The Techno-Sublime – Barbara Bolt

Barbara Bolt argues that the encounter between dance culture and technology as experienced in ‘clubbing’is a sublime encounter. However, the techno-sublime encounter is predicated on a very different relation to the sublime, than that developed by Immanuel Kant. In the ‘techno-sublime’encounter there is no longer a concern with the re-assertion of ‘self’in the face of the sublime event. Rather, there is a collapse in boundaries as ‘I’ dissolve into the collective techno-experience. In the combination of the beat of bodies, heat, music, vibration, lights and drugs, the techno experience creates an intensification that is oblivious to reason or to the reasonable limits of the organism.

I began my inquiry into the “techno-sublime” by keying the term “techno-sublime” into the web to see if the term had been coined before. Whilst there was no exact match, the first site that opened was, ‘The Chillout . clubbing is a planetary experience’. I had long been interested in the event of the techno-dance party, that total awesome experience where there is a collapse of individuality and a loss of individual boundaries as “I” become part of the collective techno-experience. It was uncanny to find myself at this site in search of the “techno-sublime” and yet it was precisely this exstasis or loss of identity in the face of the awesomeness of the techno-experience that was central to my understanding of the experience of the techno-sublime.[1]

Ben Malbon’s (1999) study, Clubbing: Dancing, Ecstacy and Vitality, has proved invaluable in providing support for my elaboration of the techno-sublime. Whilst Malbon’s thesis is different from my own, the responses of some of his respondents as well as his own diary entries have become very important in supporting my thesis that there is a loss of identity or estasis within the particular experience of techno-culture that is clubbing. Thus in a diary entry, titled ‘4 a.m. – lost for words, lost in time and space, just lost.’, Malbon writes:

We all seemed to want the music to take us over; to become us in some way.. Clubbers were losing it all over the place … people are just so close to each other; proximately and emotionally.. The intensity of this fusion of motions and emotions was almost overwhelming. (Malbon 1999:xii)

This diary entry, in particular, speaks of an experience in which his sense of identity and rationality is subsumed in the experience. He notes:

How can I convey the deep thundering bass which is felt more than heard? The mass of bobbing bodies: blurred, colourful, dimly-outlined and unceasingly in motion? The space itself, which fleetingly seems as though it has no edges, no end in time or space, yet at the same time only stretches a far as you can see into the lights, the black walls, the heaving dancing masses? The sensation of dancing of moving without thought, of moving before thought, of just letting go, letting it all out? Words fail me; words become redundant and unnecessary, words become pointless. (Malbon 1999:xii-xiii).

In this article I want to argue that the encounter between dance culture and technology as experienced in “clubbing” is a sublime encounter. However, in elaborating this argument, I propose that the techno- sublime encounter is predicated on a very different relation to the sublime, than that developed by Immanuel Kant in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and the Critique of Judgement.

In the particular encounter, which I have termed the “techno-sublime”, there is no longer a concern with the re-assertion of “self” in the face of the sublime event. Rather I argue that in this encounter there is a collapse in boundaries as “I” dissolve into the collective techno-experience. In the combination of the beat of bodies, heat, music, vibration, lights and drugs, the techno experience creates an intensification that is oblivious to reason or to the reasonable limits of the organism. In order to develop my argument for the techno-sublime, I first want to summarize the key elements of sublime.

The sublime is a theoretical discourse, with a unique history, canon, and conventions about how the human subject responds to that which occurs at the very limits of symbolization. According to Christine Battersby the sublime is:

characterised by “awe”, “reverence”, “respect” and “dread” in the face of the infinite or the indefinitely great and powerful. In the sublime the artist marvels at that which stands at the boundaries of human identity and threatens to overcome it. (Battersby 1994:27)[2]

In the encounter with the awesomeness and terror of the sublime, the individual comes face-to-face with its own possible annihilation.

The sublime experience has historically been linked with natural phenomenon such as storms, tsunamis, earthquakes and fire. However in contemporary elaborations (such as Nye’s American Technological Sublime, Crowther’s The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art , Barnett Newman’s ‘The Sublime is Now’ and Lyotard’s ‘Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime’), the aesthetic experience of the sublime has been extended to include art, architectural forms, technological achievements and awesome or terrifying human-inspired events. Crowther (1989) terms this the “artifactual sublime”.

Immanuel Kant’s Elaboration Of The Sublime

Whilst the discourse on the sublime was set on its way by Longinus in the first century, our contemporary understanding of the sublime derive primarily from Immanuel Kant’s elaboration of the sublime, as set out in his Critique of Judgement (1790). Whilst for Kant the sublime was related to nature, it wasn’t nature per se that was critical, but rather the individual’s response to the terror and awesomeness of nature that was critical.

Kant argues that in the sublime encounter, where the ego comes face-to-face with its own possible annihilation, the rational ego doesn’t collapse into the fear and terror. Rather, through rational thought, the ego recuperates itself in the face of this threat. As Battersby notes:

The pleasure of the sublime involves fear in the face of the infinite; but it also involves a transcendence of fear. It involves terror and a recognition of that which could overwhelm and destroy the self, but also a simultaneous strengthening of the perceiving “I” by testing its strength against that which could obliterate it. (Battersby 1994:28)

David Nye notes that in testing “his” (and the Kantian sublime is gendered male) strength in the face of this apparent infinity, the individual ‘recuperates a sense of superior self-worth because the mind is able to conceive something larger and more powerful than the senses can grasp’ (Nye 1994:7). Thus in the Kantian sublime the emphasis on the role of the mind in apprehending the sublime, shifted attention from “nature” to the rational “perception of nature”.

According to Nye, the sublime experience, when it occurs, has a basic structure. An object, natural or man-made, disrupts ordinary perception and astonishes the senses, forcing the observer to grapple mentally with its immensity and power. The sublime encounter involves an eruption of feeling in the face of the terror or wonder that briefly overwhelms reason only to be recontained by it (Nye 1994:5). However the Kantian sublime presupposes the elevation of “reason” over an order of experience that cannot be represented. In Kant’s elaboration of the sublime there is an insistence that in the sublime encounter the spectator has a certain detachment since the subject observes pain and terror without being directly involved in it. This detachment is predicated on an aesthetic theory of perception, not of performance. However, I would like to question this detachment. What if the individual is not a detached observer, but rather is “in it”?

I would argue, for example, that in the terrifyingly impressive experience of the rave party, the raver is “in” it, not distanced from it.

Through dancing one may lose oneself in the music physically and mentally.. In the clubbing experience dancing can be about losing control over one’s body.. Dancing fuses notions of ‘inside’ (emotions) and ‘outside’ (motions) as the internal becomes externalized and the external becomes internalised. (Malbon 1999:91)

Malbon’s conclusions about the loss of self in dancing are drawn from the observations of participant clubbers. One of his respondents, Valerie, observed that when she’s hot, rational control is relished: " I wasn’t thinking about it-it was just happening to me.. I was forced to do it. What I was doing I was being forced to do by something . you ARE the music". (Valerie in Malbon 1999:91) Barbara Freeman (1995) notes that there exists an internal contradiction inherent in the Kantian sublime, since the very nature of the sublime experience involves a blurring of distinction between the observer and the observed and contradicts the supposed detachment of the sublime encounter. For Freeman, the sublime encounter necessarily involves an affective dimension that implicates the “observer” in it. In this encounter, what happens to “the other” also happens to the subject that perceives or experiences it.

The Sublime And The Clubbing Experience

According to Nye, the test for determining what is sublime is to observe whether or not an object strikes people dumb with amazement (Nye 1994:16). And so I would like to return to Malbon’s claim that in the heat of the night the sensation of dancing was a moving without thought, a moving before thought, of just letting go, letting it all out. In this state, words fail him; words become redundant and unnecessary, words become pointless (Malbon 1999:xii-xiii). He cites a journal entry by Seb, to exemplify this “letting go, letting it all hang out”. In his journal, Seb tries to put in words the awesomeness of a particular clubbing experience:

For once, it was our turn to look in bewilderment. Everybody could see was taking place-we were all part of it, yet we all gasped in wonder. It was truly astonishing to witness.. The energy generated . was fucking electric. (Seb in Malbon 1999:138-139)

In his elaboration of the technological sublime Nye observes that ‘when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld a society together’ (Nye 1994:xiii). Thus he notes that in moments of the sublime, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of the community. For him, it becomes ‘a shared experience beyond words’ (Nye 1994:xiv). This welding together is aptly summarized in Canetti’s observation of a crowd dancing:

In the end, there appears to be a single creature dancing, a creature with fifty heads and a hundred legs and arms, all performing in exactly the same way and with the same purpose. When their excitement is at its height, these people really feel as one, and nothing but physical exhaustion can stop them. (Canetti 1993:35-6)

At some levels, this observation concurs with Malbon’s argument that clubbing is about group belonging and identification. He points out that the sensory overload of the clubbing experience ‘temporarily supersedes certain facets of individual clubbbers’ identities’ (Malbon 1999:38).

For Maffesoli (1995) there are particular experiences where the social configuration exceeds individualism. In these experiences the environment can submerge one’s sense of identity. Malbon suggests that such social situations ‘foster a going-beyond of individual identities, an experience of being both within yet in some way outside of oneself at once’ (Malbon 1999:49). This pleasurable sensation of “in-betweeness”-in which clubbers flux between awareness and sensation-he terms ecstasy or exstasis. (Malbon 1999:71). Malbon attributes this loss of self or exstasis to the flux between identity and identification with the collectivity of the crowd even as he acknowledges the role that music plays in enabling us to get out of ourself. I would argue that crowd cannot separated out from the beat of bodies, heat, music, vibration, lights and the ecstasy of the effect of drugs. Thus Bauman notes that apart from the “togetherness”:

The higher-than-usual physical density gestates a similar density of sensual impressions: the overflow of sights and sounds, a higher-than-usual level of sensual stimulation, but more importantly yet a condensed, concentrated stimulation-reaching the elsewhere unreachable pitch thanks not only the massive volume, but also to the monotonous homogeneity of stimuli.. (Bauman 1995:46-7)

Storr proposes that the power of the music, particularly when combined with other emotive elements such as the light, heat, beat and rhythm of bodies en masse can be ‘terrifyingly impressive’ (Storr 1992:46). Thus Malbon notes:

The music, crowd and “e/motion” may become so intense that even experienced clubbers, regarded as “cool” . may appear incapable of resisting the summons of the music and the crowd . lose themselves to the intensity of the situation. (Malbon 1999:114)

This experience of losing oneself to the intensity of the situation, or what Malbon terms the oceanic experience, is what I have come to term the techno-sublime. In this encounter the clubber enters into relation with an otherness that is excessive and unrepresentable. Whilst in the Kantian sublime the individual is a bounded, unique, contained and controlling self who recuperates self through an encounter with the sublime event, in the techno-sublime the boundaries of self become very fluid and threaten to dissolve altogether. In this exstasis, the individual is faced with the very possibility of a collapse into the unknown or even annihilation or death. In this conception of the sublime the self is not an observer safe from immediate danger but becomes face-to-face with the “thing” itself.


I have suggested that the nature of the sublime has changed both in terms of its source and also in terms of the human negotiation or experience of it. I have argued that the primary source of the sublime experience is no longer in nature, but rather in the awesomeness of the artifactual. The human response to this awesomeness is not necessarily one of “transcendence”, but quite often gambles with the very notion of what it is to be “I”, whether it be in avante garde art practices, the techno dance party or now in cyberspace. This is what I would term the techno-sublime.


Battersby, C. (1984) Antimonies: works by Evelyn Williams, Warwick: University of Warwick.

Bauman, Z (1995) ‘Forms of Togetherness’, in Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality, Oxford: Blackwell: 44-71.

Burke, E. (1756) Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Canetti, E. (1973) Crowds and Power, trans. C. Stewart, London: Penguin.

Crowther, P. (1989) The Kantian sublime: from morality to art, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford university Press.

Crowther, P The language of twentieth-century art: a conceptual history, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1986) Cinema 1: The Movement and Image, trans. H. Tominson and B Habberjam, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Freeman, B. (1998) ‘Feminine sublime’ in M. Kelly (ed) Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 331-334.

Freeman, B.C. (1995) The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction, Berkeley: University of California Press

Kant I (1952) Critique of Judgement (1790), trans J.C. Meredith, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kant, I. (1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, Berkely: University of California Press.

Lyotard, J-F. (1984) ‘The sublime and the avante-garde’, Artforum, April 1984 22(8): 36-43.

Lyotard, J-F. (1982) ‘Presenting the unpresentable: the sublime’,Artforum, 20(8): 64-69.

Maffesoli, M. (1995) The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society, trans. D. Smith, London: Sage.

Malbon, B. (1999) Clubbing: Dancing, ecstasy and vitality, London: Routledge.

Newman, Barnett (1948) ‘The Sublime is now’ in Harrison, C.

Wood, P. (ed) (1994) Art in theory 1900 – 1990: an anthology of changing ideas, Oxford, Blackwell: 572-574.

Nye, D.E. (1994) American Technological Sublime, Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.

Storr, A. (1992) Music and the Mind, London: Harper Collins.


[1]I had begun my inquiry into the techno-sublime by arguing that in creative practice there occurs a particular flux that I have termed “working hot”.  When one is working hot, I have argued, the performance produces a dynamical relation where the work of art performs rather than represents. In this space, or state, I argued there is exstasis, or a loss of identity.

[2] My elaboration of the techno-sublime has been informed by Christine Battersby’s and Barbara Freeman’s theorization of the feminine sublime.


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