American Technological Sublime: Our Civil Religion

"Suspended Power"

David Nye, the author of Electrifying America which I cited a handful of times in the past month or so, is also the author American Technological Sublime (1995), a classic work in the history of technology. Except that it is not a work of history in the strict disciplinary sense. Nye draws promiscuously from other fields — citing for example Burke, Kant, Durkheim, Barthes and Baudrillard among others — to present a wide ranging and insightful study into the American character.

The concept of the technological sublime was not original to Nye. It had first been developed by Perry Miller, a prominent mid-twenieth century scholar of early American history, in his study The Life of the Mind in America. There Miller noted in passing the almost religious veneration that sometimes attended the experience of new technologies in the early republic.

Miller found that in the early nineteenth century “technological majesty” had found a place alonside the “starry heavens above and the moral law within to form a peculiarly American trinity of the Sublime.” Taking the steamboat as an illustration, Miller suggests that technology’s cultural ascendancy was abetted by a decidedly non-utilitarian aspect of awe and wonder bordering on religious reverence. “From the beginning, down to the great scenes of Mark Twain,” Miller explains, “the steamboat was chiefly a subject of ecstasy for its sheer majesty and might, especially for its stately progress at night, blazing with light through the swamps and forests of Nature.”

Leo Marx, who I’ve also mentioned here of late, also employed the technological sublime, but again in passing. It fell to David Nye, a student of Marx’s, to develop a book length treatment of the concept. Nye looks to Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant in order fill out the concept of the sublime, but it is apparent from the start that Nye is less interested in the philosopher’s solitary experience of the sublime in the presence of natural wonders than he is in the popular and often collective experience of the sublime in the presence of technological marvels.

Nye, with a historian’s eye for interesting and compelling sources, weaves together a series of case studies that demonstrate the wonder, awe, and not a little trepidation that attended the appearance of the railroads, the Brooklyn bridge, the Hoover Dam, the factory, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, the atomic bomb, and the moon landing. Through these case studies Nye demonstrates how Americans have responded to certain technologies, either because of their scale or their dynamism, in a manner that can best be described by the category of the sublime. And perhaps more importantly, he argues that this experience of the technological sublime laced throughout American history has acted as a thread stitching together the otherwise diverse and divided elements of American society.

If the philosophers provided Nye with the terminology to name the phenomenon, he takes his interpretative framework from the sociologists of religion. Nye’s project is finally indebted more to Emile Durkheim than to either Burke or Kant. Nye notes early on that “because of its highly emotional nature, the popular sublime was intimately connected to religious feeling.” Later he observes that the American sublime was “fused with religion, nationalism, and technology” and ceased to be a “philosophical idea” instead it “became submerged in practice.”

This emphasis on practice is especially important to Nye’s overall thesis and it is on the practices surrounding the technological sublime that he concentrates his attention. For example, with each new sublime technology he discusses, Nye explores the public ceremonies that attended its public reception. The 1939 World’s Fair, to take another example, appears almost liturgical in Nye’s exposition with its carefully choreographed exhibitions featuring religiously intoned narration and a singular vision for a utopian future.

This attention to practices and ceremonies was signaled at the outset when Nye cited David Kertzer’s “Neo-Durkheimian view” that “ritual can produce bonds of solidarity without requiring uniformity of belief.” This functionalist view of religious ritual informs Nye’s analysis of the technological sublime throughout. In Nye’s story, the particular technologies are almost irrelevant. They are significant only to the degree that they gather around themselves a set of practices. And these practices are important to the degree that they serve to unify the body politic in the absence of shared blood lines or religion.

All told, Nye has written a book about a secular civil religion focused on sublime technologies and he has presented a convincing case. Absent the traditional elements that bind a society together, the technological sublime provided Americans a set of shared experiences and categories around which a national character could coalesce.

Nye has woven a rich, impressive narrative that draws technology and religion together to help explain the American national character. There’s a great deal I’ve left out that Nye develops. For example: the evolving relationship of reason to nature and technology as mediated through the sublime or the diminishing active role of citizens, and especially laborers, in the public experience of the technological sublime. But these, in my view, are minor threads.

The take-away insight is that Americans blended, almost seamlessly, their religious affections with their veneration for technology until finally the experience of technology took on the unifying role of religion in traditional societies. Historically American’s have been divided by region, ethnicity, race, religion, and class. American share no blood lines and they have no ancient history in their land. What they have possessed, however, is a remarkable faith in technological progress that his been periodically rekindled by one sublime technology after another all the way to the space shuttle program and its final mission.

The question I’m left with is this: What happens when the technological sublime runs dry? As Nye points out, it is, unlike the natural sublime, a non-renewable sublime. In other words, the sublime response wears off and must find another object to draw it out. If Nye is right — and I do think it is possible to overreach so I want to be careful — there is not much else that serves as well as the technological sublime to bind American society together. Perhaps then, part of our recent sense of unraveling, our heightened sense of disunity, the so called culture wars — perhaps these are accentuated by the withdrawal of the technological sublime. Perhaps, but that would take another book to explore.

“Suspended Power”

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