The Pandemic Sublime

Written by

László Munteán


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.

The Sounds of a Lockdown

Written by Vincent Meelberg


These are interesting times. Not only because of the new social normal that we are experiencing right now, which includes social distancing, but also because of the environmental consequences this has. Pollution of all kinds seems to diminish as this situation continues. For instance, there has been a dramatic drop in pollution across China because of the quarantine measures taken by the Chinese government, and it is expected that similar developments will happen in Europe as well. In fact, cities such as Venice, Italy, already experience the beneficial environmental effects that are a result of the city being on lockdown.

Another kind of pollution that urban life is confronted with is acoustic pollution, also known as noise. Noise are those sounds that are considered as unwanted by particular listeners in a specific context. For instance, a sequence of sounds can be considered music in one context, say by a
listener attending a concert, but noise in another, when that same listener is at home at night trying to sleep while their neighbour is playing that same music from their stereo. In normal circumstances urban environments are filled with sounds that many may interpret as noise. The current situation, however, has resulted urban life being devoid of many of those sounds. This means that the urban auditory environment has changed
completely because of the lockdowns.

An auditory environment can be defined as the totality of the actual sounds that can be perceived in a space, as well as the manner in which this space transforms, blocks, or amplifies these sounds. Such an environment may in itself be objective and measurable, but the ways it is experienced by its inhabitants is not. The Canadian sound researcher and sound artist Barry
Truax uses the term “soundscape”, which he borrowed from R. Murray Schafer, to refer to the experience of an auditory environment. A soundscape can be defined as a relation between individuals and their auditory environment, as an environment of sound with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by an individual, or by a society. A soundscape is listener-centred and acknowledges the subjective bonds between listeners and the auditory environment that surrounds them. Consequently, there are as many listeners as there are soundscapes.

The term “soundscape” was originally developed within the World Soundscape Project led by Schafer as an analogue to “landscape” to denote the collection of sounds in an environment. Some of these sounds can be considered natural “keynotes”, which are sounds that arise from the overall geography of a specific area. In addition, a distinction can be made between “hi-fi” and “lo-fi” soundscapes. Hi-fi soundscapes are those soundscapes that are relatively quiet with a wide amplitude range where it is possible to hear a large amount of detail. Lo-fi soundscapes, on the other hand, are loud and noisy, and generally consist of sounds produced by man-made machinery, masking any sonic detail that may be present as well. The cities that are under lockdown have thus exchanged their lo-fi soundscapes for hi-fi ones.

In line with Schafer’s distinction between hi-fi and lo-fi soundscapes, auditory environments reflecting human activity are generally perceived as more pleasant than environments where mechanical sounds are predominant. Listeners generally consider natural sounds such as birdsong and running water as positive soundscapes, and sounds such as traffic noise or construction sounds as negative or unpleasant. Other experiments corroborate these observations. In these experiments sounds of nature, birds, and “other people,” with the exception of angry people, some noises neighbours may make, and cellular phone use were labelled as pleasurable. Sounds produced by cars, traffic, and construction work, however, were considered unpleasant.

Cities under lockdown have auditory environments that are devoid of many of those so-called unpleasant sounds. At first sight, this may be considered a positive thing, and allows for opportunities to create new sounds, such as communal singing. It is quite wonderful to listen to the sounds of a city under lockdown.

Yet, the reason why the urban soundscape has become more hi-fi is
less positive, though. Despite the fact that a hi-fi landscape may be one that provides calmness and rest, the soundscape of a city under lockdown may still be experienced by its inhabitants as stress-inducing, precisely because it reminds them of the pandemic and the devastating consequences it has for many of us. In this sense, it could even be said that silence is the new noise, as silence is now considered as unwanted (absence of) sound.

We can, however, also see this situation as an opportunity. An opportunity to listen more carefully again, not only to the sounds of the city,
but also to your own record collection, for instance. Instead of treating your music as auditory wallpaper during your commute to work, school, or university, give it the attention it deserves. Now that we are  confined to our homes, why not fill them with the most wonderful sounds in the world and actually pay attention?