[NetBehaviour] Alan Sondheim's 'Suicide' and the Sublime

Edward Picot julian.lesaux at gmail.com
Thu Jul 6 14:29:44 CEST 2017

I attended Alan's presentation at Furtherfield Commons yesterday 
evening, and one of the pieces he showed was a Second Life-based piece 
called 'suicide' (http://www.alansondheim.org/suicide.mp4) which I 
hadn't seen before, and which made a strong impression on me. For those 
who don't know it, it's a blurry grey-green maelstrom of shapes and 
transitions - one of Alan's characteristic 'edgespace' experiments, 
where he takes a virtual 3D environment and pushes it to the point where 
the software can't handle what he's trying to make it do, and everything 
starts going into meltdown. This one is a particularly extreme example, 
and seems to have caught even Alan himself off-guard, as you can see 
from a number of text-comments he posts on-screen as the piece unfolds - 
'What the hell? Where did that come from?' etc. All of a sudden, in the 
middle of this whirling chaos, a cube appears - Alan comments that he's 
sure he didn't put that in there - followed by what looks startlingly 
like a fertilized egg trying to achieve its first cell-division - 'Fuck 
it's a cell of some kind... It's a ctenophore', says Alan. Then the 
software crashes, or rather jams, and the message 'You have committed 
suicide' appears onscreen.

It struck me on the way home that this piece ticks a lot of the boxes in 
Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime, from the eighteenth century -

'Edmund Burke was not the first philosopher to be intrigued by the power 
and complexity of the idea of the sublime but his account of it was 
exceedingly influential. He broke the idea of the sublime down into 
seven aspects, all of which he argued were discernible in the natural 
world and in natural phenomena:

Darkness – which constrains the sense of sight (primary among the five 
Obscurity – which confuses judgement
Privation (or deprivation) – since pain is more powerful than pleasure
Vastness – which is beyond comprehension
Magnificence – in the face of which we are in awe
Loudness – which overwhelms us
Suddenness – which shocks our sensibilities to the point of disablement'


In a nutshell Burke's theory was that things which overwhelm and 
bewilder us, fill us with awe, carry us beyond the bounds of our own 
power of comprehension and force us to confront the otherness of the 
non-human world, have a more profound affect on us than things which are 
orderly, harmonious, symmetrical, explicable and unsurprising. The 
sublime was therefore more profoundly affecting than the beautiful and 
the picturesque: mountains, cataracts, thunderstorms, ravines, 
avalanches and so forth were more profoundly affecting than placid 
rivers, lakes, sandy beaches, gardens and pastures.

Of course in Alan's piece we're getting the sense of obscurity, 
confusion/privation of the senses, shock, bewilderment and otherness 
described by Burke - but we're not getting them from nature. On the 
contrary, we're getting them in just about the most unnatural way 
possible. And for Burke, the fact that we were getting these experiences 
from nature meant that we were getting them from God. A glimpse of the 
sublime was a glimpse of the Almighty. Yet here we are, it seems, having 
those same experiences in an environment which is entirely man-made, 
albeit distorted and pushed beyond the limit of its own rules to the 
point where those rules seem to disintegrate and something else seems to 
emerge. I think Alan made the remark 'It felt as if some other 
intelligence was in there' - because the cube and the cell-creature 
seemed to pop up of their own accord, without any agency on his part. A 
glitch of the software and a trick of the imagination no doubt, but a 
bona fide experience of the sublime nevertheless, which is what's so 
intriguing about it.

Just thought I'd mention it.

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