Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sublimity and the Fake-Awesome

MrsD has a nice review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which she talks a bit about something we discussed about The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, namely, the tendency of these big-spectacle fantasy movies (and other parts of our culture, as well, but especially obviously here) to try to wow its audiences with the fake-awesome.

In that previous post, she suggested that the fake-awesome was connected with our sense of sublimity:

The urge to adore is strong in humans, and if we aren't adoring something sublime, we will end up endowing all sorts of lesser things with fake-awesomeness so that we can exercise our faculty of admiration.

Thus the fake-awesome arises as a kind of corruption of our taste for the sublime. I think this account is very likely, and I think it explains some of the fakeness of the fake-awesome, and why it tends to take the forms it does. Just as human beings look for happiness in things that have only a superficial resemblance to real happiness, or for love in things that are only a bit like love, so we seek the sublime in things that seem to share one or two features of sublimity, if we don't look too closely. It's the common problem of trying to replicate extraordinary experiences without capturing what makes them extraordinary in the first place.

(1) The fake-awesome tends toward incoherence. The sublime, or genuinely awe-inspiring, is by its nature overwhelming. Precisely what makes it sublime is that it in some sense exceeds our capacity to take it in. Even the mere sensible sublime, like the apparently endless vista from a mountaintop, gets its sublime quality from the fact that we can tell, from the clues of sight itself, that what we are faced with exceeds our capacity to see.

The intelligible sublime is, as we say, mind-blowing. The sublime in its most proper sense is the infinitely intelligible to which our intellects themselves are disposed, but which we cannot, being merely rational creatures and not pure intellects, take in all at once. Mathematics is sublime because of its infinities. A narrative is genuinely epic when it somehow gives us this sense of the intelligible thing that goes on and on, that is more than we can assimilate: Homer, Virgil, Tolkien, the Ramayana, the Kalevala, the book of Job. This may or may not be in a form that is completely consistent -- even good Homer nods. And paradox and the sublime often go together, because of the overwhelming character of the latter. But the thing that is actually sublime or epic about it must in reality be consistent, because it must be intelligible -- it's just overwhelming in its intelligibility.

But how to present this in art is not a trivial problem to solve. In practice people often take shortcuts. But how do you fake the experience of having one's mind blown? You baffle the mind not by the luminous but by the obscure. (This is analogous to the Yoda method for faking a sage: Yoda mostly just says vapid and unhelpful things, but he sounds wise at first because he talks in such a way that we have to spend a little more time thinking through what he says. Similarly with the Big Word method of faking intelligence: instead of the character saying intelligent things, you can give a superficial illusion of intelligence by having them say stupid things using big words.) This can still be coherent, but the effort of maintaining consistency while making things more baffling at some point becomes prohibitive.

(2) The fake-awesome tends toward violence. The sublime has often been associated with the terrible. Indeed, the most basic experience of sublimity seems to be when we experience something capable of terrifying us but under conditions in which we can be exhilarated rather than fully terrified. At least, historically that is one of the most common kinds of experience associated with it. If you are going to fake experience of the sublime or truly awesome, one has to manufacture something analogous to this. The easiest way to do this is by pleasantly presented violence.

In Marvel's short series, Agent Carter, earlier this year, we trace part of the career of Peggy Carter after Captain America is frozen in ice. It's tough; it's a man's world, and the war is no longer giving women unusual opportunities by the sheer emergency imperative of "This needs to get done, no matter who does it." One of the ways they tried to convey this was by a classic radio program, depicting fictional adventures of Captain America and the love of his life -- I forget the name they give the character, but she's obviously a stand-in for Peggy Carter herself. But the woman in the radio program is constantly a damsel in distress needing to be rescued. It's a cute way to do things. But for someone like myself who listens to a lot of classic radio, it rang hollow. The Golden Age of Radio didn't actually tend to write women as damsels in distress, because there isn't much you can do with characters like that. People joke about Lois Lane always needing to be rescued by Superman, but the whole point of the character is that she is a woman doing a very dangerous job that would usually have been done by men. Because she is in this dangerous job, she sometimes is in danger. And she needs to be rescued exactly as much as Clark Kent, a man doing the same job, does -- it's just that we forget that Kent is always in situations in which he needs to be rescued because Kent is also Superman, who does the rescuing.

Actual Golden Age heroines, then, are a lot like Peggy Carter herself. Almost exactly alike, in fact. But there was one major obvious difference between a Peggy Carter and a Golden Age Lois Lane, or a similar radio heroine of the era: Peggy Carter is massively, and I mean massively, more violent. She beats people up left and right. And the reason is not hard to find. She is supposed to be an example of heroic strength, a strength that is awe-inspiring. And violence is a lazy way to suggest strength. Extreme violence is a lazy way to suggest great strength. It is also a lazy way to suggest competence -- in a superficial way, the violent person is in control. Extreme violence is a lazy way to suggest super-competence.

(3) The fake-awesome tends to involve big spectacle trumping all other features of a story. The sublime is something so great that in comparison to it we are small; but also so great that even our capacity to recognize its greatness is a mark of our own greatness. The pseudo-awesome cannot capture the latter part; but it can do a lot to imitate the vastness of the sublime and awe-inspiring. Thus the fake-awesome has a tendency to try for experiences that are bigger and bigger and bigger, even if it comes at the expense of valuable small things. In movies, of course, this tends toward super-extraordinary special effects, and it is why we can be living in a golden age of cinematic technique and yet get movie results that are so uneven. There is more skilled artistic technique involved in a superhero movie or in a movie like The Hobbit or Transformers than perhaps in any other kind of art -- but the gargantuan on its own is not the sublime, and it can often come across as simply ridiculous.

Contrast this with Tolkien, for instance. His full canvas is orders of magnitude greater than anything that can be conveyed on a screen but, a one-man Niggle painting a leaf at a time, he cannot provide at any particular point the sheer torrent of detail that an entire movie crew can easily provide. He has to sketch things out with hints and clues and carefully chosen phrases. In principle Hollywood can do anything Tolkien does on a much more massive scale than Tolkien can actually do it. But what we've seen in all the LOTR and Hobbit movies is that where Tolkien gives his close readers awe-inspiring, Peter Jackson just gives movie-watchers things that are big. (If it weren't for New Zealand scenery, in fact, it's unclear that Peter Jackson would be able to convey anything awe-inspiring at all.)

And there's no end in sight to this. As someone trying to find happiness in wealth alone will, because of the futility of it, just be driven to accumulate more and more wealth without finding any of it sufficient, the fake-awesome just gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it crashes under its own weight, because no amount of vastness alone can give you the kind of vastness that crushes you and exalts you at the same time and for the same reason.


  1. Nice. On violence to convey strength: Jack Bauer from 24. I skipped the entire 24 phenomenon, but went back to watch a few episodes indifferently last year on Netflix. I laughed out loud--genuine guffaws--at how silly and terrible that show was. An empty shell wrapped up in violence to convince us that he's tough and means business. Possibly the least believable show I have ever tried to watch--and I have quite an appetite for the low-brow and the action flick.

  2. ibookworm8:07 AM

    This post is — okay, I’d feel silly to use the word “awesome" here, so shall we say, excellent and thought-provoking.

    The “can’t take it in” feeling really is one of coherence, isn’t it? I never thought of that before. What gives that feeling is by nature intelligible, it’s just that there is TOO MUCH there to take in in our, as Tolkien would say, “time-serial” lives. We are finite, trying to comprehend something that is bigger than our finite selves. But the bigger thing overwhelms with its reality, with its being, and so is, by its nature, understandable if we weren’t too small. It impresses precisely with this coherence, with this sense of extended being, too big for us to contain.

    When I tell my wife I “can’t take in” her beauty, I’m responding to a genuine reality, experiencing insight into the truth of her being, which is far more amazing than I usually comprehend in our day-to-day lives. I’m also responding to what her beauty is a reflection of: the Author of all beauty.

    And that makes sense, since being = goodness, and the most sublime being of all is Being Himself. Being also means order and intelligibility. God, though fully intelligible only to Himself, is nonetheless intelligible. He’s not a mystery to us because he’s incoherent, but because we are too small.

    Hence, too, that feeling in moments of sehnsucht, that you have a sudden glimpse of something that will almost immediately slip away because it’s too big for you to contain.

    It’s a very different kind of “can’t take it in” when you try to follow Michael Bay’s Transformers or Peter Jackson’s acrobatic elves through one moment of meticulously crafted, sterile splendor after another.

  3. MrsDarwin8:58 AM

    Excellent! Thanks for developing a coherent classification of fake-awesome based on a few scattered comments. I think this is such a valuable discussion because the aesthetic of fake-awesome is starting to shape cultural discussions of sublimity.

    I think an offshoot of your third point is the tendency of fake-awesome to amp itself up through sheer volume. At the end of the new Avengers, I nearly groaned aloud at the clear set-ups for the next sequel, and the next, and so on until Marvel properties are no longer cash cows. How many interlocking layers of fake-awesome will there be until the whole system comes crashing down under the weight of its own ponderousness? Your crack at Peter Jackson is very apt here. I remember watching his King Kong, a project that had the potential to be interesting, and having my suspension of disbelief snap at a point in the middle in which, after about 30 interminable minutes of disgusting giant insect attacks on the characters, I couldn't care that Andy Serkis was being eaten head-first by a huge centipede. Jackson just couldn't resist padding out real terrifying (or thrilling, or stirring) action with More And More And More Spectacle, to the point where it was all spectacle and no investment by the viewer.

    Which harkens back to ibookworm's fine observation about "meticulously crafted, sterile splendor". Fake-awesome is an end unto itself -- look at this awesome thing I've created, like Han Solo riding a dinosaur riding a shark! Look at this cool image of Legolas sliding down an elephant trunk! Look at this freeze of all the Avengers set to demolish 100,000 robot-aliens! These things exist to be admired in themselves, not to advance a story or build character or even to give us a deeper appreciation for something true and beautiful. An interesting contrast with that was the statue which was featured during the credits of Age of Ultron, which tapped into strains of stylized heroic art through the ages, a purposefully unrealistic iconography of battle which is designed for contemplation of martial excellence, not an actual depiction of the heat and confusion of combat.

  4. branemrys2:54 PM

    I never got into 24, but from what I've heard about it, it does seem a likely candidate.

    I think the problem is often a variant of the Politician's Syllogism. Something must be done! Violence is more obviously 'doing something' than anything else. So it must be done; and if you criticize it, "At least he's doing something."

  5. branemrys2:56 PM


    I'm reminded of the claim by St. Paul that in Christ all things cohere; and, of course, the Johannine passages on the Logos.

  6. branemrys3:01 PM

    It definitely does seem that another aspect of the fake awesome is its failure to make an appropriate distinction between means and ends. This is why it slips so easily into the ridiculous. (It's also why sequels often go so wrong, I think -- they are trying to outdo the means of the original as if that were somehow a goal in its own right.)

  7. Gail Finke3:19 PM

    Great points, all. I especially like "Extreme violence is a lazy way to suggest super-competence." I have not seen the new Avengers movie yet but I really like the first one. However, when I rewatch it, I blip over most of the very violent scenes. They strike me as superfluous, where the first time I watched them they did not. They were part of the story then, but now that I know the story, they are too much. The fight between Thor, Ironman, and (eventually) Captain America is fantastic because it shows a lot about the characters, who they are, and how they relate. The fight against the aliens is just stupid. The odds are too overwhelming. That said, the idea is good, and the story is sturdy enough and enjoyable enough (to me) to make it a favorite. But the Transformers movie had a far dumber story and so the action scenes were far bigger (and dumber). I only watched it because I had a young teen son and the robots were cool, I would never watch it again. And in LOTR, Tolkien wrote a terrifying scene in Moria that lasted a total of about two pages. Peter Jackson dragged it out for about 10 minutes, with literally tens of thousands of orcs streaming out from holes like rats. The overwhelming numbers did not translate to "awesome evil," but were certainly meant to. I do think it is harder to create a sense of awe through visuals than we think, and when the visuals are not backed up with a story it's almost impossible. But directors do it ALL the time.

  8. This succeeds in articulating some very crucial distinctions. If it were 20 years ago I would guess that the next phase would be the deconstructionists taking out their knives, for the notion of the "real sublime" will strike some as crying out to be, as they say, problematized. Some of that might be legit, and most of it would be, in Frankfurt's sense, Bullshit, which is a variation of your point number 1 above. But these days the fashions have become bored with deconstructionist hyperirony, and moved on. What you say here is important for grasping a different sort of nihilism newly trendy in philosophy, the fascination with horror. The real sublime does indeed leave us, in a sense, emptied and incapacitated. Take this as an end in itself and you get all the Nameless Horrors of Lovecraft and Ligotti, which are enjoying a real nerds' renaissance in one wing of the supposed cutting edge of the philosophical academy, the latest in the line descending from Battaile and Cioran. Here the fake-awesome is the mise-en-abyme -- deconstructionist irony in a new, more "materialist", getup: Pascal's terrifying silence of infinite spaces without the rest of Pascal. It's an indifference which is indistinguishable from malevolence, and it's positively, and perversely, titillating. I wonder to what extent this arises because we have tended to too-radically divide the sublime from the beautiful. The beautiful is now suspected of coddling our little humanocentric selves and neck-deep in ideology. As if anything that was beautiful was somehow suspected of being halfway to kitsch.

  9. Enbrethiliel4:06 PM


    I've been meaning to share this link with you: 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy. I read it after your post and they seem to complement each other well.

    And I finally remembered to do so tonight, thanks to the first Eurovision semi-final. Austria's ESC committee have continued the trend of using screens instead of sets to create a spectacle on stage. While it's more practical than having physical sets, it makes every performance look exactly like every other. Even when the "screensavers" are totally different (a green tree stirred by a breeze, a burning building seeming to recede into the background, people moving in slow motion . . .), there is a flat sameness to all of them. It doesn't help that there are similar fake-awesome "effects" in many of the songs being performed. Nearly all the composers were aiming for sublimity . . . and failing to hit it because they equated it with the aural equivalent of spectacle.

    Having said that, sameness was kind of the original idea--so that one song wouldn't get an edge over another just because its performer had great choreography or an outrageous costume. So perhaps it still is and fake-awesome has found its home! =P

  10. W. David Lichty8:51 AM

    A method for conveying the sublime may be hinted at in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel, "The car shot forward straight into the circle of light, and suddenly Arthur had a fairly clear idea of what infinity looked like. It wasn't infinity in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity - distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very big, so that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself."


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