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TitleA Phenomenological Study by Erika Linnea Mathilda Goble A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of
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The sublime has fascinated human beings for over two thousand years. Appearing in some of

our oldest written works and most major religious texts, it has inspired literature, architecture,

the fine arts, and even our forays into nature. Historically, “the sublime” was understood as the

simultaneous experience of awe and terror evoked by something that exceeds our cognition. It

was seen as the evocation of, or that which evokes, an enthusiastic terror. Some scholars

deemed it to be the height of aesthetic excellence, while others claimed it evidence of

transcendence and that which enabled one to glimpse the divine. More recently, the sublime

has been called an emotion, an aesthetic judgment, and a theory. Over the last century alone, it

has been reinterpreted by psychoanalysis, critical theory, feminism, postmodernism, and post-

postmodernism. And yet, despite the sublime’s persistence over time, its presence across

cultures, and its prevalence as a subject for philosophers and artists, our understanding of it

remains elusive. In order to gain insight into the sublime as a potential human experience,

therefore, this study returns to a basic but fundamental question: what is it like to experience

the sublime, specifically when that experience is evoked by an image?

This study uses the human sciences methodology of the phenomenology of practice.

The purpose of the phenomenology of practice is not to explain or theorize, but rather to

generate a descriptively rich and reflective text that evokes in the reader an embodied, pathic

understanding of a phenomenon as it is experienced pre-reflectively. To this end, concrete

experiential descriptions of the phenomenon were collected through interviews and guided

writing activities, and were supplemented with descriptions from previously published material.

The accounts were reflected upon using various philosophical, human science, and philological

methods in order to identify variant and invariant dimensions of the experience.

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expectations—of the picture and of ourselves—may drop away. We may find ourselves letting

go of our customary ways of looking at the images. The habit, practice, and tradition of the

customary (custom, n., Online Etymology Dictionary, 2014) can give way to a different kind of

seeing when we enter the space of the image in its sublimity.

And yet, how do we see differently when we experience the sublime? Do we only see

the image differently or is its transformative capacity much broader? Before we can explore

these questions, I need first to better understand how we customarily see.

Seeing Images and How our Seeing Changes when we Experience the Sublime

Images are everywhere and everywhere they are seen. Using the closest example at hand, when

I glance across my desk I happen to look upon a photograph. My eyes slide across it, perhaps

briefly stop, and then they move on. Looking appears a simple and common act. However, let

me consider it more closely.

In the middle of writing, I momentarily pause to think. My hands in mid-writing

pause on my keyboard and my eyes have strayed away from the screen. They

have moved of their own accord to the closest thing at hand, a photograph

propped up in the corner of my desk. A face, not personally known but familiar,

looks out from it. She doesn’t look at me but past me, caught in mid-thought,

perhaps even mid-conversation with someone I cannot see. She leans on a table

slightly squinting due to the bright sunny day: a day out at the beach. One hand

is lifted up to hold back her wind-blown hair. I briefly wonder what she was

saying in that moment and wonder if, one day, I too will write such thoughts. I

take all of this in in mere moments before I turn back to my computer and get

back to work.

In turning to look, I see the photograph of a young woman and I almost always see it as

a representation or “image” of that young woman. As Wittgenstein observes (1958/1963), “We

regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, landscape, and so

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