Computing the Sublime

by Simon Biggs, 2003

Originally commissioned for and published in "The Impossible Project" editted by David Cotterrall
published by Black Dog Publishing, London 2003, ISBN 1 901033 73 2.

The sublime is generally seen as something impossible to define and more or less unattainable. Conversely, the computer is seen as a tangible and very practical device useful in solving real world problems. It would seem a reasonable assumption that if one was seeking to approach or to reveal the sublime then amongst the least profitable of strategies would involve the use of computers.

However, as is often the case, things are never as they seem. If we are to be so certain of our assumptions we need to look very carefully at what computers are whilst, at the same time, attempt to understand the traditional means by which people (in this instance, artists) seek the sublime.

How do we understand what the sublime is and what its relationship is to the making of meaning?

The sublime is commonly regarded as something beyond meaning, beyond tangibility or legibility. It is the recognition of something that, by definition, is beyond definition. Nevertheless, artists have sought, through the centuries, to represent it, if not as a means of consciously coming closer to it then at least as a strategy in creating effects that would be all the more powerful in arousing their audience.

The problematic here has always concerned the rendering into the symbolic and meaningful world of art something that is apparently beyond representation, beyond our capacity to render meaning. There is an inherent contradiction at work here. Artists, as producers of meaning, employ strategies that are essentially linguistic in form. It has been argued that there is an aspect of art that is non-linguistic (whether supra-linguistic or proto-linguistic is a further question) but the sustenance of this argument depends on a narrow definition of what the linguistic, and by implication human consciousness, can be which, in itself, is a contentious issue.

If we accept the implication of Foucault's general argument about the relationship of the individual to the social, where each individual is regarded as an instance of language, instantiated from a linguistic body that is society as a whole, then we also have to accept a very generalised and expansive definition of the linguistic. Within this framework all human (and, in many cases, non-human) activities have to be defined as linguistic acts and thus instances of semiosis. It therefore becomes impossible for the artist to achieve the velocity required to escape the linguistic and social body of which they are part and begin an approach to the sublime. The artist, like anybody, is encumbered with the weight of centuries of encrusted meaning which to reject would be a form of self-denial that only mystics, probably always failing, entertain at their peril.

What is computing and how does it relate to representation and meaning?

Computation consists of symbolic operations. Alan Turing's suggestion that the computer is the machine that can be any machine because it is a symbolic machine is predicated on the concept of a machine that can alter itself. Turing developed his hypothesis following on from Goedel's (Incompleteness Theorem) prior conflation of mathematics and linguistics and the manner in which this allowed the abstract system that is mathematics to function similarly to the way in which language operates on things.

Turing's first working computational system was not an electronic device, as we expect computers to be today, but was instead composed of pieces of varying coloured and shaped paper. These symbols carried both the information (data) that was to be operated upon and the rules (instructions) for those operations. Although very limited the system was, in this regard, recursive and self-referential and thus able to compute and modify itself. The system contained within it all the basic elements of computability. Everything that needed to be known about what would happen to what, and what would result from the process, was either explicitly or implicitly contained within a very simple system.

It is this idea of a system that is symbolic, and thus virtual, that is interesting. When you take from one computer some code, a piece of software that does something to something, and run it on another it usually still works. The code is not necessarily connected to the physical instance of the electronic machine nor does it have to exist in an electronic form. Printing out the code places it in a more familiar context where it is immediately recognisable as language (if not easy to understand) and this print-out can then be re-input into another machine and, again, it will still work. In a very real sense it is the code that is the computer, just as Turing's pieces of paper were in effect a computer. The conventional electronics and other bits of hardware that we usually associate with the computer certainly represent a context for the code to work, but one could typify this relationship between hardware and software in the same manner that De Saussure described linguistic events as being formed of two components, langue (linguistic potentiality) and parole (the instance of use). So, it is possible to postulate the hardware as supplying the potential for meaning whilst the software creates the instance of meaning.

Thus it can be established that the computer is firstly a language machine. It is a machine that is formed with language (symbolically) and which operates as a semiosis, perhaps sometimes as a form of poesis, on language. When connected to hardware peripherals that are able to translate the output of the system into other phenomena (such as monitors, speakers, plotters, etc) the linguistic nature of the system does become less apparent however, nevertheless, the output of the system remains essentially linguistic.

How does the sublime relate to computing?

Given the above definition of computation as fundamentally linguistic it would seem that the relationship between computing and the sublime is that of opposites, of two things that are exclusive of one another. If we accept the previous argument that the computer is, in the first instance, a symbolic system that operates on two levels as a linguistic model, where hardware (potentiality) and software (actuality) combine to produce not only an instance of meaning but the culture for meaning, then the implication is that the computational process cannot approach the sublime.

There are many artists who work with computers and who are as concerned with seeking the sublime as any painter, writer or other more conventionally defined artist might. As argued above, artists and writers, composers and dancers all use means that are, in their various forms, linguistic in character. The artist employing computers therefore does not face any problem that is significantly different to that which artists have traditionally had to confront as all artists rely on these essentially linguistic media. The contradictions and impossibilities implicit in a painting by Friederich or Turner are the same that are inherent in a piece of computational art.

If the sublime is beyond representation then perhaps the best the artist can achieve is to invoke in their audience the sense of loss they feel when they seek, and fail, to identify and represent their subject. Is it this tragic evocation of loss that we then come to see as the representation of the sublime itself? Is it the crying of the absence of the sublime that becomes its signifier? If so then, following the insistent logic of desire for closure, the signifier comes to replace the thing itself as we come to accept that the referent can never be encapsulated. We thus have a sign where one of its essential component parts is an absence occupied by its other.

We have taken the sublime and rendered it relative to a symbolic universe and thus a space where we can represent, operate and, by extension, given the above arguments about the linguistic character of computers, compute it. It is true that in the process the sublime itself has had to be extinguished and replaced by a signifier formed in its absence, where the "shape" of our referent is only its outline, not formed from its substance. But perhaps this is the limit of representation, the limit of meaning? Perhaps all meaning is formed in this way? Beyond here the artist, and the computer as another instance of the linguistic, cannot venture. Only a longing can remain and, as has been argued above, if this can be represented then it can also be computed.

copyright Simon Biggs 2003