Wow it’s been a long time since I’ve written. Or it’s been a long time since I’ve had the space in my mind to write. This may be a bit rambling because of it.
Now that school is finished for the semester, I can again focus on some of my own research and work. I’ve spent an intensive two weeks reading what I like to call “all the philosophy I never had time for in grad school” in preparation for a number of projects that require a little more than my intuitions on being in the world. One focus has been the slippery concept of the Sublime, and what it means in our contemporary existence. I just read a blurb on how Google has a cultural institute in Paris. Of course in France, where culture is venerated and vetted with what I imagine is a great fervor (I’ve always been fascinated on how the government regulates the language with what I like to imagine is a Jacobin robed tribunal arguing the merits of “lol”.) Anyway, Google’s Cultural Institute has just launched an online database of street art: ” While it plans to use images from Street View, it will not cull from that database but rather provide organizations the opportunity to use the technology to record street art legally.” Images from organizations that can provide documentation of ownership of the work will be able to represent it in this archive. The Cultural Institute offers a partnership that allows organizations to archive their works online, making them available to a wider public. I think this is a great service, for works to be available for anyone with an internet connection. But these works weren’t meant to be seen in the context of a web search (some weren’t meant for a museum, or daylight, for that matter.) Out of any scholar or authority’s context-making, what happens to meaning or understanding of these works? We have a sea of images, with captions, viewed on screens in any location imaginable. In the particular case of street art, we also have the institutionalization of ephemeral works, works intended for a location, to be happened upon in an unexpected way, by a somewhat anonymous maker. These are historically markings meant to define territory, to reclaim space, and to alter our view of a location in an intentionally jarring way. “As a private database of public art, it also poses questions about how to legally preserve what in some cases might be considered vandalism.”
How does this relate to the Sublime? I come back again and again to our curious digital archiving, or rather, hoarding. Our portable technology rules the most mundane aspects of our lives, ideally to give us the freedom for greater pursuits. Not only do these applications assist, they archive this data to look at patterns. If I monitor an aspect of my health, like my heart rate while I run, an app can give me a summation of a month, a year, of my heart activity. It can also alert me to unusual patterns in my heart rate, and have this data available and ready for my doctor. Or anyone else that may have access to it. I use a journaling app that provides an assessment of my mood while writing, based on the instances of certain words. I may not think I was 70% concerned with death while writing, but that’s what the data shows.
All of this data is meant to give us a better picture of ourselves through how much of it is now archived and how much this minutiae of the mundane can tell us. I wonder, really, if this is our Sublime, the overwhelming feeling that occurs when we’re faced with the mountain of data telling us the supposed meaning of something as utterly mundane as our heart rate or my daily brain dump. My curiosity is in how we no longer trust our own executive function to make these determinations. I know what I was writing about, and although it related to knowing our own consciousness, death was not the primary subject. We obsessively look to Big Data as a means of knowing, yet our existence in the world goes beyond an aggregation of qualitative instances. Our experiences are informed by all of our senses, and by something in our brain that can vet this information faster than the tool of language can order it. Even if all of the legal street art in the world were archived in a searchable database, how does this taxonomy create the same uncanny sense that we associate with encountering it during a walk around the block? How are we sure that one thing is the catalyst for an event, a sea change in our normal lives?
I learned a new word during a meeting the other day: qualia or “the way things seem to us.” I was struck by how this term relates to a perception of the Sublime in that our experiences are subjective, and not completely “knowable” and how the Sublime is sometimes referred to as that uncanny experience when the mundane is upset. I think we trust social media’s collection of data to explain how things seem to us, to surpass our own means of relating our state. I’m curious to see if that is how it pans out.