American Technological Sublime
Technology has long played a central role in the formation of Americans' sense of selfhood. From the first canal systems through the moon landing, Americans have, for better or worse, derived unity from the common feeling of awe inspired by large-scale applications of technological prowess. American Technological Sublime continues the exploration of the social construction of technology that David Nye began in his award-winning book Electrifying America. Here Nye examines the continuing appeal of the "technological sublime" (a term coined by Perry Miller) as a key to the nation's history, using as examples the natural sites, architectural forms, and technological achievements that ordinary people have valued intensely.
American Technological Sublime is a study of the politics of perception in industrial society. Arranged chronologically, it suggests that the sublime itself has a history - that sublime experiences are emotional configurations that emerge from new social and technological conditions, and that each new configuration to some extent undermines and displaces the older versions. After giving a short history of the sublime as an aesthetic category, Nye describes the reemergence and democratization of the concept in the early nineteenth century as an expression of the American sense of specialness.
What has filled the American public with wonder, awe, even terror? David Nye selects the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, the Erie Canal, the first transcontinental railroad, Eads Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, the major international expositions, the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909, the Empire State Building, and Boulder Dam. He then looks at the atom bomb tests and the Apollo mission as examples of the increasing ambivalence of the technological sublime in the postwar world. The festivities surrounding the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 become a touchstone reflecting the transformation of the American experience of the sublime over two centuries. Nye concludes with a vision of the modern-day "consumer sublime" as manifested in the fantasy world of Las Vegas.
About the Author
David E. Nye is Professor of American Studies at the Danish Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With and When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America, both published by the MIT Press, and other books.