Monthly Archives: April 2019

The Sublime and The Uncanny: Jurassic World and the Walking Dead


In his famous paper on the Uncanny Freud complained that philosophers studying aesthetics had contented themselves with studying positive aesthetic experiences such as the beautiful, the pleasant etc. Freud even used the sublime as an example of a positive emotion that philosophers had studied. To redress this perceived imbalance Freud wanted to study a largely negative human aesthetic experience; the experience of the uncanny.

Freud’s treatment of the uncanny was excellent; but anyone who has read philosophers like Kant will be taken aback by Freud’s claims about the sublime. The concept of the sublime; far from being a purely positive emotional experience actually involves many negative emotions.

In his ‘A Critique of the Power of Judgement’ Kant constructed a theory of the sublime which influenced a generation of artists and philosophers. In next section I will briefly describe Kant’s conception of the sublime and exemplify a key example of it using a clip from the film Jurassic World.  In the following section I will then outline Freud’s concept of the Uncanny and illustrate its nature in reference to the popular television programme The Walking Dead.  Finally I will demonstrate that these concepts have more in common than Freud realised.

The Sublime

According to Kant the sublime is an aesthetic experience where people have an emotional reaction to a terrifying representation of an aspect of nature. Kant differentiates the sublime from other concepts such as the beautiful, the good, and the pleasant. He argues that the sublime differs from the pleasant because the experience of something as pleasant relies on a sensation whereas an experience of the sublime doesn’t. He further argues that the sublime differs from the good because judging something as good requires it being interpreted through definite concepts, whereas, while judging something as sublime also requires interpreting them through concepts; the concepts we use when we judge something as sublime are indeterminate concepts (‘A Critique of Judgement p. 61). Furthermore Kant argues that when we judge something as beautiful we do so because of the particular form of the object we are judging; whereas when we judge something as sublime this is because we view the object/scene to be formless, boundless etc (ibid p. 61)

Kant doesn’t just describe the sublime by differentiating it from other concepts (the beautiful/the good/the pleasant). He also presents positive characteristics of the nature of the sublime. Kant argues that there is a particular psychological state associated with it. When we judge something as sublime we are both repelled by it and attracted to it at the same time. Our relationship to objects we judge to be sublime is one of respect and awe.

Another key feature of the sublime involves judging the objects of experience as purposeless and dangerous. Thus despite something being viewed as chaotic, dangerous and purposeless this only increases our sense of it as being sublime. Kant makes an important point re the sublime; we shouldn’t say that the object itself is sublime; rather particular forms of judgement excite in us feelings which lead us to judge the object as sublime. There is a sense in which the self is irreducibly involved in judging something to be sublime. When describing the sublime he makes the following point:

“Nature excites the ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived.” (ibid p. 63)

Despite spending a lot of time distinguishing between the idea of beauty and the idea of the sublime Kant notes that they can be studied using similar methodologies. When judging something as sublime we must attempt to view it from a disinterested perspective, and we must hold our judgements as universally valid judgments about the sublime feeling they inspire (ibid p. 63). Kant makes an important distinction between two types of sublimity:  (1) the mathematical sublime, and (2) the dynamical sublime.

The Mathematical Sublime

The mathematical sublime involves judging objects quantitatively according to their size. Some objects appear to be big, powerful and dangerous. But any judgement of something as large will be done relative to a perspective; when judged from another perspective an object that once seemed large can come to seem small. Thus, though Kant when he discusses the sublime restricts himself to objects of nature and doesn’t deal with animals; an example from the animal kingdom is nicely illustrative. The lion has a reputation as a powerful predator. Next to a pig or a domestic cat it looks like a giant monster. But in the film Jurassic World there is a scene where the lion comes face to face with a T Rex and the Lion suddenly loses a bit of its grandeur: . And of course the T Rex is tiny in comparison to a Megalodon or a Whale, and these creatures pale in significance to the ocean, the ocean is insignificant in comparison to the Sun and so on. Kant notes that as great as these objects are, there are other objects which dwarf them; and this infinite hierarchy of objects we are capable of conceiving are dwarfed by the mind which is doing the conceiving. We have two main modes representing these sublime objects (1) via number using algebra or (2) using intuition (measurement by the eye) aesthetical judgments (ibid p. 65). Now when it comes to using numbers we can keep increasing magnitude to infinity; but when it comes to aesthetical judgments our perceptual capacities will limit what we can experience. Furthermore while an increase in magnitude through number is experienced in a neutral manner; our aesthetical appreciation of magnitude is experienced in an emotional manner.

When discussing the nature of our perceptual grasp of objects and how this influences the aesthetical judgments we make about these objects Kant gives an example of viewing a Pyramid. In order to get a peak experience of viewing the Pyramids we must keep from going too near to them, thereby negating our judgement of their size in relation to their environment, and keep from going too far away from the Pyramids and diminishing our appreciation of their size and the details of its construction.

Kant uses some clear examples of what he considers paradigms that will lead to one experiencing the sublime:

“Who would call sublime, e.g. shapeless mountain masses piled in wild disorder upon each other with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy raging sea?…A tree, (the height of) which we estimate with reference to the height of a man, at all events gives a standard for a mountain; and if this were a mile high, it would serve as a unit for the number expressive of the earth’s diameter (would supply a unit) for the known planetary system; this again for the Milky Way; and the immeasurable number of Milky Way systems called nebulae- which presumably constitute a system of the same kind among themselves-lets expect no bounds here. Now the sublime in the aesthetical judging of the immeasurable whole like this lies not so much in the greatness of the number (of units), as in the fact that in our progress we ever arrive at greater units. To this the systematic division of the universe contributes, which represents every magnitude in nature as small in its turn; and represents our imagination with its entire freedom from bounds, and with its nature, as a mere noting in comparison with the ideas of reason, if it is sought to furnish a presentation which shall be adequate to them.” (Kant ‘A Critique of Judgement’ p. 71)

His examples, illustrate the entire Kantian gambit of ideas about the sublime. You get objects being big relative to humans; being dwarfed by larger objects, being further dwarfed by larger objects etc and finally you get the encompassing reason which is able to appreciate and dwarf all of these objects of nature.

The dynamically sublime

In Kant’s view nature when it is judged aesthetically as dwarfing us and potentially overwhelming us but as having no dominion over us is an example of the dynamically sublime. In order for us to experience nature as sublime we need to recognise its awesome power and size while controlling our emotions. If we were to be overwhelmed by fear in the sight of say something like crashing waves nearby us we would not be able to experience it as sublime. We need to be able to dispassionately judge the object of our experience as something with incredible power, but as something which has no dominion over us in order to be able to judge it as sublime. Kant gives some dramatic examples of the sublime:

 “Bold, overhanging, as it were threatening, rocks, clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.” (ibid p. 75)

Again when considering these examples of the sublime in nature Kant notes that incredible as these objects of nature are our minds ability to encompass them and represent them is greater still (ibid p. 75).

Above I used an example from the film Jurassic World to illustrate a point about comparative might (a Lion vs a T Rex), when I used that example I noted that Kant would not have approved. As we can see from the many Kantian examples I quoted ad-nauseum he was concerned with nature; mountain tops, the Ocean etc and not with members of the animal kingdom. He gives his reason as follows:

“Our examples are not to be taken from the beautiful or sublime objects of nature as presuppose the concept of a purpose” (ibid p. 82)

When Kant speaks about purpose; he is talking about living creatures, in particular, animals. There is a perfectly sensible way of understanding Kant’s distinction. Thus from a commonsense point of view uncontaminated by philosophy, we can speak of the purposes of animals. Thus the Lions purpose when stalking his prey is trying to catch it, kill it, and eat it, with as little danger (to the Lion as possible). But the ocean wild tossed and turned by the wind isn’t intuitively viewed as an agent with a purpose; and vast mountain ranges filled with snow which could fall upon us at any minute isn’t easily viewed as an agent. We will abstract the degree to which these animals are merely manifesting competence without comprehension, and the question of whether animistic societies which existed thousands of years ago would agree with Kant that the ocean wasn’t an agent. What is more interesting is that Kant is aware of how these concepts mix up and thinks that experience of the sublime is only possible when we keep them separate. The following example perfectly illustrates Kant’s perspective on this issue:

“If then we call the sight of the starry heaven sublime, we must not place at the basis of our judgement a concept of worlds inhabited by rational beings, and regard the bright points, with which we see the space above us filled, as their suns moving in circles purposively fixed with reference to them; but we must regard it, just as we see it, as a distant, all embracing vault. Only under such a representation can we range that sublimity which a pure aesthetical judgement ascribes to this object. And in the same way, if we are to call the sight of the ocean sublime, we must not think of it as we (ordinarily) do, endowed as we are with all kinds of knowledge (not, contained however, in the immediate intuition). For example, we sometimes think of the ocean as a vast kingdom of aquatic creatures; or as the source as those vapours that fill the air with clouds for the benefit of the land; or again as an element which, though dividing continents from each other, yet promotes the greatest communication between them; but these furnish merely teleological judgements. To call the ocean sublime we must regard it as the poets do, merely by what strikes the eye; if it is at rest, a clear river of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything.” (ibid p.82)

I find the above quote fascinating and worth thinking through in detail. Kant offers two examples; a nebula being viewed as something of awesome size that dwarfs us; and a nebula being viewed more homely as a series of stars each of which may have planets and creatures like us. The former is supposed to be sublime while the latter isn’t. His second example is the wild ocean when we consider it as something immense which could engulf us Kant says that leads to us viewing it as sublime; but when we think of it as a home for sea creatures Kant argues that it doesn’t elicit an emotional experience of the sublime.

When it comes to Kant’s contrast between the two ways of viewing the ocean I think he means to point out something that later romantics would emphasise. If we view the ocean purely naturalistically as just swirling atoms it loses some of its grandeur; but if you view it as a human powerless before its immensity it becomes sublime. Nonetheless I think Kant under-thought what a naturalistic understanding of the ocean meant.

I cannot dispute Kant on factual grounds; but since his discussion of the sublime relies on his subjective feelings re-objects of nature, I can report how things seem to me. Thinking of the ocean as a home of creatures puts me in mind of particular ecological niches and this doesn’t feel sublime. But when I reflect on creatures who have lived in the sea such as the Blue Whale, the Megalodon, or the Mosasour, I feel similar feelings that are elicited by mountain tops, or a wild ocean. With the massive sea creatures I feel dwarfed and insignificant; a mountain elicits similar feelings in me. The giant sea creatures and the mountain instil a fear in me. Furthermore, being overcome by fear would take away from the sublime feeling. But Kant would say that the sea creatures differ from the ocean because they have purpose whereas the ocean doesn’t. While Kant was correct that sea creatures are purposeful, and things like the ocean and mountains are not; there is little reason to think that this disqualifies sea creatures from eliciting sublime emotions in us. I think Kant’s imagination was stunted in a way that ours isn’t in the digital age. Today we may or may not have seen a Blue Whale in the flesh; but even if we haven’t, we have seen videos of Whales interacting with humans. Kant would have had encyclopaedic knowledge about large sea creatures; and may have seen paintings of them; but such paintings would have had no emotional punch. In contrast, the life-like videos we can produce have a different emotional feel. When we see a creature as big as a Mosaur beside a human this is different from seeing a Lion or a Tiger, the experience elicits the experience of the sublime. Again resort to a clip from Jurassic World is instructive:

In the above clip we see the Mosaur in various different guises. We see it as an attraction in a game park. The characters in the show who are watching it perform (eat the shark), view it as something to be mildly amused by. But a person in that audience could also view it as a magnificent object that dwarfs us, and other predators we fear, and let this fact elicit feelings of the sublime in them. Similarly later in the above clips we see a Mosaur swimming near a surfer. This appearance could elicit feelings of the sublime in us; though not in the case of the unfortunate person surfing near the giant creature.

Now obviously the above examples are from pop culture. But they do show that our capability to represent sea creatures who have died out 60million years before any humans ever existed, outstrips anything Kant could have dreamed of. I would argue that this fact would have serious influences on Kant’s views on the creatures who roamed the oceans. Even for more humdrum cases of creatures; such as, the Blue Whale, Great White Shark, who live in the here and now with human beings; our capacity to represent their majesty would have outstripped anything Kant could of conceived of.

The Uncanny

When discussing the uncanny Freud does so in terms of his own pretty controversial psychoanalytic views. For the present purposes we will separate ourselves from Freud’s psychoanalytic speculations and focus on the phenomena that he was trying to explain by appeal to his own peculiar brand of psychoanalytic speculation. Freud made a useful distinction of types of uncanny experiences; (1) experiences brought on by interaction with the real world, and (2) experiences brought about by confrontation with art (films, novels etc).

As an example of an Uncanny experience brought about by interaction with the real world Freud details the following experience of his:

“Strolling one hot summer afternoon through the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town, I found myself in a district about whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Only heavily made up-women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However, after wandering about for sometime without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad to find my way back to the Piazza that I had recently left and refrain from any further voyages of discovery.” (The Uncanny p. 144)

Freud’s example of where he experienced an uncanny feeling is an odd one. When out for a stroll he happened into a part of town frequented by hookers; embarrassed Freud left this part of town immediately. When he tried to leave this area he kept accidently returning to the very place that he wanted to avoid. This repetition from a subjective point seemed a bit odd and gave Freud an Uncanny feeling. He goes on to list repetition as a key characteristic of the uncanny. He discusses how if a particular number keeps appearing to a person over a short series of time this may elicit an uncanny feeling.

Freud’s examples of his personal experience with the uncanny don’t immediately resonate from a contemporary point of view. It’s been a hundred years since Freud wrote his essay on the uncanny; today we associate the word ‘uncanny’ with the uncanny valley a theory which argues that the closer robots get to appearing life like the more uncanny they will appear to us. Another contemporary way of understanding the concept of the uncanny is as simply as weird situations. Thus between 1952 and 1957 a magazine ran with the title ‘Uncanny Tales’ which told stories in comic book form about bizarre science fiction scenarios; some of the stories had endings which produced an uncanny feeling.

Freud was prescient in noting that fairy tales have elements which in another context would produce uncanny feelings but when reading the stories one never gets an uncanny experience. The reason being that within a given world the author is working within certain implicit rules. Thus in some stories magic exists, tea pots can talk etc. Hence when we read fairy tales and something magical happens we are not shocked[1]. In order to illicit an uncanny feeling in a novel/comic/film etc there needs to be implicit rules we expect to obtain which are suddenly violated during the story. Philip K Dick stories sometimes have an uncanny feel where we begin in a realistic universe and suddenly things slip and familiar rules no longer obtain; the familiar world is suddenly made to feel unfamiliar and strange. Kafka’s novels sometimes use this method but push things in an even further direction. His short stories sometimes begin in a hyper-realistic mode and then descend to virtually incoherent writing that illicit strong uncanny feelings at first, but as the chaos and difficulty interpreting becomes greater the uncanny feeling disappears.

Uncanny tales sometimes worked within this Freudian template. Thus while the stories were sometimes of a science fiction nature they often began with implicit rules and morals which were then violated at the end, and this produced an uncanny feeling. The popular television programme ‘The Twilight Zone’ which ran from 1959 to 1965 was a brilliant exemplar of the technique of eliciting uncanny feelings. Again the show used a similar technique to ‘Uncanny Tales’ involving realistic protagonists in day to day activities confronted by weird scenarios which elicit uncanny feelings in people watching the show.

Above I noted that the concept of the uncanny as Freud describes in terms of repetition isn’t the concept that would immediately come to mind for a contemporary reader. Today the ‘Uncanny’ is either associated with the Uncanny Valley or with weird experiences brought on by programmes like the Twilight Zone. But there are examples of the uncanny which touch on all of the above conceptions of it. A key exemplar of the uncanny (shared by Freud, Uncanny Valley and Twilight Zone episodes) is the emotional experience of viewing an object which is almost human but which isn’t quiet human. A stock illustration of the uncanny is a wax sculpture of people, or life-like dolls.

I contend that one of the core features of something being uncanny is that similar to a core feature of the sublime. While with the sublime we are appreciating a work of art that is awesome and at the fringes of our consciousness we fear it may become real; with the uncanny something similar occurs. But the uncanny is a bit different. The uncanny relies on us pre-theoretically viewing something as an object and then suddenly thinking of the object as an intentional agent. In the case of the sublime we think of the art as just art but at the fringes of our consciousness we suspect it may not just be art; but may be real and be a danger to us. With the uncanny we think of something of an inert object which resembles an intentional agent; but at the fringe of our consciousness we worry it may be a real agent observing us. With both the uncanny and the sublime we have inert matter that is intended to be a representation (simulation) of something in real; but we have another part of our mind which thinks it is a real aspect of nature or an intentional agent which could threaten us.

Representations are not that threatening and neither are inert objects. But with ambiguous objects we have a fear that what we are viewing may not be inert; but they may be real features of nature which could hurt us. The whisperers in the Walking Dead are a perfect illustration of one of the first key features of the Uncanny:

For those of you living under a rock; ‘The Walking Dead’ is a television show about a post apocalyptic world where human civilisation has been almost entirely wiped out by infectious zombies. As the show developed the zombies have played less and less of a role and the central premise has been on wars between various different groups of human survivors. The zombies stumble around and are a potential danger they can still kill and infect humans if they attack them. But they are primarily viewed as non-agents who are potentially dangerous objects. With the introduction of the whisperers this changes. The whisperers are a group of people who survived the zombie apocalypse by living amongst the zombies and dressing like them and moving like them to ensure they won’t be attacked. When our human heroes discover the existence of the whisperers amongst the zombies then the zombies become ambiguous. Any shuffling zombie has the potential to be a conscious agent. So looking at a gang of zombies can elicit a sense of the uncanny.

Both the uncanny and the sublime involve an aesthetic judgement about an aspect of nature that is hard to subsume under determinate concepts. Both involve experiences of something that is both potentially threatening and also an object arouses not entirely negative emotional interest. However, the concepts are not identical by any stretch of the imagination. The uncanny; unlike the sublime, is much more difficult to view in a disinterested manner, as it elicits stronger negative emotional experiences. But I think it is fair to say that Freud massively overestimated the differences between the two concepts.

[1] Work in Cognitive frames help explain why fairy tales don’t elicit uncanny feelings. For a good discussion of cognitive frames see Dennett, Adnams, and Hurley ‘Inside Jokes’. The theory of cognitive frames can be made largely consistent with Freudian concepts.