The Pandemic Sublime

Written by

László Munteán

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Now that staying home has become the new norm, the bulk of my contact with the outside world is channeled through the screen and the microphone of my laptop. Within the confines of the home, the Internet remains an umbilical cord to information, social life, and entertainment. Overwhelmed, frustrated, and at once obsessed with the visual culture of the pandemic burgeoning online, I am intrigued by the proliferation of drone videos featuring cities under lockdown, featuring (in alphabetical
order) Boston, Budapest, Chicago, Istanbul, Mumbai, New York, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, and San Francisco. The most recent one is a 48-mintue superbly edited footage of New York augmented by a moving soundtrack resembling cinematic establishing shots. There are many more out there and presumably even more to come in the near future. Regardless of the differences among these cities, the videos share an aesthetic repertoire, which employs soothingly uplifting music as an atmospheric background to panoramic views of empty streets forming embroidery patterns on a gigantic carpet unfolding without end. Viewers, including myself, are
mesmerized, as evidenced by the acclaim they receive on YouTube.

There is, however, nothing new about their aesthetic repertoire. The increasing affordability and ubiquity of ever more sophisticated personal drones had yielded a plethora of similar videos long before COVID-19. From the drone’s bird’s eye perspective, humans and traffic are rendered almost invisible, allowing the city to emerge as an artificial landscape dazzling in its variety of detail and at once fathomable from above. These drone videos celebrate cities in terms of what David Nye calls the ‘technological sublime’. Updating earlier conceptualizations of the sublime, Nye traces its manifestations in such emblems of American modernity as skyscrapers, railroads, bridges. As an example of the technological sublime, Nye also mentions Consolidated Edison’s City of Lights diorama of New York, which, at the 1939 World Fair, was the largest in the world. Similarly, urban drone videos also turn cities into a sublime artifact, human-made and at once beyond human scale, overwhelming and at once uplifting to survey from above.

The drone videos of cities besieged by the pandemic add a poignant edge to the technological sublime. The overwhelming sight of the modern city, which translates Kant’s dynamical and mathematical sublime into Babel-like visions of technological wonder, is here compromised by the invisible but overwhelming presence of the virus. The drone’s elevated perspective, otherwise enacting the Kantian transcendence of reason as key to the experience of the sublime, gestures to the technological sublime as a
nostalgic memory in the midst of angst and loss. Being at a safe remove from the threatening object, which Burke sees as indispensable for the experience of the sublime, is likewise illusory, uncannily recalling measures of social distancing, which has left streets vacant.

This is not to say, however, that the videos’ depressing context undermines the pleasure of viewing them. Quite the contrary, they cater to the kind of pleasure generally ascribed to the apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic imaginaries. Cinematic destructions of American metropolises in countless Hollywood blockbusters or the abandoned New York of I Am Legend (2007) all celebrate the greatness and beauty of these cities by way of fantasizing about their decay. Projected into the distant future, these (post-)apocalyptic imaginaries mobilize the technological sublime in an inverse fashion, generating a nostalgia for the present. But the cities under lockdown are neither ruined nor abandoned. The disaster at stake is no fantasy, it is not awesome but awful. If there is a ruin to be seen through the drones’ eyes, it is that of the liveliness of public space. What unfolds in front of our eyes is a diorama-city with a few ghostly passersby: distressing and yet stunningly beautiful. If these videos bring anything new, they do so by mapping a familiar aesthetic onto a new urban reality, eliciting the experience of a pandemic sublime.

The pandemic sublime taps into the daunting reality of the lockdown but it does so in a way that allows the city, captured in the vocabulary of the technological sublime, to take the upper hand. The sense of pleasure to be felt is not guaranteed by any spatial or temporal distance because the viewer, no matter where he or she watches these videos, remains at risk. Instead, the drone’s eye caters to the desire to leave the limits of the home, while the sight of abandoned streets foster a sense of togetherness in isolation. The pandemic sublime locates the source of threat in the unfathomable proportions of the pandemic and mobilizes the aerial view to
celebrate the city as a metonym for its inhabitants confined to their homes,
that is, those lucky enough to have homes to stay in, jobs to work at from a
distance, the technology to watch these videos, and the health to carry on.

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