. This is not the beauty of something pretty or conforming to standards, this is a beauty that bursts past reason and strikes the viewer like a fist to the heart.

Philosophers have attempted to quantify the nature of the sublime and, as with most terms used in an art context, the meanings has shifted subtly over time. There are many ideas about what this means: impressive, awe-inspiring, lofty, exalted, something terrifying that inspires a strange pleasure in the terror. The first century Greek author known as (Pseudo) Longinus described ‘The True Sublime” in Book 7 of the Peri Hypsous:

“For by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy; just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard.”
Riding, C. and Llewellyn, N. (2009) British Art and the Sublime

By the time of the Enlightenment the sublime was regarded as of such exalted status that it was beyond normal experience. Whether physical or metaphysical, the sublime was generally regarded as past comprehension and measurement – a thing so great, so vast and so awe inspiring that it was beyond human understanding.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, the sublime was associated in particular with human responses to the immensity or turbulence of the natural world. Consequently, sublime landscape painters, especially in the Romantic period, tended to take subjects such as towering mountain ranges, deep chasms, violent storms, rough seas, volcanic eruptions or avalanches that, if actually experienced, would be dangerous and even life-threatening. In a modern context I would put forward the images of the swirling turmoil of our burning sun or the vastnesses of uncharted space. Or perhaps as the complexity of the unseeable quantum world or the immensity of the digital data being processed every second.

Casper David Friedrich (1817) Wander above the Sea of Fog, oil on canvas

Edmund Burke described these awe-inspiring phenomena as being something so vast and other that it’s very existences threatens the annihilation of the observer causing a contradictory experience of exaltation and terror.

On late 18th and early 19th writers Burke, Kant, Diderot, Delacroix and their contemporaries Robert Rosenblaum suggests:

“The Sublime provided a flexible semantic container for the murky new Romantic experiences of awe, terror, boundlessness and divinity that began to rupture the decorous confines of earlier aesthetic systems.”
Rosenblaum, R. (1961) The Abstract Sublime

Immanuel Kant described three types of sublimity in his Critique of Judgement (1790); the awful, the lofty and the splendid. To me this really captures the varying faces of the sublime. He suggested that there is a certain pleasure in the feeling of terror experienced while knowing that you are in relative safety. You can take a strange kind of pleasure in watching a giant dust cloud roll across a desert city, marvelling at the immense power of nature, when you aren’t on the ground about to be swamped by it. This causes a feeling of ‘negative pleasure’ which is a feeling of something deeper than pleasure, more overwhelming and all consuming.

Kant also suggests that our powers of reason allow us to at least partially mentally cope with things that are infinite or overwhelming. The power of reason over nature. The sublime experience can be any that involves deliberate subordination of oneself to some greater force.

The feeling of the Sublime is at once a feeling of displeasure arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation of reason, and a simultaneous awakened pleasure, arresting for this very judgement of the inadequacy of sense offing in accord with ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law.
Immanuel Kant

Talking about the ‘negative pleasure’ response Lyotard gives an interesting insight into how beauty and the sublime can differ:

“This dislocation of the faculties among themselves gives rise to the extreme tension (Kant calls it agitation) that characterises the pathos of the sublime, as opposed to the calm feeling of beauty.”
Lyotard, J.F. (1988) The Sublime and the Avant-Garde

Not to tread on the toes of a great thinker, but I’m not convinced that the feeling of beauty is always calm? I remember being struck one day by the beauty of the mountains on the central plateau to the point I was brought to tears, but considering the vast, brooding nature of the volcanoes wreathed in storm clouds I would say they fit far more into the box labelled ‘sublime’ than that of calm beauty. I can think of many experiences that could be labelled sublime but which I would also class as beautiful. Perhaps it’s a type of beauty? Calm beauty versus overwhelming beauty?

Zizek brings some more clarity to the opposition of beauty and the sublime by quantifying their positions on opposing axes (bolding my own):

Beauty and sublimity are opposed along the semantic axes quality-quantity, shaped-shapeless, bounded-boundless: Beauty calms and comforts; sublimity agitates and excites. ‘Beauty’ is the sentiment provoked when the suprasensible Idea appears in the material, sensuous medium, in its harmonious formation – a sentiment of immediate harmony between Idea and the sensuous material of its expression; white the sentiment of Sublimity is attached to chaotic, terrifying limitless phenomena.”
Zizek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology

Lightning above Peruvian volcano; power, terror, awe, vastness

This gives a solid definition to the meaning (and not-meaning) of beauty. In Zizek’s terms beauty cannot be boundless, shapeless or of huge quantity. But is this strictly true? Is this quantifying ‘beauty’ or is it ‘tastefulness and grace’? Whenever I try to examine the idea of beauty I think about the difference between what someone might find pretty, and what they might find beautiful in a person. Someone who is pretty or handsome is proportionate, has even skin, glossy hair, symmetrical features, usually young and without ‘flaws’. While we can all agree that this person exhibits all the aspects that we, as a group, consider attractive, they might not be ‘beautiful’ to many of us. Beauty has another unquantifiable aspect to it which goes beyond symmetry and proportion. In fact the very aspects that can make a person physically imperfect are the same that can make them beautiful; a big crooked nose, being ‘too’ short or ‘too’ tall, having crooked teeth or wrinkles.

When explaining the unknown aspect of the sublime Lyotard discusses the same points being applied to beauty (bolding my own):

(Lyotard paraphrasing Boileau in reference to Longinus)
“The sublime, he says, cannot be taught, and didactics are thus powerless in this respect; the sublime is not linked to rules that can be determined through poetics; the sublime only requires that the reader or listener have conceptual range, taste and the ability to ‘sense what everyone sense first.’ Boileau therefore takes the same stand as Pére Bouhours when in 1671 the latter declared that beauty demands more than just a respect for rules, that it requires a further ‘je ne sais quoi’, also called genius or something ‘incomprehensible and explicable’, a ‘gift from god’, a fundamentally ‘hidden] phenomenon that can be recognised only by it’s effects on the addressee.
Lyotard, J.F. (1988) The Sublime and the Avant-Garde

When it comes to painting vast, awe-inspiring landscapes it is easy for us to see how these artists expressed the sublime. But when the idea of the sublime made its way into the work of the abstractionists things got very curious. Without any depiction of natural forces, the very medium of the work started to carry the exalted aspects of the unknown.

“The sublime was to be abstract, devoid of all signifiers, so that which is signified will appear in all its decorum: that is, by stating it’s not being there it will have the appropriate Parousia, the manifestation of the hidden essence.”
LeVitte Harten, D. (1999) Creating Heaven

Parousia (Ancient Greek) means ‘presence’ or ‘visit’ which is apropos for that strange otherworldly element that makes something sublime. Without representative imagery the image is free to be the conveyer of this essence.

Barnett Newman (1949) Be I, oil on canvas.

Lyotard suggested that the sublime is not the presentation of the unpresentable, but the presentation of the fact the unpresentable exists and I think this comes through in the abstractionist’s visions of the sublime. These vast canvasses of colour and form suggest the sublime rather than presenting it to the viewer as a fait accompli.

The sublime takes place…when the imagination fails to present an object which might, if only in principle, come to match a concept.
Jean-François Lyotard

Olafur Eliasson (2004-2004) The Weather Project, installation

I’ve been thinking about the sublime in the context of the new kinds of media we can work with and I can’t help thinking that both installation and video offer a way to convey the sublime that is even better than the traditional medium of painting. The sublime has such a visceral experiential quality to it that being immersed in a work could only heighten the understanding of the sublime. Watching moving image or being ensconced in an installation work brings you one step closer to the terror and awe of actually being there while still being ‘safe’. What is it like to be on that storm tossed sea? To be in the very presence of a dying sun? I never got to witness Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the turbine hall at the Tate London, but just looking at pictures is powerful enough to help me imagine the magnitude and overwhelming presence of that huge orange sun.

Bill Viola (2005) Fire Woman, video
Bill Viola (2005) Tristan’s ascension, video

Bill Viola’s video works can have a similar effect of awe and reverence on viewers. The large-scale videos in high definition slow motion showing humans grappling with intense emotions and with the forces of nature evoke the same lofty, even spiritual emotions as a sublime painting. The difference is that video shows more than a snapshot of an image, it pulls the viewer into the moment as it unfolds.

“My world crumbles before the looming prospect of a reality that threatens to replace the foundations of the familiar. My sense of order is jumbled, my status called into question, whatever I took to be certain may be thrown into doubt. This experience of the liminal may be configured as transcendence or as transformation. The two should not be confused. Transcendence posits a mystery present in the work of art as the encounter with a metaphysical order beyond of hidden within the ordinary, sensuous world. Transformation, on the other hand, confronts enigma in the work, the disturbing sense that the world is not right.”
Morgan, D. (1996) Secret Wisdom and Self-Effacement: The Spiritual in the Modern Age

I have included below some quotes I enjoy that don’t fit within my writing but which I wished to include as they are interesting and speak to the sublime in postmodernism. Three are from T. McEvilley and one from artist Shirazeh Houshiary :

The mystical dimension is when knowledge is not used to construct the self as identity in terms of nationality, cultural context or gender, but to go beyond the self, where the reality of daily life is forgotten or rendered dormant. Those identities become a barrier blocking our access to the inner self; which is the place of the imagination. Daily life reality is a place of closedness, whilst imagination is one of openness. Here being is a continuous becoming. In other words, it is the moment of extreme consciousness.”
Shirazeh Houshiary (1994)

“…In many ways the so-called postmodern sublime is really an oxymoron or contradiction in terms. The sublime was a basic concept of the modernist era. … Postmodernism really does not deal in such concepts as the grandeur that bursts through the surface in a gust of frenzy. It is no worshipper of the end of the world. It does not fall on its knees before the final conflagration. It does not see the ‘negative pleasure’ of violence as a consummation. Really, taking the sublime in the old sense, there is no postmodern sublime.”
McEvilley, T. (2001) Turned Upside Down and Torn Apart

“If the sublime, in its weakened postmodern forms, is still seen to as dangerous, then the meaning of its danger has shifted. It is no longer based on the idea that the sublime is so huge, powerful, unknown and unpredictable that it might sweep you away entirely, and forever, without even noticing that it has done so; the danger now is that the sublime will ingratiate itself to you buy acting hypocritically like the beautiful, then double cross you by turning out to be less that satisfying as such in a new version of the negative pleasure (or bait and switch).
McEvilley, T. (2001) Turned Upside Down and Torn Apart

“McEvilley: Along with formlessness, the theme in recent art involved a sense of the human individual possessing in a hidden way a potential for vast spiritual greatness…
Kelley: I have a big problem with that reading of the sublime. My reading is more Freudian, involved with notions of sublimation. I see the sublime as coming from the natural limitations of our knowledge; when we are confronted with something that’s beyond our limits of acceptability, or that threatens to expose some repressed thing, then we have this feeling of the uncanny. So it’s not about getting in touch with something greater than ourselves. It’s about getting in touch with something we know and can’t accept – something outside the boundaries of what we are willing to accept about ourselves.”
Mike Kelley In Conversation With Thomas McEvilley (1992)

Morley, S. Ed. (2010) The Sublime, Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press, UK & US.

Text-based Research May 2019

To go along with my image collection I usually create mind maps examining certain themes and ideas within the work.

I wrote a statement that I think sums up much of what goes on in the work:

Communication of otherworldly experience requires a symbolic language due to the ephemeral and unexplainable nature of the phenomena. Often this communication is through artwork, story and performance, where material representations, in the form of object, symbol and gesture, can be used as to communicate the incommunicable.

My workbook gets a bit confusing at times with all my diagrams and scribbles, but I always go back to re-reference them, even those I made several years ago. Here I’ve started picking apart my interest in the occult, or esoteric, and how it functions within my art practice both positively and negatively.

I’ve then gone on the look at the place of Space, Body and Object in esoteric practice.


– Buildings or rooms dedicated to ritual or sacred practice.
– Symbols, maps, written and visual language applied to floors, walls, ceilings, furnishings.
– Furnishings (objects!) for use within practice.

– Areas that are ‘fit for purpose’.
– Often natural environments imbued with ‘the sacred’; natural occurrence of an elemental nature like water, air, fire, earth or to do with animals, trees etc.

– Spaces that have a ‘received specialness’. For example they may have a historical significance to do with previous events, previous owners, previous usage.
– Haunted spaces.

– Spaces that do not exist within the material world; internal space, astral space, extra dimensional space etc.
– The collective unconscious, spaces that exist within myth.
-‘Other’ worlds eg. the Enochian aethyrs.


– A symbolic representation of a non-corporeal element.
– A way to contain/control/transport.
– A way to make the intangible physical.
– The language of objects; the interplay between objects.
– Allows connection with the ‘other’.
– We imbue objects with power (just looks at what we do with mobiles phones!)
– Furnishings for a ritual space.

– Method of communication.
– Can be concealed.
– Can have a special connection with the owner’s body.
– Can be passed from one person to another.

– Turning one thing into another = object alchemy.
– The history of an old object can be brought into a new form, the power and meaning of objects can be combined and amplified.
– Conversations between objects and materials.

– A symbolic pathway, a way through.
– May require a symbolic language to communicate or to decipher.
– An instruction, investigation, journey, discovery, unveiling.
– A visual plan or language.
– A path for the seeker, an instruction for an ordeal.


– Emphasis on body part eg eyes, teeth, hands, genitals.
– Emphasis on symbolism ascribed to that body part.
– Ritualised movement or pose of body part or full body eg mudras.
– Fetishising body parts, making them talismanic or sacred.
– Making the body monstrous, godlike or humorous through distortion of characteristics.

– Permanent or transitory marking eg tattooing or scarification versus painting or make-up.
– Status or right of passage.
– A personal ordeal vs a communal event.
– Language of the body. Marking the body as a vessel, talisman or sacred object.
– Becoming more than human.

– Enacting a character or archetype.
– Giving form to the incorporeal.
– Using dress as part of a symbolic language.
– Becoming ‘other’; an animal, a spirit, an idea.

– Creating a language through moving and shaping the body.
– Communication without words.
– Sacred / ritual dances.
– Moving between worlds.
– Combine with dress, markings, objects and space to create a powerful method of communication and experience.

I also took a delve into my personal interest in the occult; the whys, wherefores and the problematic aspects that go along with it. Something I’m looking into right now is correlation between interest in the esoteric in times that are particularly turbulent in a socio-political sense.

The issue of anything to do with the occult seeming laughable, absurd, embarrassing, cheesy (the list goes on) is something I work with constantly. I’ve thought about choosing to embrace that in my work, but it doesn’t sit right, so I continue to balance on the tightrope of earnestness! I’m fully aware of appearing ridiculous, but it’s an interesting space to exist in. What I need to keep pushing towards is finding the place where viewers find relevance and connection in the work. It’s not about me.

I’m also curious about the general public’s acceptance (and even the commercial exploitation) of some aspects of what is widely considered ‘occult’ versus the fear of other aspects such as mysticism and esotericism. Aside from residual superstition around devil worship and that sort of thing, I suspect is due to it’s very nature; being occult = being hidden. Science-minded twenty first century people might not be scared of demons, but they want to know things straight away and in bite-sized form, even extremely complex ideas shouldn’t take longer than a standard podcast to explain. I wonder if the very thing that has always drawn me to esotericism is what repels many others; everything is hidden under layers of symbolism that can only be revealed over time. It’s non-didactic – everything is found through questioning, testing, exploring and finding. It’s a SLOW process that requires patience and commitment which are in short supply right now due to the way we interact with technology – and that’s another aspect of the whole thing that is worth exploring.

Geometry under the rug

Just when I was getting into finding out about the contemporary Western relationship to esotericism and the occult, a friend sends me a selection of facebook screenshots he thought I might enjoy. I did enjoy it immensely, not just because peoples reactions are so great, but because it provided a nice little insight into exactly what I was curious about.

From digging around online I’ve come to the conclusion that a sort of vague ‘witchiness’ is very popular right now. As long as it’s got some connections to nature and you can indulge in some enjoyable consumerism in the form of sage smudge sticks or sliver pentacle necklaces, it seems reasonably acceptable by the (non-religious) western mainstream. I don’t think the same can be said for things that lean in a more ‘occult’ direction though.

What fascinates me is the fear induced by geometry; namely any geometry that appears in-situ within a building (one could almost say an installation). Ritual circles on the floor really get the blood pumping, then add a five-pointed star, or a hexagon, or similar and satan is on the loose! It’s quite wonderful that geometric shapes have so much power over otherwise jaded and skeptical adults. The excitement of finding a couple of circles under the carpet of an old house was so exhilarating that it migrated from facebook and onto the front page of the NZ Herald – I bet the owners didn’t expect that much curiosity! Is this the last real bastion of true superstitious fear in western culture?

I was thinking that you could perhaps chuck hauntings in there as well, but the reaction to ghosts vs floor-geometry does appear a bit different. Hauntings, as well as offering the exhilaration of fear, also offer answers; the possibility of an afterlife or existence in another place and the chance to connect with it. Occultism only puts forward questions. Find some fancy floor-geometry under your carpet and you’re just going to be left with more questions than you started with even if you can find someone to tell you what it is and who made it.

Just quietly, I suspect that either someone who lived in the house 30 years ago wanted spooky rooms for fun (bunch o goths) or there was someone who did some general non-specific ritual work and wanted a circle for it. There is certainly nothing in either of those circles that tells you much about what they might have been used for. I’ve included screenshots of the original post and some of my fave comments. These were shared on a public forum, but I have removed all names.

If anyone has any thought’s about contemporary western society’s relationship to the occult, please do leave me a comment as I’m very curious…

Hauntology: Part 2, What the Spectre Articulates

“To haunt does not mean to be present…”.
Derrida, J. (1994) Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, P161

I have a selection of quotes and thoughts around hauntology that didn’t quite fit in with the musical theme of my last post but which interest me in terms of my art practice. They examine the nature of the haunting; of the spectre; and what this means in a cultural, art or literature context.

In relation to ‘the spectre’, it is irrelevant whether one believes in ghosts or not:
“Spectrality does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist or that the past (and maybe even the future they offer to prophesy) is still very much alive and at work, within the living present: all it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on it’s density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.”
‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’ in Ghostly Demarcations, p39

I found this quote useful in how it undermines the solidity and the very ‘realness’ of our present experience. Our belief in what is around us is unnecessary to the experience of that thing. What does it matter whether one believes in ‘ghosts’? A spectre still haunts us and affects our present. It’s very much inline with human experience of the ‘otherworldly’ – whatever that might be – in that it does not require fixed belief or rational processing for it to impact on the experiencer.

“Derrida’s spectre is a deconstructive figure hovering between life and death, presence and absence, and making established certainties vacillate. It does not belong in the order of knowledge…
Derrida calls on us to endeavour to speak and listen to the spectre, despite the reluctance inherited from our intellectual traditions and because of the challenge it make pose to them…
Conversing with spectres is not undertaken in the expectation that they will reveal some secret, shameful or otherwise. Rather it may open us up to the experience of secrecy as such an essential unknowing which underlies and may undermine what we think we know.”
Davis, C. (2005) État Présent Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms, Oxford University Press, P4-5

I very much enjoy this concept of the spectre opening up an experience of unknowing which tugs unsettling on the frame work of what we think we know. The following quote expands upon that further by suggesting that the unknowing is only such because we are unable to articulate it using our current frameworks and language. This pushes experiencers to expand and explore the nature of articulating meaning – I love that idea.

“Abraham and Torok seek to return the ghost to the order of knowledge; Derrida wants to avoid any such restoration and to encounter what is strange, unheard, other, about the ghost. For Derrida, the ghost’s secret is not a puzzle to be solved; it is the structural openness or address directed towards the living by the voices of the past or the not yet formulated possibilities of the future. The secret is not unspeakable because it is taboo, but because it cannot (yet) be articulated in the languages available to us. The ghost pushes at the boundaries of language and thought.”
Davis, C. (2005) État Présent Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms, Oxford University Press, P7

This haunting seems to me a phantasm of our potential or lost selves rather than a manifestation of anything even vaguely supernatural. Although that is not to say it is not ‘otherworldly,’ as the haunting itself is the product of another world that we expected, that we might long for but that has never come to pass. Linking in to my exploration of the ‘eternal moment’ I can see that the haunting is akin to a stuck record, endlessly repeating, measuring time in the static of it’s wear.

(Image, still from Bladerunner)

Hauntology; experienced through Burial’s ‘Untrue’

A sense of loss for a future that never was

Lately I’ve been revisiting some musical projects I enjoy and discovered that they fit into the genre of ‘hauntological music’. I’d previously been aware of hauntology existing as a cultural idea, but hadn’t thought about applying it to music, which is a bit remiss of me as music is the perfect conduit for hauntological experience.

The concept of hauntology was originally coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in his Spectres de Marx (1993) to reference the way in which the western world is haunted by the spectre of a post-communist existence where the possible promise of a future of equality, justice and fairness has been lost to neo-liberal capitalism and unfettered growth.

Derrida imbues our world with phantoms that shift in and out of our field of vision, making us aware of other possible futures and pasts. They exist within our emotional being rather than our intellectual mind and if you wanted to get very cliched about it then maybe these phantoms could be described as a kind of melancholy nostalgia.

“Derrida’s rehabilitation of ghosts as a respectable subject of enquiry has proved to be extraordinarily fertile. Hauntology supplants it’s near-homonym ontology, replacing the idea of being a presence with the figure of the ghost, as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.
Davis, C. (2005) État Présent; Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms, Oxford University Press Society for French Studies. (bolding my own)

The screenshots below are from a little BBC documentary on hauntology.  Apart from the content of the text, what I really like about the image is the spirograph set.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 4.24.57 PM

Growing up in the UK in the 70s/early 80s I had a spirograph set and seeing those objects gives a huge sense of strangeness. It’s a little tug on my brain that makes me feel sad and out of place even though it shouldn’t.

In an article for Film Quarterly (2012) What is Hauntology? Mark Fisher discusses the direction of electronic music and the impasse reached in the mid 2000s where music was no longer able to sound ‘futuristic’ without sounding anachronistic. The whole idea of futuristic music was now defined by a set of concepts, affects and associations formulated pre-2005, that could not be progressed beyond. Any purely electronic music with the usual ‘futuristic’ cues just sounded stale, so what comes next? It was the same for many creative pursuits, as if we had entered a situation where culture would not change but just continue on in much the same way, with much the same capitalist system and no vision for a future except for a haunting spectre of what might have been.

The particular album that I was listening to when I started looking into hauntology was Burial’s 2007 album “Untrue”.

‘Untrue’ sounds like cities late at night in the shifting time between sleep and waking where experience slows through syrup and you become enveloped in that ‘eternal moment’ that I’m so obsessed with through my own practice. Untrue is deeply moving; sorrowful, lost, smudged, echoing. The music itself has a thick, warm bass layered with clacky, staccato clicks and taps with flickering static like radios drifting between stations and giving time itself an audible presence.

There is such a depth of emotion to this album that is only enhanced by it’s cold emptiness. This might seem like a contradiction, but the more you immerse yourself in the music, the more the artist’s interests are slowly revealed. I’m captivated by the way he takes clips from schmaltzy RnB greats, then pitch-shifts them to unrecognisably deep sorrow. In the short documentary I have posted below, the narrator reveals that Burial created many of the percussive sounds using samples from the game ‘Metal Gear Solid’, including shell casings falling from the titular character’s gun. How many hours must he have spent playing late into the night, immersed in the echoes of the game?

Of Burial’s influences;
“The short-lived spate of interviews he did around Untrue teem with references to uncanny presences, subliminal hums, moments when you glance at the face of a friend or family member and catch something alien in their expression. Burial even enthused about his childhood love of the ghost stories of M.R. James, one of those gentlemen occultist writers who are touchstones for the UK hauntologists.”

…”Interviewed by the late British critic Mark Fisher, Burial spoke of creepy epiphanies he’d experienced walking through deserted night-time areas of London: “Sometimes you get that feeling like a ghost touched your heart, like someone walks with you.” Song titles like “Archangel” and “Feral Witchchild” suggest superstitious thinking, or at least an openness to the idea that there are supernatural dimensions, other realms that leak through into our reality in the form of visions or unsettling sensations.”
Link to article

Burial has talked about the importance of titles in instrumental electronic music to lead the listener through the abstract forms and emotional pathways. This reminds me so much of the joy of a well conceived title to really enhance an artwork. I know there is a place for ‘Untitled’ in leaving things open to the viewer, but an erudite title goes a long way. Burial has some truly inspired titles that give the listener a new layer of understanding of the work – Rival Dealer, South London Boroughs, Subtemple, Dog Shelter – these names conjure up emotions and situations that contextualise the soundscapes. If only I could be so poetic with my naming!

There is a track on Untrue called ‘In McDonalds’ which is particularly interesting to me. The music itself is fragile – not what you would at first associate with a fast food restaurant, although perhaps in the liminal hours when the other patrons have all gone home? Anthropologist Marc Augé coined the concept “non-place” for those spaces that have lost their identity in time and space; airports, international chain stores, data centres, any temple of capitalist globalisation. James Bridle also examines these spaces in his ‘New Dark Age’, which I wrote about previously, and it was he that initially made me aware of them. MacDonalds is, of course, the ultimate example of a non-place. Sitting in MacDonalds you could be at any time of day, in any country in the last 20-30 years; you are out of space and time being haunted by the potentiality of belonging

New Dark Age – James Bridle

Although my work hasn’t focussed on modern socio-political currents in any obvious way, these topics are something I read and think about a great deal on a day to day basis. I suppose in some way my rejection of the ‘everyday’ in my practice might be a reaction to the amount of time I spend thinking about contemporary issues. When I saw James Bridle’s “New Dark Age” pop up in a review on Brainpickings I immediately ordered it.

It’s hard to give a precis of what this book covers because it sprawls across a large and fascinating territory. I’ve described the book to a few people who I thought might appreciate it as an overview of the vast effect big data and computation is having on our culture.

“Over the last century, technological acceleration has transformed our planet, our societies, and ourselves, but it has failed to transform our understanding of these things… we ourselves are utterly enmeshed in technological systems, which shape in turn how we act and how we think. We cannot stand outside them; we cannot think without them.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P2 (emphasis mine)

I’ve pondered extensively the changes brought about by the vast oceans of unmediated information available on the internet over the last few years. It’s impossible to ignore the gravitation in contemporary society toward extreme black and white thinking with no subtlety or ambiguity, to a distrust in academia and intellectualism, and to a distinct inability to engage in critical thinking. Talking to a number of secondary and tertiary teachers about the effects on education confirmed what I have suspected; knowledge is now wide but very, very shallow. There is also an inability to retain information due to the fact that its is constantly available at ones fingertips. This creates an environment where ideas and information cannot be readily contrasted and compared in the mind of the student because nothing is held there for long! There is also a propensity for students to use the first source they find without digging any deeper or questioning whether the source is reputable, resulting in conspiracy and debunked information being presented as fact.

While we may look at the internet as an amazing source of information which makes available knowledge we might not have been able to access in the age of the written word, it has no ‘filter’ on worthy or useless information, which leaves it up to us to learn to analyse what’s available. Unfortunately the easy access to information makes us lazy too and less likely to engage in critical thinking, preferring to just take what’s easily on offer and run with it.

Bridle talks extensively about the way that mining society for big data creates a culture that is, in turn, moulded by that very data; a self-referential feedback loop with little chance for escape.

“The danger of this emphasis on coproduction of physical and cultural space by computation is that it in turn occludes the vast inequalities of power that it both relies upon and reproduces. Computation does not merely augment, frame and shape culture; by operating beneath our everyday, casual awareness of it, it actually becomes culture. That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google set out to index all human knowledge: it became what people actually think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people… and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P39 (emphasis mine)

We are interconnected, but also enmeshed. Enabled by the wealth of information, but also overwhelmed. The scope and volume of available data creates a society in which it’s unnecessary to think and we can sit back and let the machines do the processing for us. We are spoon fed by computational outcomes, made complacent and encouraged not to indulge in critical thinking or exploration by the very fact that information is so readily available. Unfortunately we are also blinded to what is occurring on a macro-scale by the small conveniences and joys of what we experience in our local systems. It might be nice to have access to social networking and online shopping, but what is happening at a grander scale and why can’t we see it?

Philosopher Timothy Morton uses the word ‘hyperobject’ to describe things like climate change, evolution and the internet that completely surround and envelop us, but that are too big for us to see. We can only perceive hyperobjects by their effect on other, more immediate things on a local level. Modelling a hyperobject so that we can perceive it requires vast amounts of computational power, and that vast data processing is a hyperobject in itself.  A phenomena like climate change acts in a physical way that can be compared to the actions of big data computation on our cultural landscape. Weather is perceived by us as a local phenomena but is no such thing as ‘local’ in a networked world, it is part of the greater global system known as climate. It is often hard for us to grasp that what might be seen as ‘good’ or ‘nice’ in our locals system is often indicative of something that is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in the larger system – this is because we only can only perceive our small local system. Artist Roni Horn points out that “Weather is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong. The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring system-wide.” p50

As a very concrete material example of this; we think we are ‘doing the right thing’ environmentally by trying to go paperless, but we are creating more and more data online that needs to be processed and stored. The virtual and perceivably unlimited nature of the storage facilities results in vastly unedited amounts of data. As of 2015 the worlds data centres consumed approx 3% of the worlds electricity (more than the entire UK) and accounts for 2% of the worlds global emissions (roughly the same carbon footprint as the global airline industry). This is in data storage alone.

Along with mass data processing comes mass surveillance; how else is the data to be gathered? Another example of a hyperobject, mass surveillance has become too big and too overwhelming for us to comprehend:
“Thinking about climate change spoils the weather, rendering it an existential threat even when it’s nice. Thinking about mass surveillance spoils phone calls, emails, cameras, and pillow talk… it’s easier to add it to the long list of things we agree not to think.” p179

“The operation of surveillance, and our complicity in it, is one of the most fundamental characteristics of the new dark age, because it insists on a kind of blind vision: everything is illuminated, but nothing is seen. We have become convinced that throwing light upon a subject is the same as thinking it, and thus having agency over it.” p185

This quote reminds me of the fashion for ‘raising awareness’ of a cause on social media. So what if we’ve shined a light on a problem? It’s illuminated, what now? Are we actually seeing it or just showing those watching us that we are pretending to care and putting a little flag in the ground to promptly forget.

Bridle appears to be very interested in hidden systems, and thats something that captures me as well. His work tracking the movement of unregistered aircraft and drones in the skies of England is both fascinating and disturbing. I chose the header image for this essay from his 2014 work Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone. It is a fine example of situationist philosopher Guy Debord ideas of ‘psychogeography’ or deliberate engagement with the hidden systems in our landscape. Perhaps this is a way to start to become aware of the larger processes at work by searching for how they interact with us on a local level?

“Debord was concerned with the increased spectacularisation of everyday life, and the ways in which our lives are increasingly shaped by commodification and mediation. The things we encounter in everyday life in spectacular societies are almost always a proxy for some deeper reality of which we are unaware, and our alienation from that deeper reality reduces our agency and quality of life. Psychogeography’s critical engagement with the urban landscape was one way of countering this alienation…” p103

On the other hand looking for hidden systems can result in conspiracy-thinking where criticality is abandoned through the very act of looking too hard. Bridle likens conspiracists to the haruspices of old; digging through the entrails of events looking for meaning and omens while potentially becoming sidelined and tricked by false truths and inconsequential avenues of thought. He comes to the conclusion many times that we are in a culture where even though we are looking at the same things we are getting very different outcomes and that we have built a system that reinforces this.

“Self-confirmed groups, from Targeted Individuals to Morgellons sufferers, and 9/11 truthers to Tea Partiers, seem to be a hallmark of the new dark age. What they reveal is what the chemtrailers show directly: that our ability to describe the world is a product of the tools at our disposal. We’re all looking at the same world and seeing radically different things. And we have built ourselves a system that reinforces that effect, an automated populism that gives people what they want, all of the time.” p211

There is so much to find of interest in this book – my copy is currently bristling with post-it notes. In this blog post I haven’t even begun to touch on the interesting chapters about manipulation by algorithm or the influence of Friedrich Hayek, father of neo-liberalism, on AI technology! I’ll leave with a quote from towards the end of the book where Bridle compares the insidious pollution of oil leaks to the pervasive power of a society driven by data:

“In the present, the extraction, refinement, and use of data/oil pollutes the ground and air. It spills. It leaches into everything. It gets into the ground water of our social relationships and it poisons them. It enforces computational thinking upon us, driving the deep divisions in society caused by misbegotten classification, fundamentalism and populism, and accelerating inequality. It sustains and nourishes uneven power relationships: in most of our interactions with power, data is not something that is freely given but forcibly extracted…”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P247

Featured image: Bridle, J (2014) Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone

Blog at

Up ↑