The Sublime Spectacle of the Coronavirus Curve

Guest post by Sally Cloke

In her article in this journal, Meredith Drees provides a clear and succinct explanation of Kant’s concept of the sublime, that sensation of terror mixed with satisfaction—“negative pleasure” as Kant expresses it [i](CJ 23:245)—that is frequently experienced when we observe the natural world at its most formidable and threatening. But while she argues that the experience of the sublime can strengthen a person’s moral resolve, I claim the opposite. The sublime is just as likely to prompt distancing, narcissism, and fatalism, none of which are helpful responses in a time when our moral resolve is being tested on many fronts: the Covid-19 pandemic.

If Kant were writing today he might well expand his list of phenomena that give rise to the sublime beyond cliffs, volcanoes, hurricanes, and waterfalls to include deadly, fast-spreading diseases. Covid-19 is currently making humans feel small and powerless against nature’s might to an extent not seen in generations. Except for one thing: viruses are to all intents and purposes invisible. While Kant stresses that the sublime “must not be sought in things of nature but must be sought solely in our ideas” (25:249), it is an aesthetic response to our sensory engagement with the world. And the primary sense in the sublime is the visual: we might hear the crash of the waves or feel buffeted by the wind, but these sensations only supplement the visual impressions of hugeness, enormity, disproportion. After all, Kant’s best-known example of the sublime-prompting is the soundless, untouchable, “starry sky above” (CPR 5:16).

Yet there is one way in which we can “see” the coronavirus; one which I argue helps us also see the sublime itself more clearly. This is the ubiquitous bell curve used to model the rise—and eventual fall—of pandemic cases. Could there be a more perfect visual metaphor for the experience of the sublime? Let’s look at the steep, almost exponentially rising left-hand side of the curve, shooting perilously upward until it threatens to hit vertical (figure 1). Here we have the sense of being “outraged” (CJ 23:245) by what we experience, the sensations of awe and terror integral to the sublime – the very sensations we experience when we turn to our preferred news sites to get our daily fix of coronavirus statistics.

But the sublime is not a static state. The very act of being able to recognise and reflect on our own sensations makes us aware that we are not just creatures of sensation but of reason. We are superior to nature in quality even though it may far surpass us in quantity. As Kant puts it:

[T]he irresistibility of the might of nature forces upon us the recognition of our physical helplessness… but at the same time reveals a faculty of estimating ourselves as independent of nature, and discovers a pre-eminence above nature… (28:261).

This safe and stable resolution can be visually expressed by the upper left and top sections of the bell curve (figure 2). Almost imperceptibly at first, the curve becomes less extreme, flattening out until at last the top can be seen, curving gently over towards the descent. So too, in the experience of the sublime our unsettling sensations of insignificance and impotence resolve themselves into comfortable feelings of satisfaction, reassurance, and pride. While these feelings are still outside our grasp in the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re grasping at glimpses of them in every hint that the curve may finally be flattening.

If the experience of the sublime can be prompted (and mirrored) by our encounter with epidemic data in the shape of a bell curve, it matters very much what the experience of the sublime does to us, or rather, what we do with it. Dr Drees argues that experiencing the sublime strengthens a person’s moral resolve. But here’s why I contend that the experience of the sublime is just as likely to prompt distancing, narcissism, and fatalism.

As Kant puts it, “it is impossible to take delight in terror that is seriously entertained” (28:261). A measure of self-protective distance is central to the concept of the sublime. It can only be experienced from a position of relative safety: if we are about to be drowned by the storm or crushed by the avalanche, we feel something else entirely.

Literally distancing ourselves from potential risks may be what the doctor ordered during an epidemic. But the correlative of emotional distancing is counter-productive. Hoarding food and medicine may provide the illusion of a protective buffer between us and the disease, providing we are happy to disregard how this may disadvantage those with less money or mobility. Distancing also helps us draw an imaginary “do not cross” line between ourselves and the latest fatalities: we stress how seeking comfort in the fact that he was frail and elderly, or she had an “underlying condition,” or they lived in a country with a poor health system. In other words, they’re not like us.

A related issue with the sublime is that it is a fundamentally circular experience that starts and ends with the self. While prompted by external factors, “true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the judging Subject” (26:256). The sublime reminds the individual of their essential intellectual freedom from and superiority to the natural world, so that “the mind… feels itself elevated in its own estimate of itself” (26:256). And that’s where it ends. The sublime has no telos: it is not directed towards any outcome other than self-satisfaction. This positions the sublime perilously close to narcissism (Mathäs 2010, p. 1).

In the case of an epidemic or other disaster, we cannot look to the sublime to prompt us to take action towards the victims. Instead, they are reduced to bit players in our drama. Under the sway of the sublime, we may be prompted to act in ways that make us feel better but do little towards alleviating the problem—or even make the situation worse. The unwarranted use of personal protective equipment fits the bill here, as does flouting physical distancing regulations for self-focused reasons—“I’ll go crazy if I can’t go to the beach.” Solipsistic social media use also comes under this category. Updates on the fabulous cheesecake we made or number of pages we wrote while social distancing show little empathy with those who are juggling child-minding, job loss, and fear for their elderly parents.

Finally, the sublime has the tendency to promote passivity or nihilism. An experience of the sublime is, by definition, a response to something bigger and more powerful than we are. As Gene Ray describes it, this can induce a “swooning passivity and intoxication that seduces and neutralises the spectator’s critical capacities…” (Ray 2005, p. 9). We can be transfixed and mesmerised. There are commonalities with Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle, which presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears’. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance… (Debord 1977, ch 1, thesis 12).

This can lead us to regard certain sections of the population—the elderly or immune-compromised or in other ways “not like us”—as inevitable Covid-19 casualties (or sacrifices) —which can, of course, become self-fulfilling. It may also lead to political apathy. As totalitarian regimes well know, invoking the sublime, whether through visual or verbal rhetoric, can be an effective means of bypassing debate and negating resistance. Public health laws that restrict freedom of movement or association can be enacted relatively easily during a pandemic, but have a way of lingering once things return to “normal.”

“Wanderer above the sea of loo paper”

The world will hopefully come through this crisis before too many months pass—through what kind of normal we will return to is another question. That does not mean these reflections on the sublime, the bell curve, and coronavirus are of limited relevance. While humanity has been understandably preoccupied by Covid-19 for the last few months, an even larger catastrophe has not paused. The economic slowdown resulting from efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus has offered nature some respite, such a localised reductions in air pollution. But overall, the indicators of climate change continue their ever upward, sublime-prompting rise; and distancing, narcissism, and fatalism characterise much of the world’s response.

Where to from here? I do not believe the sublime can be rehabilitated as an impetus for moral action. So as media consumers, we might benefit if rationing were extended from toilet paper and hand-wash to the time spent in front of rising curves. As any dieter has been told, weighing yourself once a week is plenty. Perhaps the same holds for those of us breathlessly waiting for other figures to reduce. This does not mean ignoring the world’s pressing problems, whether Covid-19 or climate change. Rather, we need to recall older ways of “data visualisation”. During the catastrophic drought and economic depression of the 1930s, the US Farms Subsidy Administration (FSA) mobilised Congress and public support for unprecedented government welfare and social reform programs. Photographers like Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans were commissioned to document the hardships suffered by the rural poor of the south and west. The images they captured, stressing the individuality, dignity, and common humanity of their subjects, stand today as powerful and moving examples of aesthetic in the service of ethics.


[i]           Citations from Kant’s texts refer to volume and page numbers in the Akademie edition. CJ = Critique of Judgement, CPR = Critique of Practical Reason.

Works Cited/For Further Reading:

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Black & Red Books, Black & Red Books, Detroit, 1977.

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952.

_______ Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, Cosimo, New York, 2009.

Mathäs, Alexander, “Keeping Narcissism at Bay: Kant and Schiller on the Sublime,” Konturen vol. 3, December 2010. Ray, Gene, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: from Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11, Palgrave Macmillan, Gordonsville, VA, 2005.

About the Author:

Dr Sally Cloke is a design researcher and academic with a background in theology. Her areas of interest include the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, critical/speculative design and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Her publications include an article in the peer-reviewed journal Philosophy and Literature (due out this month) and essays in the New Philosopher and Eureka Street.

Twitter: @newynewby

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