Awe Evolving: Transforming Notions of Awe in the Digital Age | Greg Bayles

Introduction

Recent years have witnessed a burgeoning in the study of awe. The introduction of digital technologies into this question as to the nature of awe has added significantly to the body of literature and works available in codifying the elusive “eleventh emotion,” as Paul Pearsall calls it. The Internet is providing mankind with opportunities to more fully immerse himself in awe, and in fact, Jeffrey Davis, who writes Psychology Today‘s “Tracking Wonder,” argues that within the digital age, “no other human emotion is being as pervasively experienced . . . as wonder and its related faces of astonishment, surprise, and sublime terror.” Certainly, in its vast creative potential, the digital age is opening the doors to awe and providing new means whereby individuals can dwell in wonder.

However, many have expressed concern about the potential for the digital to overtake mankind’s natural or traditional notions of awe. That’s certainly a possibility, but used properly, digital media formats can have the opposite effect, enriching and enhancing our experiences with awe and giving us new access to wonder through digitally native media content. While some find issue with the idea of trying to find awe through “non-real” forms—that is, purely digital media formats—the trend of increasing “non-reality” and abstraction seems to be more so the product of the age rather than the medium. What if we were to say that the Internet is simply the next step in a gradual progression that has led mankind further and further from natural and intrinsic sources of wonder and closer to more synthetic, abstract, and virtual forms of awe? The reality is that we are experiencing a transformation of the way in which we experience awe, and while we necessarily move toward an understanding of awe that is not only more abstract in some ways but in some regards less real, our capacity to experience awe remains the same as we actively implement modern technologies in creating new experiences with awe. As society evolves to be able to meditate upon increasingly complex social, artistic, and philosophical values and issues, so also must our modes of expression and conveyance necessarily take on abstraction as a way of accommodating for the ever-complicating human narrative.

 

A Critical Perspective on Awe

Truly understanding the notion of awe within the digital age requires a critical context for the study of awe. The John Templeton Foundation, which in 2010 funded a vast body of research on awe and wonder, provides a foundational definition for and commentary on awe:

The experience of awe and wonder has been described in literature and scripture, depicted in art, and attested to in the experiences of countless individuals. It is the characteristic human response to any number of larger realities, from the beauty and violence of the natural world, to tremendous feats of body and mind, to our understanding of perceived encounters with the divine. Awe and wonder express our longing and our uncertainty, our fascination and our terror. They point to the transcendent and to the limits of being human (“Understanding Awe and Wonder”).

This definition, however, comes following thousands of years of discussion on the topic of awe. Longinus and Immanuel Kant provide perhaps the most influential foundations for the modern understanding of awe or the sublime. Longinus’s On the Sublime represents the earliest study of awe, though admittedly the terms awe and sublime may be viewed in different lights. This being acknowledged, Longinus proposes that all great works essentially partake of the same quality of hypsous or sublimity which elevates the individual from a rational to a nonrational or extra-rational state. Although the individual is generally capable of regulating his rational faculties, sublime works effect an ekstasis or transport of sorts—an out of rational mind experience that allows for the formation of new bridges of understanding.

Kant’s notion of the mathematical and dynamic sublime tends toward the same process. In his Critique of Judgement, Kant writes that under normal conditions, the imaginative faculty processes sensory data subjectively and with it thus constructs a subjective world. The sublime, then, is that quality of an object or idea which surpasses the individual’s ability to apprehend or intuit it in time and space. The object or impression of the object is sublime in the literal or etymological sense of the word—it is beyond the threshold of man’s representational faculty in its capacity to outpace the mind’s ability to process sensory data. Awe then takes mankind beyond the representational limit of his senses and overpowers his imaginative faculty, thus inviting (and in some sense necessitating) new modes of perception and expression.

More contemporary studies of awe have defined it in a similar fashion, suggesting that awe in some sense serves in disrupting and reconfiguring the mental and imaginative faculties. Kelly Bulkeley, for example, writes in The Wondering Brain that a primary means of creating awe is in disrupting the self narrative, or the mental paradigm that man uses to define his own existence and his place in the world. “One of the ways we elicit wonder,” Bulkeley writes, “is by scrambling the self temporarily so the world can seep in.” In a similar vein, Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker suggest that awe redefines mankind’s mental landscape to accommodate for and eventually encompass that which is external to or non-compatible with his experiential base. “[A]we stimulates a need for accommodation; that is, it alters one’s understanding of the world . . . so that events that expand one’s usual frame of reference. . . stimulate new mental models” (1130). Awe is “our most connective emotion,” according to psychologist Paul Pearsall, and its connective potential allows mankind to foster new mental and creative paradigms around which to build his understanding of the world (xix). Based on this broadening and connective potential of awe, it is no surprise, then, that mankind has sought out increasingly abstracted modes of philosophical and metaphysical inquiry and expression in his exploration of the eleventh emotion.

Art itself is, in some sense, a source of synthetic awe, it drawing upon natural or ritualistic awe for its content and symbolic substance. It makes sense, then, that digital forms of art would be able to partake of the same spirit of awe in inspiring wonder within their viewers.

The question remains, however, of what the central purpose of awe really is within art. Certainly, the capacity to broaden mental paradigms is important, but it would be folly to suggest that this is the sole purpose for so dynamic and powerful an emotion as awe. Nicolas Humphrey, an English psychologist, sees this connective potential as one contributing to the meaningful progression of mankind as a whole, suggesting that this formation of new associations and states of mind plays a role in the purposeful progression of society. In Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Humphrey writes that awe is essentially an evolutionary adaptation and that it was favored in mankind because it gave him a sense of cosmic purpose or progression—a sense that his life meant something in the grand scheme of the universe and that he, as both an individual and as a social being, was moving toward the fulfillment of some grand “self narrative.” Awe in some sense invites us to reinvent our notions of “self” and “the other” as we attempt to take in and make sense of the world around us. But wherein is that awe founded?

 

A Purpose for Awe and Art

Awe in art has been used for a variety of purposes, ranging from propaganda to social commentary to commemoration of important people or events. Historically, though, art draws heavily upon ritualistic meaning in its efforts to create awe in the viewer. Charlotte Jirousek discusses this notion in greater detail in “The Evolution of Visual Art in the Modern Era”: “[T]he oldest purpose of art,” she writes, “is as a vehicle for religious ritual.” Based on this evaluation, it would seem that art in some sense serves as a means of preserving the awe that is felt during religious or ritualistic experiences. Dacher Keltner puts in differently in Born to Be Good, suggesting that in fact, “[o]ur capacity for awe has given us art” (emphasis mine, 265). The earliest paintings and writing systems found their roots in the complexity of humanity’s interactions with the divine—with that which was beyond human comprehension—and art served as a point of access to those subliminal concepts. The work of art, in approaching these religious topics and ideas, invites the mind into a new state of possibility and conditions the individual for experiences with the sublime or the awesome. Clearly, not all art attempts to approach the divine: Keltner suggests that especially in the West, “awe has been liberated” from its previous dependency on religious structures and symbols (254). But at least in its infancy, art was an attempt to concretize the abstract and of divinity give bodily form to that which lacked physical representation.

But if, in fact, people are falling prey to this epidemic of awe deficiency, is it really the result of the media format, or is it indicative of a larger trend in the ways that we consume and appreciate artwork?

The problem with such a notion, however, is that the act of representation is, by its very nature, a process of abstraction. This is a thought that Plato discusses in great length in works such as Ion or The Republic, stating in essence that each level of separation from the original object or idea represents a degree of abstraction. The natural world, in Plato’s view, is a mimetic copy of the Ideal Form, and each attempt to filter these forms through the mind and creative faculties of man necessarily distances the subject from the true nature of the ideal form. It takes him further and further from reason and allows him to “indulge the irrational nature” (Republic 36). If, though, as Kant proposes, awe is an out of rational mind experience, an ekstasis, or is, as Descartes puts it, “the first of all the passions,” then Plato’s notion that mimetic abstraction takes mankind away from reason and “feeds and waters the passions” can only lead us to the conclusion that the forms most capable in effecting such an ekstasis or in overpowering the senses with emotion are best able to elicit profound experiences with awe (Passions II.53, emphasis mine; 37). This becomes especially important in light of the representational and sensory potential of modern media formats and hints at their potential as powerful vehicles for awe.

 

A Critique of Digital Awe

The purpose of this paper is not, however, to say that all or even a grand majority of digital interactions are awe-inspiring. Nor is it to say that traditional avenues to awe are blocked off to mankind. Rather, it proposes that the ways in which we think about and experience awe are shifting more and more in the direction of the digital, and those individuals best able to understand and influence the digital world will be those most able to experience and create genuine moments of awe using these novel forms. This being said, many have expressed apprehension at the idea of new media formats overtaking or overpowering the wonder that mankind experiences through more traditional sources of awe like religion or nature. Some have even expressed doubt as to the potential of such media formats to convey a genuine form of awe.

Whereas awe has been linked with positive mental function and an overall sense of meaning or grand narrative in life, the digital age is one characterized by rampant anxiety and depression

For Walter Benjamin, a 20th-century German critic of the Frankfurt school, the new media format of the day was film, though he spoke more generally of all mechanically reproducible media forms. Benjamin suggests that while awe is something to be sought after in art and in everyday life, there exist certain degenerate or diminished forms of awe in massively reproducible media formats. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin proposes that essentially, the awe or “aura” of an object is, in fact, associated with its uniqueness and its ritualistic quality, and as soon as either of those is compromised (especially in being reproduced), the object or idea loses its unique quality and is deprived of its aura. This proves an especial problem in the digital age, wherein objects are not only reproduced to a seemingly infinite degree but where they are removed from their native element in physicality and represented instead through a purely digital mode. According to Benjamin’s logic, those works of art or scenes of nature that might have, in physicality, instilled within mankind a sincere sense of awe, impress upon him only a diminished sense of awe, their aura having been forfeited and their novelty having been drowned in an endless sea of information and media.

Heidegger offers up a somewhat different critique of mass media, suggesting that the emotion experienced as part of mass media is not in fact that of awe but of curiosity. If wonder is, according to Heidegger, a “basic disposition […] that transports [us] into the beginning of genuine thinking and thoroughly determines it,” then the feelings one experiences in partaking of mass media qualify as one of any number of “false forms of wonder,” including amazement, admiration, and astonishment (quoted in Stone 6; Stone 7). Instead of moving toward true awe and that bourn of genuine thought to which Heidegger makes reference, man is left seeking out, as it were, novelties and curios on his curious quest for novelty.

Literary critics like Benjamin and Heidegger, however, are not the only ones to point to mass media as a potential problem area as pertaining to awe. For example, whereas awe has been linked with positive mental function and an overall sense of meaning or grand narrative in life, the digital age is one characterized by rampant anxiety and depression—a “silent epidemic” of awe deficiency, as Pearsall puts it (xviii). Jared DeFife notes that uncontrolled Internet use has been linked with significantly higher rates of depression, and citizens of the digital age do seem to report a depreciated sense of wonder, if not generally, then at least toward more traditional sources of awe like nature, religion, and real-time social interactions (DeFife, “Depression in the Digital World”). Pearsall speaks of the digital age in light of what he calls “our newest ADD—Awe Deficiency Disorder” (xviii). But if, in fact, people are falling prey to this epidemic of awe deficiency, is it really the result of the media format, or is it indicative of a larger trend in the ways that we consume and appreciate artwork?

 

Synthetic and Simulated Awe

The reality is that the digital mode is but a tool whereby we create and experience awe, and it is just as capable—if not more so—than more traditional modes of artistic conveyance. That is not to say that digital modes have entirely replaced more antiquated forms, but as the digital becomes more and more ubiquitous, so also does man’s ability to find and experience awe-inspiring content through the Internet. That awe truly can be experienced through simulated or digitally synthetic forms has been substantively attested to. Art itself is, in some sense, a source of synthetic awe, it drawing upon natural or ritualistic awe for its content and symbolic substance. It makes sense, then, that digital forms of art would be able to partake of the same spirit of awe in inspiring wonder within their viewers. Various studies have shown, though, that it is not only art that can inspire awe. For example, in “Neurophenomenology: An Integrated Approach to Exploring Awe and Wonder,” Reinerman-Jones et al. use mixed-reality simulations to show that synthetic or simulated experiences are capable of eliciting wonder within the human brain. Another study, carried out by Rudd et al., demonstrates that reading about sensory input stimulates the same parts of the brain as actually experiencing those same sensory inputs. Rudd et al. Note that “awe can be elicited by reliving a memory, reading a brief story, or even watching a 60-s [sic] commercial” (1135). Reading, for instance, about the taste of strawberries lights up the same parts of the brain as if the reader has actually been eating a strawberry (though not necessarily to the same extent). Pearsall indicates that just talking about experiences with awe is enough to allow a person to reexperience awe, as indicated by elevation of heart and breathing rates and increases in other measures, such as skin conductivity (xvii). This would go to say that experiencing wonder through reading or any other mediated space like the Internet, is not only plausible but is in fact well documented.

Photo galleries and Pinterest boards are plastered with picture after awe-inspiring picture of galleries and nature scenes and all manner of incredible images. The problem, however, lies in a unique reversal of the Hegelian dialectic as the sensuous artistic form, augmented by the digital, has attained a level of authenticity that allows it to be, for all intents and purposes, imperceptible from reality.

The question arises, then, of whether digital awe can lead to the same sense of self-consciousness and meaningful progression as have more traditional sources of awe like art or religion, in the past. Certainly, the digital realm satisfies Bulkeley’s notion of disruptive potential and has proven its capacity for such a “scrambling of the self”—of disrupting or suspending, as do art or religious worship—the circadian rhythm of mankind’s everyday existence. Some would argue, in fact, that modern technologies are gradually assuming the roles that religious leaders and ritual structures occupied in the past. Jason Silva, who maintains “Shots of Awe,” a YouTube channel dedicated to the study of awe, draws on Mircea Eliade’s research on shamanism in suggesting the role of “digital shamans” in shaping the collective and individual narratives of the modern age. Silva notes that if the purpose of religion and ritual is essentially to help man disconnect from his common narrative and perceive a world that is bigger and more awe-inspiring than that which he has before experienced, then the programmers, graphic designers, engineers, and scientists of the modern day are in fact the shamans of modernity.

 

Awe as a Dialectic

As the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel proposed, essentially, art throughout the ages has followed a natural progression that took it from the most concrete of forms in architecture and sculpture to the most elevated and abstract of forms in poetry. This progression, he writes, is based around the interaction of a thesis and antithesis: a physical, sensuous form and an elevated spiritual or imaginative form. The work of art in its highest state of geist is that in which neither the sensuous nor the spiritual form takes precedence over the other. Rather, they achieve a so-called synthesis in the perfect union of the two, the spiritual form having matured to a sufficient level of gravity for the medium and the medium having grown to be able to encompass and express the full measure of the work’s spiritual and/or creative potential. The Hegelian dialectic leads eventually to the attainment of the state of geist or spirit (“the animating principle of the mind,” by Kant’s definition), which is the quality of greatness achieved through the harmony of the sensuous and the ideal. This state of geist might otherwise be understood as a fundamental condition for awe.

This notion of artistic progression has been widely heralded as a model for the natural progression of art, it having reached its final synthesis in poetry. But art was not by any means the first source of awe for mankind, and if this principle of excellence which Kant and Hegel both refer to as giest is in fact the condition for awe, then certainly the dialectic applies in other spheres as well. Society’s means of experiencing awe have, in fact, followed a similar progression that began with nature and deity and has progressed over time through various stages of development, each growing more abstract as the ideas and interactions within society have become more complex.

As art deconstructs the very essence of nature—the most important and lasting principles of natural existence—so does mechanical reproduction tear down the standards existent in previous modes of artistic conveyance and expression. With that deconstruction, however, comes the opportunity to form new mental modes, and as mankind reaches a synthesis moment, he becomes better able to experience awe as he grows to comprehend and incorporate these novel mental modes. He becomes better able to experience awe through increasingly abstracted and “non-real” or “non-authentic” mediums and has a more frequent opportunities to experience awe within his everyday. For example, the large-scale publication of such holy texts as the Holy Bible has decreased the awe that one experiences in going to a cathedral and listening to a cantor or priest read from the Bible, but individuals have been able to engage the topics on deeper, more personal, and more abstract levels and have thus extracted new modes of experiencing awe through personal connections. In art, reproductions of famous paintings allow people access to works that would not have ever been otherwise available, and while such replicas may not not necessarily promote reverence for the original work itself, they nonetheless have the potential to bring about the same degree of awe as the original work.

However, if the mechanical age of reproduction can be characterized as unreliable in its ability to convey genuine continuity and integrity as a whole, then the digital medium actually calls into question the authenticity of the objects themselves as realities.

Even the notion that replicas cannot produce reverence for the original work, though, is flawed to a degree. If, for example, a painting is perfectly counterfeited and subsequently displayed in place of the original, unbeknownst to the public, does this in any way diminish the awe or reverence that the painting’s viewers feel toward the piece? Is there an intrinsic, magical quality of the original which makes it superior to all other works based on its primacy alone? The answer is an obvious no. Is the counterfeit or replicated work any less “real” than the original in its presentation to the senses? If we hold to Plato’s logic, then certainly the counterfeit represents another successive degree of mimetic separation from the painting in the Ideal, but does that mean that it is intrinsically “less real” than any other object that presents itself to the senses? Again, the mere premise seems almost absurd in its audacity.

 

Reality of the Virtual

As to the reality or continuity of the subjects presented through mechanized modes of reproduction, especially those of film and photography, there can certainly be a case raised against their authenticity. Benjamin, for example, notes that film in its very nature distances not only the viewer but also the actor from the continuity of the actions portrayed in the film. Whereas in theater, the actors essentially are the characters, are absorbed and caught up in the personae and action of the plot, in film, the actors are wrenched in and out of their roles with each successive take, and the communication of the players to the audience is substituted instead with a sort of lifeless obsequiousness to the unresponsive gaze of the camera. Thus, though film presents its subjects in continuity, its very foundation is in a fractured temporal process. Film removes the spontaneity, candor, and apprehension of the real yet presents it as though it is real, carrying the events and characters to the senses in a vivacity that borders at times on reality in its fusion of the senses. Richard Wagner popularized the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk or synthesis of the arts—the perfect totality of all of the arts combined into a single work. Certainly film aspires to this end in its efforts to produce awe, but is the awe genuine if that synthesis is founded increasingly in non-reality through film’s abstraction and fragmentation of the continuous action portrayed therewithin?

In some sense, whatever is presented to the senses must be real. The fact that we can point to a piece of art, whether with a finger or a cursor, is an indication of its realness, and ironically, Heidegger of all people states it most clearly: “The wonder of all wonders is that everything which is, is.” In another sense, though, the digital age presents a number of difficulties in providing a definition for reality or for awe within the digital realm. Certainly, it has been an age of unprecedented creativity and unrivaled potential for creative and/or imaginative expression. However, if the mechanical age of reproduction can be characterized as unreliable in its ability to convey genuine continuity and integrity as a whole, then the digital medium actually calls into question the authenticity of the objects themselves as realities. Kant’s mode of perception basically suggests that the only things that exist for the individual are those things which he has experienced and created within his imagination, and in an imaginative sense, the things we experience through digital media are certainly real: they bring us to a state of wonder and take our minds to new climes of possibility. But in the end, there’s still the question of whether any of it is actually real in the sense of being founded in physicality. Photo galleries and Pinterest boards are plastered with picture after awe-inspiring picture of galleries and nature scenes and all manner of incredible images. The problem, however, lies in a unique reversal of the Hegelian dialectic as the sensuous artistic form, augmented by the digital, has attained a level of authenticity that allows it to be, for all intents and purposes, imperceptible from reality. If the senses were unreliable in Kant’s time—without digital filters, motion layovers, and virtual reality—then they are exponentially more so in the digital world.

Among the various digital forms, virtual reality presents us with perhaps the greatest difficulties in understanding the interaction of the digital or unreal and the physical or real. Professor Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, expounds upon the paradox inherent within virtual systems:”We are entering the age of the virtual ‘Catch 22.’ The brain has not yet evolved to differentiate virtual experiences from real ones. However, in VR [virtual reality], anything is possible, and avatars need not abide by laws of physics or biology. Hence, a world in which there are no rules, but every simulation feels real, is one that is unprecedented” (quoted in Pratt). Interestingly, virtual reality does not in any sense attempt to suggest that it is real in the traditional sense of the word; in its claims of virtual reality, it presupposes that the viewer understands that it is anything but real in the sense that the objects or interactions do not actually exist in real space. That is, after all, the draw of virtual reality or of any virtual world: the ability to escape the immediate circumstances of one’s own reality and have presented to the senses another reality entirely. But the fact that those virtual realities don’t exist in physical representation by no means diminishes their potential to convey awe. Oliver Laric, a well known artist and curator, suggests that web sites and other virtual spaces are “not a space of representation but of primary experiences. You are viewing the real thing. And when the work travels to other sites, it is still the real thing” (quoted in Mellin 106). Thomas Bissell, who has written extensively on video games and, suggests that digital encounters such as those which take place in video games and other virtual environments, are, in fact, real experiences. “Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important […] as any real memories” (Bissell). The vastness and immersiveness of these virtual spheres are by nature coupled with the possibility of infinity and thus have the potential to become, in some cases, more awe inspiring and more “real” than anything we can experience in physicality.

 

Conclusion

Wonder and creativity happen in the interstitial spaces of society. It is in breaking apart old notions of art, expression, and self that we are able to create new modes of connection and thus experience awe. In other words, if creativity and awe are constructive forces, then they must come as a result of the lysis of existing structures: we must break down certain artifacts of the past before we can build up new ones. If art deconstructed the authenticity of objects in the original and mechanical reproduction broke down the notion of authenticity in art or literature, then the digital age has broken down the concept of physical reproduction and has invited us to think about awe and creativity in new ways. While the cracks in the mosaic may establish the authority of an original work, it is these same figurative cracks in the mosaic in which creativity and awe are able to find place. Little by little, we are breaking apart our concepts of the world and filling the cracks with wonder.

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Bayles_BioPhoto
Greg Bayles is a senior at Brigham Young University. He is studying English with emphases in creative writing and digital studies and has keen interests in philosophy, art, and Slavic culture. Greg has published scholarly works in both English and Russian and is currently drafting his first novel, a sci-fi/fantasy epic. Greg will begin a Master’s program in Media and Entertainment Arts Engineering at University of Utah in August 2015.

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