The Apocalyptic Sublime
In May this year, the apocalyptic sublime flashed across our screens once more. This time, the video was of a beach house in North Carolina which found itself too close to the rising tide. In just a few seconds, the entire structure was sucked out onto the Atlantic Ocean, where it sat intact, bumped about by the occasional foamy breaker. As the video circulated, climate change’s sickening subtext trailed it to each destination, each new retweet. The most remarkable aspect of the video, however, was not the collapse but the integrity of the house, which remained almost completely whole as it floated into the water. There was little destruction or dismantling; like Dorothy’s ranch house in the tornado, its architecture bobbed atop natural disaster unchanged.
When the algorithms decided it was my time to see the clip, I felt nausea. Here was the mingled sense of both the house’s enormity—an entire home sunk to the seabed—and its opposite, the inconsequence of manmade life under all those fathoms of water. Here was a big thing made tiny by an enormous thing. Here, at last, was the feeling of one sublimity superseding another, a sight that only the terrifying novelties of climate change can produce, climate change being, after all, the phenomenon of magnificent forces destroying magnificent structures.
Below the video was tagged the house’s market price at the time of its destruction: $381,000 on Zillow. People were invoking the number out of irony, or even schadenfreude, but the number was more than a joke. In this moving image, one could see a real estate commodity plummet in value in real time; even more importantly, one could understand that the value of the house was not immutable, but contextual. From its precarious initial spot on the shore, to its eventual jostling by the grey waveline, the house stayed the same even as its value depleted. When does 381,000 become zero? Was it really that, in one moment and one circumstance, the house was worth hundreds of thousands, and in the next, nothing? Did the number dwindle as the tide approached?
“It is the camera lens that, like a laser,” wrote Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, “comes to pierce lived reality in order to put it to death.” Since its sly canonization by The Matrix franchise in the late ‘90s, Baudrillard’s book has been regarded as the ur-text of the postmodern image. His work, which benefited from the early glamour of hacker culture, posits a world in which image overtakes everyday reality—and consigns it to death. Hyperreality, where life is ruled by illusion, is a confusing place to be. Yet what some readers of Baudrillard forget—and this includes even The Matrix’s Wachowski sisters—is that simulacra represent no simple divide between artifice and the real. In fact, Baudrillard’s twist on what is otherwise a rather conventional gripe about society’s fakery is that, beneath fakery’s pall, reality itself has ceased to exist. Like the Borgesian map that covers so much territory it becomes the territory, society’s hyperreality is the “generation by models of a real without origin.” It is a surface cornucopia that bears no relation to any referent beyond it. A map without a territory. Or, to update the metaphor, a mask without a face.
Simulacra and Simulation was a critique launched from the left, by a French theorist with Situationist and Marxist leanings. Yet, its vision of a frenetic, over-stimulated world diverges from the approach of more orthodox Marxists on the question of illusion and non-reality. For Marx, living under capitalism by its very nature means living in an inverted reality. Hence his famous analogy in The German Ideology of the camera obscura, which, through the vagaries of light and geometry, projects a picture while flinging it upside down. Like Baudrillard, Marx reached for photography and the image as emblems of deception; unlike Baudrillard, however, he asserted the continued existence of a material reality alongside such false appearances. This was the reality of class conflict and alienated labor—a reality with little room in the Baudrillardian analysis, where industry and toil are crowded out by the ever-fickle simulacrum. In Baudrillard, the image always risks being untethered from its own material conditions.
What, then, do we do with a house floating on the ocean? An image whose reality—the arrival of climate change—can only be clarified, made sensible, by the surreality of its spectacle? Baudrillard would say we can’t do much: images no longer convey anything because their promiscuous purveyors live in a world evacuated of difference and meaning. We are swamped by photos and models, blueprints and holograms, screens skittering with neon coding text; within this sensorium it is impossible to act as a discerning critic. Invoking an analogy with the Möbius strip, whose contrast with the camera obscura is telling, Baudrillard describes how under capitalism “referentials combine their discourses in a circular, Möbian compulsion:” whereas once “the discourse on history derived its power from violently opposing itself to that of nature, today they exchange their signifiers and their scenarios.” All things literally equal, we now lack the narrative mechanisms for pitting human history against nature, for even distinguishing between the two. That is why Baudrillard concluded “there [could] no longer [be] an apocalypse” under postmodernity. If this kind of prophecy betrays Baudrillard’s too-blasé attitude towards real socioeconomic conditions—in 2022, many of us are feeling the reality of apocalypse, or at least its imminence—it does tell us something about why, decades later, we have found it so hard to make or believe art about climate change. The apocalypse cannot be real because the signs we might use to describe it are deadened, shaved down by hyperreality into fungible nubs of non-meaning.
For Baudrillard, this ceaseless overgrowth of dumb signs has made it such that even tangible commodities—those anchoring justifications of capitalist reality—lose their power. Like the non-differentiated sign, the individuality of the commodity has been reduced to an equivalence with all other objects on the market since, in order to be purchasable, objects must surrender their distinctions and their material uniqueness by taking on exchange value, that uniform metric expressed via money. Everything is bartered for on the same, dismal plateau, such that postwar capitalism becomes inimical to the pleasure that its spectacles, simulations, and jaunty displays of leisure promise. Anhedonia reigns over the loss of the commodity’s use value in favor of its exchange value, a process that necessarily induces in the individual “a homogeneous human and mental flux,” an “immense to-and-fro movement similar to that of suburban commuters.” From the starting point of the image we arrive at the telos of the four-door sedan, that symbol of total American homogeneity.
Much like his contemporary Guy Debord, Baudrillard seized upon the subjugation of use-value to exchange-value—singular material being to abstract market logic—as the central processes of capitalism. It is striking, however, that this conclusion relied so much on the theoretical leveraging of the image, as well as a certain kind of work that the image has historically performed within Western philosophy, for which the anti-image diatribe is hardly a new pastime. In this tradition, the image is forever the conventional harbinger of artifice. It is the slant shadow of truth, or truth’s untrustworthy byproduct and malignant cousin. The question is why the image continues to play this role in our thinking when the commodity itself—which preexists the postmodern image, and circulates at least partially outside its remit—is already such a phantasmic and duplicitous object. If, for Debord, the “spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people,” one could say the same thing about the commodity itself, which has already, per Marx, seductively intervened to mediate between individuals. The image in postmodernity is taken to epitomize the manipulations of capitalism, but the effect of such an assumption is the receding of the commodity from the scope of critique. We forget its maddening power, along with the way its “untruth” changes meaning in relationship to the untruth of the image—a relationship, one should say, not always without tension or possibility.
The internet does many things with the commodity. Foremost, there are the twin imperatives of buying and selling, as well as the attendant circus of subsidiary verbs: advertising, influencing, vlogging, data mining. We are by now well-acquainted with how these strategies for profit scramble and reconfigure our algorithms. What is remarkable, however, is that second only to our consumption of these objects is our desire to watch them be destroyed—or at the very least mishandled— on the same platforms. The viral fascination with the North Carolina house is a case in point, even though the house was not taken apart so much as placed at a radical departure from any possibility of sale—literally cast out to sea. But generally, it would not be outlandish to say that the most popular online images of commodities are either ones where their value is being lovingly touted or annihilated. A search on YouTube or other platforms brings up thousands of videos of people destroying their belongings and electronics—with sledgehammers, with industrial-grade shredders, with “the world’s strongest laser pointer.” On YouTube, the video “What Happens if You Shoot an iPhone 6?” has 25 million views. Somebody else has filmed themselves “Microwaving a Microwave” (11 million views). These videos bespeak something more, I think, than a special brand of American destructiveness or consumerist death drive: they are satisfying to watch in the ways they manipulate and transform their items, in their sensory qualities of texture, color and elasticity. They are, in other words, aesthetic.
Hydraulic press videos, which show various objects getting crushed by an industrial piston, have recently emerged as a new favorite genre via TikTok. Though these videos are easy crowd-pleasers, the clips themselves vary in type: in some, the pay-off is a kind of oozing motion—the viewers see a teddy bear get lethargically flattened into stuffing, or a rubber toy pressed beyond its conceivable outlines; in others, the outcome is more shocking: the pop and bang of a plastic object bursting into shards. Here, under the hydraulic press, one is reminded of the commodity’s conditionality. These objects have only achieved their form because of the labor undertaken against their physical materials, and that form can easily be reversed, returned to the original assemblage of plastic or textile or whatever other initial ingredients. As both Baudrillard and Marx recognized, it is easy to forget that our material world—a world in which natural and human resources are manipulated so that homes and garbage dumps can be flooded with things like fidget spinners—is not in its final or most logical stage. The shapes that we select from when we purchase things are artificial ones: and always, under the impassive surface of the toy or water bottle, is the actual substance of its make-up, a substance with the potential to be reworked into any other thing. In a counterintuitive manner, the reality in which we live is malleable, amenable to human finagling. Capitalism, by promoting its products as if they were as unassuming and given as features of the natural landscape, forces us to forget this. But the extreme sensory impact of the destruction wrought by the hydraulic press is a reminder. These videos help us see what the commodity is made of, and that its form—like all forms—is precarious, threatened constantly by the prospect of its own un-doing. Objects are only commodities sometimes, and the commodity is only ever a slight and temporary interloper within a grander physical world.
If not as violent, videos dedicated to ASMR—short for autonomous sensory meridian response, the tingling feeling supposedly conjured by the sounds of people intently handling different objects—offer a similar set of thrills. As Maru Pabón has written in Momus magazine, “few contemporary cultural forms have as strange a relationship to the commodity as ASMR, where the value of an object is dictated not by brand or status, but by the sounds it produces when tapped on, scraped, and rubbed against a microphone.” This is the object in its material fullness; not as mere exchange-value, but pure use-value. As Marx wrote, use-value is defined by the “physical properties of the commodity,” and this is the dictum that the ASMR vlogger fulfills. In ASMR, the user must understand the delicate nuances that physically differentiate one hijacked commodity from another. They must interact with the spongey fullness of the entity they hold.
Capitalist exchange value allows for the most unlike objects to be made comparable—apples, oranges and Yamaha motorcycles, all are as one on the marketplace. In the process, the object as an individual thing, with its “physical properties,” ceases to matter—it is only ever related to other objects, not to the human it comes into contact with or that human’s needs. Perhaps another way of saying this is that the worker in the realm of labor is often thrown, repeatedly, back onto an extremely pained relationship with their body; because of the workday’s requirements, even the most white-collar worker is unable to forget their body, the effect of capital on sore feet, arthritic hands, crunched spines. When the worker becomes a consumer, however, their body is no longer of any import. What is compelling about the commodity is its exchange value—its ranking amid a market hierarchy of goods—rather than its use value, i.e. the things that commodity can do for the aching or bored body. Amid a flux of ontologically empty goods, or a feed of commodities that only ever acquire meaning through each other in the relational fluctuations of status or trendiness, the worker-consumer never finds a symbiotic or fulfilling relation between their bodies and the material world. Hence capitalism’s well-known proclivity to create in the consumer new needs which, like the old needs, can never actually be sated.
This is all very sinister, and in many cases, the ruinous triumph, of exchange value and disembodied consumerism has already been completed online, where video hauls and five second clips present objects as if they could circulate in endless equivalence with each other; the Instagrammic scroll that renders things into a vacuum-sealed and bloodless litany of signs would make Baudrillard swoon if he were alive to see it. But in some ways, the internet also activates sensory responses to objects that go beyond exchange value, that foreground the commodity as a set of material components which may, in fact, reawaken the body to the matter surrounding it. On the internet, then, we find an increasing polarization between objects represented as pure exchange-value and pure use-value. ASMR, TikTok, and floating houses do something of the latter—by showing us only the imagistic form of these objects, and withholding their more mind-numbing and tangible pleasures, the online photo reacquaints us with a material world outside capitalist production. Paradoxically, the disembodied image, which usually puts us at automatic remove, awakens the body’s possible responses to the object. It takes us beyond the abstract plane of price; it reacquaints us with matter.
When you hold a commodity in your hand, it is easy to forget the many other hands that also once held and made and transported the object, as well as the fact that the commodity’s exchange value emerges from the specific and unnatural context of its position in relation to all other values on the market. The struggle to parse the totality of the commodity’s origins and contexts recalls, in a strange manner, a different kind of encounter: that between viewer and image. Like the image, the commodity seems to be a frozen, unchanging thing, even though, like the image, its meaning depends on its context.
It is maybe no coincidence then that we speak of form in regard to both—both the “commodity form” of the object and the “formal qualities” of the image gesture beyond themselves, towards some vague essence in each. Traditional aesthetics holds that the form is defined by a sense of purposiveness—there is a design at work behind the form, though the design does not seem to be purely utilitarian—as well as the form’s separation from its external surroundings; the form necessarily renders a line between itself and its context, what is inside versus outside its bounds. Crucially, for the form to work best as form, its context must actually become background, that which is made subordinate to the form’s workings or simply invisible. This is where the trouble begins with the commodity and the image; in their materialization as forms, they both rely on contexts that they simultaneously obscure or disavow. I purchase and cherish a commodity while disregarding the entire system of production and circulation that makes the purchase and its value possible; I interpret an image while often forgetting, or taking as given, the systems of meaning-making and cultural production that allow for its intelligibility.
Could we say, then, that the prioritization of form is detrimental—almost hostile—to the recollection of context? If we did, we would not be the first. Indeed, formal analysis has often been taken as an anti-political distraction or bourgeois salve for psyches incapable of grasping larger, more worldly contradictions: the small, beautiful thing has always been pitted by critical voices against the forgotten social reality. Still, it seems important to note that form is able to reduce and disarm our awareness of context only because awareness of context is so difficult to maintain; it depends on the comprehension of something intangible and hulking in the background, of that which necessarily exists outside the lines. And the rub: any overarching network of conditions—but especially those of global capitalism—is one we ourselves are implicated in and shaped by. We live and move in the same context that produces the forms we espy. No wonder we would rather see the form by itself. Isolated, it is a tiny and pleasurable thing, to be palmed and inspected. To zoom out, to see its environment and our place in it, would require us to see ourselves as if from a birds-eye view. Such an analysis—whether of political economy or the historical and personal meanings that lead to an aesthetic experience—renders us subordinate and part of something baggy and bigger than us. Our mental capabilities reel from such a proposition; if, for Kant, the beauty of the form involves the subjects’ inward delight at the play of her own perceptive faculties, then the ugliness of totality requires something opposite to it—a rejection of interiority, and a grasping of the self (and the self’s place in the world) as if from the outside. This is perhaps capitalism’s most difficult lesson in aesthetic appreciation.
In 1995, the artist Allen Sekula described this challenge in photographic terms, writing that modern technology and the intensifying complexity of global capitalism had brought about the demise of the panorama. For Sekula, “panorama” meant both the immersive oil paintings of early 19th century Europe—which, displayed in cylindrical buildings and viewed by platforms, cast for their audiences an illusion of complete immersion—as well as any perspective that opens onto a complete and coherent view of something. Modernity, in Sekula’s analysis, was the fraught passage from the panorama to the tiny detail. This line holds that our world is far more complex, and thus difficult to imagine, than the more pastoral times before industrial capitalism and mass production; as tools of war and trade evolved and multiplied, penetrating into evermore secluded spaces, an all-comprehensive view of their existence became a “phenomenological impossibility.” Yet it’s also true that we find it difficult to visualize totality for reasons that are aesthetic, rather than just political and technological. Our training and reflexes, rooted as they are in indulgent understandings of the viewer as the meaning-giving locus of an aesthetic encounter—as well as the isolated form as the preeminent site of identification—cancel certain crucial perspectives: we must always be, in our confrontations with the world, the “main characters:” the viewers who are not just at the interior but at the center of experience. To acquire a fuller picture would mean detaching ourselves from the ego-driven imperative of perspective.
Sekula was familiar with this aesthetic problem but also believed it could be resisted, which is why, even as he spent his career writing about the bourgeois ideologies of photography, he continued to take pictures. They were often photos of places on earth criss-crossed and traversed by capital’s slickest pathways: shipping lines on the ocean, maquilas in Mexico, an aerospace manufacturing plant. By aestheticizing them, his camera transformed these capitalist objects into jumbles of shapes, lines, forms. Always, the goal of Sekula’s photographs was to keep both form and context in the foreground, to show how objects exist only by virtue of the systems through which they travel. An exemplary photo, taken by the artist sometime between 1998 and 2000, shows what seems to be a cargo ship lodged into the sand of a beach in Istanbul. A solitary worker shovels gravel before it; something has clearly gone wrong, a minor disaster in the maritime workings of capital has occurred. The image is a surreal inversion of the North Carolina mishap (a ship on land, a house in water), but crucially, it is also one in which the battle between form and context is forfeited—the eye moves between the ship and the sand, unable to prioritize either, because it is their relation that makes the photo matter. The worker in front rounds out the trifecta of form, context, observer—all live inside the picture, inside the system.
Sekula’s work was not journalism or touristic documentary—it was art, and treated as such. Through his image-making, the commodity was compressed into the planar two-dimensionality of the photograph, made flat, linear, diagonal and unnatural. Today, we see a slight extension of his work in the colossal, technicolor photographs of Andreas Gursky, who, in pieces that sometimes reach 15 feet tall, captures and catalogs the vastness of capitalist flows: infinite rows of grocery aisles stretching back to some mathematically impossible horizon, the nauseatingly fine grain of the endless floor of the Chicago stock exchange. It seems important to note here that Gursky often edits his images in post-production, creating and multiplying layers digitally, seemingly proving the accuracy of Sekula’s prophecy. We cannot view the panorama anymore—we’re forced to render it in Photoshop, for better or for worse. Still, the image allows us to at least gesture to the totality we live in, a totality depicted with none of the perspectivism of traditional Renaissance painting. Confronted with the staggering flatness of Gursky’s work, the viewer finds no organic line of eyesight or point of entry; she is not the locus around which the photograph orients its geometry. This new type of aesthetic encounter swats away the viewing subject-protagonist, telling us that if there are such things as panoramas, we are always tiny etchings inside of them—we can never live above or beyond their stretch. The realization may feel hopeless, but it also induces a radical attempt by the mind to perceive capitalist categories in a fashion that is both sensory and less immediate. The things that stock capitalism’s inventory are overwhelming but not benumbing—they electrify the senses, stealing away our attention.
One of the capitalist categories that so numbs us to objects is, of course, money, which in capitalism becomes a self-perpetuating agent, a commodity sought after in its own right. Marx described this universal form of exchange as if, “in addition to lions, tigers, hares, and all other really existing animals which together constitute … the animal kingdom, the animal would also exist, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom.” This idea of one real, living ur-Animal is almost chilling, but it speaks to the way concepts dominate not just economic but mental life. If capitalism funnels our approach to objects through very specific trammels (buy, sell, covet), it also makes our thinking lazier. We relate primarily to objects through their exchange value and commensurability with other things; forgetting their sensuous and sensory existence as singular entities, we only see dollar signs. The apotheosis of this is the fetishitic tendency to believe value is innate to a commodity, a static thing that the object can incubate or offer up.
In contrast, the most interesting commodity images on the internet often exist at a convergence of two tendencies: the first is to disqualify the object’s value as it is normally understood, either by destroying or misusing it; the second is to locate the object in a disruptive context. It does not seem like a coincidence that these tendencies are frequently present together. Only by seeing an object beyond its normal capitalist categorization can we be in touch with its uniqueness as a material thing, and only by appreciating an object in its aesthetic sense—a disinterested sense—can we see it as something other than a rote placeholder for exchange value. A sensory response, after all, is also an aesthetic response, aesthetics being the realm of the body and mind’s vague attunement to external forms. Through its various strategies—framing, flattening, isolating—the aesthetic removes the commodity from exploitative circuits of production and consumption, depositing it in front of us as a new and strange thing.
The North Carolina clip plucks a moment out of the daily onslaught of climate wreckage and in turn defamiliarizes one of the most common, grounding assumptions of capitalist life: property value. We are made to see the house as a physical form first, and thus as something whose value is only ever fluctuating or contingent, based on the correct context (i.e., not being at the bottom of the ocean). The artist Kader Attia does something similar with his Museum of Repair, which collects and displays objects that have been conspicuously broken and patched back together—showing us the object while, in his words, “keeping the wound visible.” These possessions, which are photographed and catalogued, often come from former French colonies: masks and busts that countenance, in their seamed lines of repair, the trace of imperial violence. Yet Attia’s curation of them also means we see them anew. Rather than objects that we might unproblematically regard as having “lost value” because of their damage, we are gently instructed to recognize visible signs of the human work that pieced them back together. Attia says that the attempt to hide an object’s brokenness is “the denial of [its] injury,” just as the initial shape of the commodity, in its separation from the manufacturing process, comes from a denial of its inaugurating labor. By aestheticizing the “wound” and the object, by making clear that its value is not an innate quality but something given and regiven by human beings, Attia denies the denial.
While describing the onset of hyperreality, Baudrillard spoke of the paradoxical death of advertising: when there is no longer any real social realm, the “exaltation of an object by an image” becomes impossible, precisely because there is no object that truly preexists the ad—only a “vertigo of simulacra.” The commodity cannot maintain a relation to the image: both are pressed into the service of meaningless exchange. “There is no longer a staging of the commodity,” wrote Baudrillard ominously, “there is only its obscene and empty form.”
Simulacra and Simulation was ultimately a theory of a Fall from an ontologically secure world to one made spectacular and unreal. This is perhaps the main reason we should be skeptical of its message. As theories of Falls often strike unhelpful notes of nostalgia; a time in which commodities were sumptuously and faithfully advertised is nothing to mourn. And, if the commodity has indeed been evacuated of substance, one might, instead of mourning, ask what we should do with its husk: should we multiply it, destroy it, photograph it? Can we work to somehow reveal its conditionality, its origin in human labor and social estimations of value? Western philosophy has always denigrated surface as the patinated opposite of truth, but on the surface is where changes of perspective occur. When we live in a world marked by the capitalist impulse to devour and metabolize real life, obscene and empty forms may actually help us. We might try to see through them to something new, or something we’ve known all along.
Zoe Hu is a PhD student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center