Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Technological Sublime

Although Charles Hatfield apologises in Hand of Fire (2012) for his enthusiasm for Kirby, he not only locates his study within the academic, but identifies the technological sublime as a characteristic of Kirby's style. Drawing on Burke's Philosophical Enquiry (1757), Hatfield sees the cosmological grandeur and futuristic city-scapes that pepper Kirby's work as an expression not of simple awe but terror. Technology is not celebrated but presented on an anti-humanistic scale that evokes the vulnerability of the person within a mesh of advanced machinery.

(slides 18-21)

In 1976's adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kirby pictures both the immensity of deep space and the Artificial Intelligence HAL as a threat to the human. HAL surrounds the astronaut like a womb and a labyrinth: the man is adrift, floating within the machine's geometric architecture. This is not the happy synthesis of the organic and the mechanical, but the submission of the human before the elemental scale of an artificial intelligence.

Both the cosmos and the machine parallel the romantics' preoccupation with the sublime: the reminder of humanity's relative irrelevance in a universe of vast, incomprehensible powers. Yet Kirby's addition - the recognition of technology as a threat alongside the natural world - reveals his balance between art historical themes and a twentieth century anxiety. 

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