Re: [-empyre-] re: sublime

The Voices in my Head tell me that on 11/24/04 5:55 PM, Christina McPhee at wrote:

> Quoting...
> --   This suite of articles on Big Data, including the one from which this
>> excerpt quotes, by Lisa Jevbratt, together with essays by Andrea Polli,
>> Brett Stalbaum, and myself, was originally published last summer on the
>> SCALE site (

I'd also note that it was published in YLEM Journal July/Aug issue.

Since I do the graphic design for the Journal (shameless plug: this next
issue is on British Science Fiction. To get one, become a member at!) I also happen to have the text for the jevbratt article, which
follows. (Ignore the layout cues)

note: it's 9 pages of reading....but Really Interesting Reading. It'll be on
the ylem website when we finally get around to putting that issue up as a

also: ignore the British spellings - that's my my email client working
overtime...most of my lists are from the UK or Oz, so my email is set to
default to those spellings. I'm (originally) from New Jersey, which is
another planet...


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The Prospect of the Sublime in Data Visualisations
Lisa Jevbratt 2004

Looking out and up

The Polar Sea, Caspar David Friedrich 1823-1824

In Caspar David Friedrich¹s (German, 1774-1840) "The Polar Sea" (1823-24) we
look out on an endless inhospitable ocean of ice, and a shipwreck - a trace
of an attempt to do the impossible, to go "there", to reach for and
understand the unbearable void.

Starry Sky 

We look up at the starry sky and we sense a fear of not comprehending and
being engulfed, a fear of the unknown, and simultaneously we experience a
longing for the inaccessible, impenetrable darkness.

These are the classical visuals of the sublime. Images of a sense of
grandeur we can¹t reach, which we can¹t penetrate or grasp. It is in the
very far distant, it is hidden in layers of mist, or made inaccessible by a
climate not suited for us and it instils a sensation of deep fear. Yet we
urge for it, we are fascinated and attracted by it.

Looking down and in


The Rocky Mountains, Colorado. Picture sixty-three taken with my new camera.
2004. Jevbratt.

2004. We look down. We consume satellite and aerial photography in all its
forms; on the web we can access detailed satellite and aerial photographs
looking down on our houses or whatever we want to surveil from above, we are
capturing mountains far below with our first digital camera, we have the
poster of "lights emitted from the earth" on our walls (maybe pondering what
it says to bypassing intelligences ­ gods, aliens and others), and we rely
on satellite imagery to predict weather and track fires.


Peripheral evidence: two dimensional polyacrylamide gel.

We look in. The genome is mapped and we are trying to figure out how to look
at it. New technologies for looking in towards and inside cells, RNA and
nano structures are rapidly developing, and the methods of making peripheral
evidence of them and their processes are constantly refined. We look at our
networks that produce data about ourselves in sublime quantities.


The datasets we are looking at now are of no less dimension, vastness and
grandeur than the datasets that were the subject of the classical sublime;
and the sensations of the sublime harvested by the romantic artist and
others is of great interest to us when trying to make sense out of our
datasets today. However, a quite logical argument against the possibility of
the sublime acting within data visualisation can be made. It has been well
formulated by Lev Manovich in "The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art".

"If Romantic artists thought of certain phenomena and effects as
un-representable, as something which goes beyond the limits of human senses
and reason, data visualisation artists target the exact opposite: to map
such phenomena into a representation whose scale is comparable to the scales
of human perception and cognition. For instance, Jevbratt¹s 1:1 reduces the
cyberspace ­ usually imagined as vast and maybe even infinite ­ to a single
image that fits within the browser frame."


The whole Internet with The Web as it existed in 1999 (red) and 2002
1:1(2), Interface: Migration, Lisa Jevbratt 2002

The reasoning is very clear and it troubled me because I instinctively knew
that it was wrong ­ both in making the case that data visualisation by
definition is anti-sublime and that my project 1:1 would be a good example
of this case. 

How then can data visualisations utilise the (or be) sublime? Why should
they aim to?

Push, pull

While the datasets of today are as substantial as the ones dealt with in the
classical romantic sublime, there is a difference in direction and force.

In the original sublime the force is attraction. The object of desire is
over there, far away and we want to reach it. We want to go there, we are
scared and intimidated but our longing and effort is ?towards¹. When our
force (engine, energy, luck) fails the ship stops, it does not get closer.
The forces of nature push us away - we urge to approach. The classical
sublime was the extreme tension of not knowing and wanting to know; we were
attracted by the fact that we didn¹t know.

Now, looking in and down the force is reversed. If the engine in a plane
stops, it approaches the ground; the natural force is gravity and we want to
stay up and away. We are pulled down and respond by retracting. The forces
of nature pull us down, in - we urge to repel. The sublime now is the
extreme tension between (hypothetical) familiarity - the earth is our home,
the cells and DNA are in our bodies, the networks are our creation - and a
methodological distancing.

Aesthetic decision-making

In the article "Systems Aesthetics"  Jack Burnham wrote about the new
complex process or systems oriented society, culture and economics he saw
emerging: a new era in which systems analysis would be the most relevant
method for making understandings in any discourse. Burnham argues that
because we can¹t grasp all the details of our highly complex systems
(economic, cultural, technical, etc), we cannot make "rational" decisions
within them or understand them by analysing the systems or their parts.  The
way to make decisions within them and to understand them is by making more
intuitive, "aesthetic decisions", a concept he borrows from the economist J.
K. Galbraith.

This idea has an intriguing parallel in the philosopher Emmanuel Kant¹s
reasoning about the mobilising effect the sublime has on our organising
abilities. He claims that in experiencing the sublime, by facing large
amounts of information, huge distances and ungraspable quantities, our
senses and our organising abilities are mobilised. Contrary to what might be
believed, we feel empowered, able to make decisions, and capable to act.

Many strategies for aiding people in the task of turning any large set of
data into knowledge assumes that they should be presented less information
and fewer options in order to be able to make sense out of the data.

However, humans are capable of sorting through enormous amounts of visual
information and make sensible and complex decisions in a split second, (the
ability of driving a car is one example). Supported by Kant¹s idea I propose
that under the right circumstances, drawing on sensations of the sublime,
people can, when faced with huge quantities of data, be mobilised to make
intuitive understandings of the data. Many information visualisations and
displays are a result of the mistake of compressing the information too much
and decreasing the amount of information through calculations that embody
assumptions that are never explained. The most common mistake in data
visualisations, artistic or scientific, is not too much information but too
little, their "images" of the data landscape are not high resolution enough
for an aesthetic decision to be made.

Meaning is opportunistic

Why is low-resolution highly compressed data representation less meaningful?
If it is counteractive to a sublime, why is that? How does that sense of awe
and 'aha' that the fear and force of the sublime helps us experience

Meaning behaves like a parasite. It is opportunistic, taking "immediate
advantage, often unethically, of any circumstance of possible benefit" (the
definition of opportunistic at If meaning in fact is
opportunistic, and opportunism implies an unethical stance then it could
follow that meaning does not thrive in an ethical environment.  This
reasoning is more interesting if one understands the term ethic as an
opposition to faith. Ethic is a stance in which one in any moment is aware
of ones goals and choices. One has a plan and a way in which to carry it
out. Faith is a stance in which we let go, were we are submerged and
surrendered, when we are trustingly accepting a "truth", an emotion or a
calling. (At the conference "Derrida and The Question of Religion" at UCSB
in fall of 2003, Derrida mentioned during a discussion between him and
presenter the concept of the calling and reflected on how that concept is
not that different from how animals follow traces. This constitutes an
interesting point for the thoughts in this paper.)

Culture then is extremely meaningless because so many choices have been
made, and nature is extremely meaningful since no choices have been made. It
seems like we strive to cut the extremes, the very meaningful and the
extremely meaningless. To make culture more meaningful we create unstable
conditions for decision making: i.e. to reduce the number of ready-made
choices we create unpredictable and arbitrary events and expressions within
it. It is interesting to see that younger people are more prone to produce
these. Quite likely a young mind has more difficulty dealing with the burden
of meaninglessness, and thus tries to minimise it by generating arbitrary
signs (such as the expressions, fashion and sounds of various subcultures).
To make nature less meaningful we organise and categorise it and our
experiences of it. (Of course nature is only void of choices if one does not
believe in a creating god. In fact the very idea of a creationist god could
be seen as another attempt to decrease the meaningfulness of nature).
However, another, contradictory reaction to nature might be that our ability
to perceive meaning is numbed by the loudness of it. Just as our retina gets
saturated after looking at one colour and creates a ghost image of the
opposite colour when we look away briefly, nature can (falsely) appear as if
completely void of meaning.

The result of this reasoning is that as soon as we are trying to make what
we experience ethical, i.e. succumb to a plan and direction by making
deliberate choices, the experience and its data decreases in meaning.  If we
semantically categorise and search for meaning it is as if we try to look at
the dust on our corneas, we can¹t see it unless we stop looking at it.
Everything becomes meaningless when we attempt to "capture" the meaning. In
the task of visualising huge datasets this means that we need to avoid
making assumptions about the meaning of the data in order to allow meaning
to find an opportunity to occur. Perhaps the answer to the question in the
beginning of this paragraph is that we need to allow the interplay between
the extremes, allowing the meaningfulness and the meaningless to happen by
not attempting to reduce either.

Identity in the non-intended

Some years ago a student of mine made an interesting discovery in a project
he made . It was Web software that returned the result of a search for
something on a selection of search-engines in the reversed order. I.e. the
most relevant, however the search-engines define that, was last on the list
and the least relevant of the relevant sites was shown first on the list.
The result was striking. The least relevant sites, the ones usually so many
clicks away we don¹t bother to look at them, varied greatly between the
different search engines. The most relevant results, the ones usually
displayed on top, were all the same.

A similar finding was made some centuries earlier by Giovanni Morelli
(1874-1876). He sought to find a method of determining authorship of
paintings and came upon the fact that authorship is more detectable in the
parts of a painting done with less intention; the parts which are not
significant for the author or the genre in which the painting is made, such
as earlobes and fingernails. His method is now called "The Morelli Method".
In art historian Edgar Wind¹s words it is interesting that "Personality is
found where personal effort is the weakest".

Even more strikingly, what seemed to be true on the Web is also true in
biology, according to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi in his booked Linked: The New
Science of Networks¹.  Barabasi is doing research on the network structures
and linkage systems of various fields from computer networks to biology. He
finds that "For the vast majority of organisms the ten most-connected
molecules are he same." (p. 186) These highly connected molecules, hubs in
Barbasi¹s terminology, are equivalent to the most relevant pages in a web
search or the traditionally most "important" features in a painting. These
are the items, nodes, with the most intent. Just as the least relevant web
pages are the most dissimilar, and the least important features such as
earlobes say more about the painter, the difference between different
organisms and the production of their identity lies in the least connected,
least used or significant molecules. "[O]nly four percent of the molecules
appear in all of them. Though the hubs are identical, when it comes to the
less connected molecules, all organisms have their own distinct varieties."
(p. 187) 

Via Negativa

These are all evidences that reality does not show itself to us in an
expected manner, through intention and expression, but it reveals itself to
us indirectly in small fragmentary pieces. The method of searching out those
bits and pieces without preconceived notions on what to find has been an
important method in various mystic traditions, and the term Via Negativa,
possibly coined by Dionysius the Areopagite, a late 5th century mystic, is
used to describe it. Via Negativa is a method of distancing, of negation, in
which we claim or pretend to not have any preconceived notions of the
systems that we are looking at. The method has a lot of similarity with
artist methodologies (such as Joseph Beuys) and now also with some
contemporary scientific methods.  For example, the process of harvesting,
sequencing and mapping the human genome has been described as that of a
group of people in a dark room fumbling around not knowing what is in the
room, how the room looks or what they are looking for. Someone bumps into a
thing with four sharp corners and starts to look for other things with four
sharp corners. Someone else decides to move along what seem to be walls and
feel their texture, yet another sits still and waits for the others in the
room to pass by, taking notes on their activities or maybe on their scents.

The value in Via Negativa for data visualisation is that it creates that
opposing force of not falling into, a repelling force counteracting the
gravity pulling us down. The Via Negativa enables the sublime to operate.


Juno falling and snacking. Still from Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams

If staying up is our (or others, things or beings) effort, then the fall,
the ultimate inability to do so, is a trope of interest.  There are
significant falls ranging from literary, such as the fall of Alice, the girl
in Wonderland, to political, such as the fall of the Twin Towers. In "Spy
Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams", Carmen and Juni, the spy kids, fall into
a model of the landscape, through the mouth of a volcano. Their fall lasts
for an extended time, so long that they take comfortable positions, eat a
snack and discus the possible outcomes of their fall. In the end they might
not have been falling for a very long distance. The model that they are
falling into has an air vent blowing air sufficiently strong for them to be
lifted and they might have spent most of the time in the illusion of

In a time period of eight weeks I experienced three events of falling
substance that for one reason or another seemed to have significance. On a
dreamlike evening just after sunset up on a mountaintop overlooking the
beautiful cloud covered southern Californian coastline far from above, a
shooting star released itself from its usual celestial path, where we are
accustomed to see it disappear far in the distance, and fell towards the
earth and us as a real physical object on fire landing not too far away from
us. A few weeks later I spent an hour in my closet attempting to clean up
after a mould infestation that happened earlier in the year when I, more or
less simultaneously, hear my neighbour flush her toilet and felt a liquid
substance on my head. Three days into my artist residency in Huddersfield,
Yorkshire, England, where I have taken refuge from the daily duties of
teaching and meetings, an American bomb fell over Yorkshire; whatever the
target was, it missed.

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