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Mysticism and the Sublime in the Ocean-scape of Now

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Brad Lay, Speaker Seeker (still), 2015, single channel digital video, duration 7:54, courtesy of the artist

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In a cultural climate polarised between scientific rationalism and a resurgence in religious fundamentalism (across a suite of established religions) that provides rigid descriptors for the type of “God” that invokes spiritual experiences, mysticism seems stateless. Without affiliation to a particular strand of religion, mysticism may be denounced as heresy, whilst the inability and/or unwillingness of many to frame transcendental experiences in terms of conventional neurological understandings of the body and mind enables (some) scientists and philosophers to place it firmly in the realm of pseudo religion.

Art is mystical, properly speaking, when it involves an intimate, personal, or private connection with something transcendental. — James Elkins (1)

The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths. —Bruce Nauman

Within contemporary art however it remains an expectation of the artist to reveal knowledge in a manner that transcends rational approaches to information sharing, yet the direct engagement with mysticism in contemporary art is often viewed with suspicion. Is the parody of personal ritual in plastic witch costumes an honest attempt to explore the transcendental, or is it an opportunity for a cheap laugh? Perhaps it’s okay for both to be occurring simultaneously. Perhaps to parody mysticism enables us to secretly indulge in it.

If we consider mysticism in terms of a devotion to or a search for a reality, mode of existence or system of understanding that transcends the physical and the ‘rational’, it is likely that we will also encounter another concept that has been viewed with similar suspicion - the sublime.  

Throughout the Enlightenment, organised religion was superceded by scientific rationalism as a means of understanding the physical world.  The concept of the sublime was resurrected and adopted by Romantic creatives as a means of engaging with that which transcends our capacity for logic and understanding. It has variously been used to describe a human, emotional response to encounters with overwhelming natural forces, mathematical concepts that stretch and defy the imagination, the uncontrollable and infinite mass of modern technology, and the persistent gap between language, meaning and understanding. It can be seen as a vital foil to the aesthetic sensibilities of beauty. Some consider it to be an obsolete term, so broad in its definition and applications as to be useless. As an adjective it has been used to describe clothing and real estate, cars and mountains, waves and pastries. It is also the name of a hairdressing salon.  At times the sublime has been attached to less conventional notions of ‘God’, as seen in the perspectives of Hegel, or a broader sense of mysticism.

Kantian sublimity operates as an efficient instrument to illuminate the unique structures of mystical experience and relationship.
Mystical relationship is here condensed to the profound intimacy between infinite being and finite being.
— Peter Chong-Beng Gan (2)

Perhaps an opportunity exists to broaden our understanding of each via their intersection.
Perhaps the ocean can help us here.

We know a few things about the ocean. Its chemical composition. How it moves. Some of the things that live within it. We also know that we do not know the habits of all of its inhabitants. The recent discovery by the CSIRO of extinct volcanoes off the coast of Sydney also highlights our lack of knowledge of oceanic bathymetry.  That we do know so many facts about the ocean may in itself be an indication of the wondrousness of the internet. But the internet doesn’t really inspire the sort of confounded wonder that it once did. We know that it was developed by people, is facilitated and managed by people, and its content is uploaded by ... people. There is nothing that is not a result of human endeavour, or devolution as may be the case, in the expanse or content of the internet.  However, the internet provides a platform for the revelation of the amazingness of things that are not of human origins. The ocean, the universe, other species. In this we find both mysticism and the sublime, both as expressions of something that is greater-than-human.

Human-ocean relationships have always been in a state of flux. W.H Auden summarises the broad characterisation of the ocean in the pre-Romantic West as being “that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged and into which, unless it is saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always likely to relapse.”(3) This early perception of the ocean as an ultimate other; a foil to the order of western civilisation and a threat to the individual, has persisted to varying degrees. However, Auden recognises a shift in literary and philosophical perceptions towards the ocean in the Romantic era, where the ocean becomes a field of revelation, a place where “the decisive events, the moments of eternal choice, of temptation, fall, and redemption occur.”

This shift towards a perception of the ocean as a desirable force; a means to evoke and measure peak human experiences, coincided largely with philosophical investigations into the sublime by Burke and Kant. On viewing the ocean from a safe vantage point, a subject could experience the power and immensity of the ocean, yet in a Kantian sense, be elevated to a position of moral power through the application of reason to frame the ocean as a source of the sublime.  However, subsequent commentators didn’t take to kindly to the idea of a transcendental sublime…

To make the unpresentable the primary value of the true artist, and to make the avant-garde the new priesthood over the ineffable, seems also to evade much of what is best about much non-Lyotardian postmodern art and theory: that is, its willingness to forgo grand apologetics vis-a-vis the sublime in favour of a more modest acknowledgment that escape is not possible, not desirable, and that mere beauty may not be such a bad thing. — Engström (4)

This effectively encapsulates many postmodern concerns with the sublime. What would be the point in any act of creativity if not for a temporary escape from the now? To enact a personal form of mysticism as a mechanism for temporary escape from the reasonable and the rational, perhaps.

Vermeulen and van den Akker suggest that the discourse of postmodernism is being superseded by a discourse that oscillates between elements of postmodern irony and modern hopefulness.(5) Metamodernism suggests a dialogue between modern and romantic idealism and the implications of postmodernism’s analysis of language, culture and the self. Rather than aim to completely undermine that which has preceded it, a metamodern approach seeks to selectively build upon elements of romanticism, modernism and postmodernism whilst simultaneously tempering some of the more dogmatic elements of each. In this new critical environment, it seems fitting to discuss the sublime and mysticism beyond the confines of romanticism.

Recent philosophical considerations of the ocean reveal a shift towards thinking that acknowledges the connectivity between species beyond anthropocentric perspectives, and a reconfiguration of ideas of space and place. Philip Steinberg asserts that: the oceans that anchor ocean regions need to be understood as ‘more-than-human’ assemblages, reproduced by scientists, sailors, fishers, surfers, divers, passengers, and even pirate broadcasters as they interact with and are co-constituted by the universe of mobile non-human elements that also inhabit its depths, including ships, fish, and water molecules ... The underlying, and specifically liquid nature of the ocean at its center needs to be understood as emergent with, and not merely as an underlying context for, human activities.(6) Wolfgang Welsch extends upon these ideas, by considering the Pacific Ocean to be ‘a kind of hyper-animal’, not in the sense that we are familiar with, but in a phenomenological manner that takes into account its permanent state of motion, and its ability to generate motion. This has the capacity to challenge conventional notions of animate and animate, and beyond this Welsch considers the ocean to be ‘active in our direction’ as waves constantly come in our direction.(7) Welsch suggests “phenomenally the impression that the ocean concerns us is unavoidable”, yet it is also clear that “the ocean wants nothing from us. If it receives anything from us, then it throws it back: our cultural waste as well as our corpses.”

Whilst we know the ocean to be bounded, and of a theoretically measurable volume, it remains apparently and metaphorically infinite, particularly when we experience it in a direct, physical manner.  Somewhere beyond a couple of hundred olympic swimming pools, we cease to be able to meaningfully imagine space or volume, and defer this to the idea of the infinite, which remains forever incomplete. This is the Kantian limitation to sensory apprehension, in that we can never attribute a sensory aspect to the comprehension of the idea of infinity, nor even the exceedingly large. The physical differentiation between the immensity of the ocean and the limitations of our comparatively tiny physical selves evokes both a sense of the sublime, and a sense of the infinite within the finite, which is at the heart of the mystical experience.

At times the ocean is a place that evokes a fear - a fear of being absorbed into the whole. At times it is a place in which to allow oneself BE absorbed into the whole.  Mick Fanning was almost absorbed into the whole, permanently. To consider the ocean as part of and apart-from our selves requires a willingness to engage with the relationship between our selves as finite, and the universe as infinite. To be in awe of this is to experience the sublime.  The way(s) in which we choose to mentally coordinate the intersection between our imagination and the physical world, the finite and the infinite presents the conditions for individual forms of mysticism. How we do it may not need to conform to any known religious order nor necessarily an idea of God. It can, if that is how you choose to frame it, yet these are not preconditions for experience of the mystical, nor a momentary identification as a ‘mystic'.

Brad Lay, Sea Field (still), 2015, single channel digital video, duration 5 mins 33 secs, courtesy of the artist
Brad Lay, Sea Field (still), 2015, single channel digital video, duration 5 mins 33 secs, courtesy of the artist